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Working Systemically with Teenagers Who Aren’t Accessing Education, Employment or Training


Systemic Modelling originated with Caitlin Walker taking the Clean Language principles of David Grove and applying them with groups of young people who were unable to access mainstream education. We found, similar to 1-1 Clean coaching, that coaching groups of teenagers cleanly is deeply agreeable to them, especially those who have been failed by, or who clashed with, other service provision, including school. A highly regarded outcome of Systemic Modelling is that the teenagers begin to take personal responsibility for their outcomes and actions and to differentiate what aspects of their lives they do and don’t have control over. We love working with our young people; they’ve been our greatest mentors and we hope to continue this work as long as the young people are getting high value from it.

Our client

In this case our client was a council department, responsible for older teenagers, specifically those who are not in employment, education or training (NEET) in one of the most deprived areas of the North West of the UK. 

Later on, our clients are the teenagers and their families.

The Context

Young people who spend long periods not in education, employment and training (NEET), can easily drop through the cracks of society and once off track can find it very hard to rejoin as happy, healthy, confident, productive citizens.

Each NEET young person costs society, on average, £56,000 over the course of their lifetime, with a total estimate of £12bn to £32bn (per 2-year cohort nationwide) lost in public funds to cover the cost of Jobseekers Allowance, lost productivity, the cost of youth crime and imprisonment and the cost of educational underachievement. Source: Work Foundation and Private Equity Foundation report. 

Supporting a young person to move from NEET so they are ready for education, employment or training saves money but more importantly can also save lives. Research by The Prince’s Trust Macquarie Youth Index for 2015 shockingly reveals that, “Long-term unemployed young people are more than twice as likely as their peers to have been prescribed anti-depressants. One in three have contemplated suicide, while one in four have self-harmed. Suicidal thoughts, feelings of self-loathing and panic attacks can be felt as a direct result of unemployment.”

Further research by the Work Foundation and Private Equity Foundation shows that if people haven’t got on to the first rung of the job ladder by 24, they will suffer the consequences for the rest of their lives and some will never work. The Princes Trust states that, “Long-term unemployed young people are more than twice as likely as their peers to believe they have nothing to live for.”

Many services are aimed at engaging the most disenfranchised young people, but many of those services are costly and fail to achieve their outcomes. Some young people have a range of complex needs to manage and need outreach by workers with a wider range of skills than is often available. Their issues include substance misuse, mental health issues themselves or within their families, being a teenage parent, youth offending, health issues, family issues or overcoming trauma or bullying.

We have conducted a number of projects with the council and at the start they had a number of children who were not engaging meaningfully with any service.

What did they want to have happen?

Initially the council wanted Training Attention to work with their service providers to help them to engage a wider range of young people. Then on meeting our team, they asked if we would be willing to provide a clean, systemic service ourselves to help to meet their young people’s needs.

They wanted to increase their ability to reach and meaningfully engage the most disengaged young people and families. They wanted the young people not only to make steps towards finding education, employment and training but also to make use of resources and services available in the borough that they needed but weren’t accessing.

The council wanted a team that were able to build positive relationships with young people and with their families to help the council get a clearer picture of the source of problems and how to create sustainable interventions that were wanted by their citizens.

The council wanted us to help the young people to develop their collective voice to advocate for the services they required and to help adults to understand the earlier interventions that would have made the biggest difference to their ability to engage in school, training and employment.

What we did

Our starting point with every project is to take our list of young people, make a map of the estates, drive around and knock on doors trying to make contact. Our outreach team engage in Clean Language Interviewing on the doorstep. 

From the very first conversation on the doorstep and for every further step of the way, our coaches are trained to accept whatever the young person or their family member says and then to ask clean questions, without judgement or assumptions, to extend their thinking.

Having this quality of ‘attention without judgement’, with a general agenda of ‘being helpful’ being delivered by a team who know about local resources and opportunities is just what many young people, and their families, need - someone to listen and to connect with them where they are.

The young people are interviewed, recruited and trained using exactly the same tools that we use with business clients. We work 1-1 or in small cohorts teaching Clean Language coaching and Systemic Modelling so that the young people are effectively working together as peer coaches. We do this in so many ways and this is the crux of the success of this model. If we have a young person with an interest in DIY, who isn’t ready to join the group but does want to fix things, we might bring tools and get a couple of them to repair toilet doors together while the rest of the programme is happening in the adjacent room. From here it is much easier to get them to join in a group in the future - when they’ve got used to seeing people and have a positive mental model of what might happen there. 

We also use food situations as a social training tool. We say, “ OK you guys are responsible for the food; each day a different pair gets to choose what you eat. You can have pot noodles or a three course meal - it’s up to you. Find out what people want, how much it will cost, where we need to buy ingredients etc. Anyone not cooking can do the clean-up/dishes etc.” So it becomes a positive thing to be the one allowed to choose what everyone eats. Some days it’s nothing but fairy cakes - but then everyone is decorating them. Other days it’s roast chicken and all the trimmings based on someone’s grandma’s Sunday roast. One day it was spag bol the way their mum made it which was poignant because she’d died the month before and it was her birthday. These activities are crucial in our work; it’s so much easier when the young people are working together and learning from one another and we are following their interests rather than having a pre-determined schedule.

Challenges and barriers

Some of the young people we work with face tremendous barriers. They may have to overcome social anxiety or lack of confidence or they may have to deal with more practical but serious issues.

For example, we worked with a young person who was homeless, suffering bereavement and crawling with lice from the conditions she was living in. In this case we weren’t asking clean questions, we were buying head lice medicine, shampoo and laundry detergent because nothing good could happen while the child was dirty, smelly and the other kids wouldn’t get in a car with her. From here we helped her set up a bank account, get her National Insurance number, birth certificate and photo ID. Then she could apply to college, work and for housing. She is now a ‘real’ person document-wise and can hold her head up higher socially.  She applied for 20 jobs, talked a couple of other young people on the programme into applying for similar roles, settled into her own housing and in three weeks had three interviews and then one full time job. She is now an independent contributing citizen. 

These young people encounter barriers that may seem small to us but can feel impossible to them. Our job is to help them through these issues, all the while coaching them to use their own resources wherever possible.

Our team's skills and qualifications

The Training Attention recruiters and frontline facilitators have ILM and ICF qualifications in clean coaching and mentoring and are experienced coaches. They are trained in Systemic Modelling and know the difference between ‘rescuing’ and facilitating the conditions for intrinsic motivation. They create opportunities for the young people to find their own answers at every turn. We have a qualified psychotherapist on the team to help us make trauma-informed decisions and to fill in the gaps in mental health provision. The recruiters pay attention to the conditions that prevent a young person from accessing education or employment. We notice neglect, family mental health issues, eating disorders, drug dealing and we sensitively and safely work with other service providers to support the wider system within which the child is living.

What happened next?

In the initial project, we reduced our NEETs list from around 370 to around 120 and in the first four years we worked with the borough the NEET numbers dropped from 11% to less than 5%. The commissioning body stated that there was a significant difference in sustainability of outcomes for young people who completed our courses compared with those NEETs who joined a college course or apprenticeship without having done a Training Attention programme. They made choices they could sustain or when they changed their mind they found new employment or training without falling back into unemployment and isolation. 

Shaun Hotchkiss extended our work into pre-16’s before they leave compulsory education. From the 137 young people who have received our service in this group, we have seen a significant 87% of them moving into employment, education or training. 

While it is very satisfying to see the change in young people’s lives, as our own success rate continues and the pool of people gets smaller, our job becomes much harder as we try to engage those who are harder to reach and may be very disenfranchised. These young people need support on a much deeper level with more investment in time and more determination. Some of them may have severe recurring mental health issues or difficult home or personal situations. We are learning that we now need to work even more collaboratively and integrate with a far wider range of public services.

What happens next for the young people?

There is great joy in seeing these young people grow in confidence and once they have completed the programme they then have significant skills to move away from problems and focus on outcomes, which will hopefully help them to be more resilient for the rest of their lives. These are skills that they can share with others in society and in some cases go on to train others to use them. Some young people stay on for future programmes to help mentor other young people. Three have been employed by us as apprentices, outreach workers and even as a technical advisor.

Our methodology works just as effectively with the anxious, the violent, those with mild to moderate mental health issues as well as neuro-diversity. It’s highly effective and takes careful training – people who come into this client group with their own strong agenda, expectations or desire to help can end up creating defence and attack instead – we need people who have trained in Clean Language Interviewing, Symbolic & Systemic Modelling.

Our service works out at around £2,200 per young person per year and is incredibly cost-effective in financial as well as social terms. We need around 90 referrals to run a service and prefer to do rolling cohorts every 12 weeks.

What would you like to have happen?

If you’re interested in setting up a youth provision and would like to partner the Training Attention team, or add Systemic Modelling into your skill set, please contact caitlin@trainingattention.co.uk to discuss replicating or adapting this project for your area.

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About Caitlin Walker

Caitlin Walker's avatar

Caitlin is a director of Clean Learning and the developer of Systemic Modelling™. She is the author of From Contempt to Curiosity, which details many of the innovative and transformational projects she’s led across our community from the most dispossessed to leading think tanks.

Caitlin graduated in Linguistics at the School of Oriental and African Studies and completed four years post graduate research in ‘Strategies for Lexical access’ including fieldwork in Ghana. She began modelling teaching and learning while at SOAS, volunteering intermediary classes to translate information presented at lectures into different learning styles for the students. At the same time she was a youth worker in Kings Cross bringing these leading edge tools to groups of young people.

She went on to set up literacy clubs in King’s Cross, where children could come to learn to spell. From 1996 – 1999 Caitlin was an Education tutor with the Dalston Youth Project, a Home Office run experiment to offer accelerated learning to at-risk students, alongside mentoring, to keep them in school. She ran these sessions as NLP modelling workshops and achieved excellent results with the students. The project won a Crime Prevention and Community Safety award for Great Britain. In 1999 she was offered the opportunity to develop her work in a business context and she created the ground breaking metaphors@work process. These techniques are available on the Creative Management section of the Open University MBA program and on a 10 week modular course on Practical Thinking. She has co-designed and she co-delivers a Masters Level module in Coaching and Mentoring at Liverpool John Moores University.

She has since developed her modelling skills from small scale group development to whole scale organisational culture change programmes. She designs and delivers tailor made learning and development programs for addressing diversity, conflict, leadership, managing mergers and creating ‘learning organisations’.

Caitlin practices in a variety of contexts. Clients include: Jeyes Group, Liverpool John Moores University, Pharmacia, Hull City Council, South Yorkshire Police Service, Bexley Care Trust, New Information Paradigms, Work Directions UK, Crime Concern, BT, Police National Search Centre, Celerent Consultancy, Carbon Partners, Ealing LEA, and Working Links. She has trained a number of in-house trainers to carry on and develop the work without creating dependency on her expertise. She has systematically tested and developed her ideas in challenging arenas and her robust products have become sought after learning aids.

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