The Girls’ Panel Discussion Event: Understanding and re-engaging disaffected youths

The Girls’ Panel Discussion Event: Understanding and re-engaging disaffected youths

A report by Fidelma Hanrahan

On Wednesday 20th March 2013 Fidelma Hanrahan and Professor Robin Banerjee from the Children’s Relationships, Emotions, and Social Skills (CRESS) Lab at the School of Psychology, together with the Centre for Innovation and Research in Childhood and Youth (CIRCY), hosted an evening event to follow-up the inspirational performance of ‘The Girls’ – a semi-autobiographical theatre production by THE PROJECT theatre company involving four school-excluded young people turned actors – at Brighton Dome Studio Theatre in December 2012 (For more on ‘The Girls’ and a BBC interview with the cast, and a mention of our research, click here).

The event – entitled ‘The Girls’ Panel Discussion Event: Understanding and re-engaging disaffected youths – aimed to include as many perspectives as possible in order to allow for an interdisciplinary exchange of ideas and knowledge on the topics of school disaffection and marginalisation, emotional health in young people, the creative arts as a context for working with young people, and the role of schools and the community in re-engaging young people. In order to achieve this, academics and students from the University across several schools, as well as local practitioners who work with young people including educational psychologists, teachers from PRUs and mainstream schools, YOT practitioners and social workers were invited. There was a very healthy turnout from both the University and practitioners (45-50 people) which allowed for debate, networking and a sense of community also.

The evening began with a warm opening address by Professor Michael Farthing, Vice Chancellor of the University of Sussex. Thereafter followed presentations by Professor Banerjee and Fidelma Hanrahan which centred on the factors underpinning school disaffection and how school and the creative arts can re-engage young people. These talks made reference to current research work being undertaken in the CRESS Lab, including theory and interviews with young people in PRUs and those involved in THE PROJECT’s theatre work. Professor Rachel Thomson, Director of CIRCY, followed these presentations with an illuminating talk on inclusion/exclusion and the role of schooling.

During the break which followed, attendees were asked to write questions for the panellists to discuss after the break. We got an incredible response to this request, which resulted in some beautiful acorn bunting, and provided us with a rich source of really very thought-provoking questions for our panel. We have included the questions submitted by attendees at the end of this post.


To reflect multiple perspectives, our panellists were: Prof Sally-Jane Norman, Dr Sevasti-Melissa Nolas (Lecturer in Social Work, ESW); Ray Harrison Graham (Director of THE PROGECT theatre company) Giles Stogdon (Producer of THE PROJECT), Bex Fidler (Learning Access and Participation Manager at Brighton Dome), Jo Bates (social worker with links to Brighton Dome’s outreach work) and Tracey Williams (Senior Educational Psychologist in Brighton and Hove with responsibility for Older Children and Young People).


The panel discussion proper began after the break. This began with an introduction given by each of our seven panellists – but more than simply introductions, these openings from our panellists provided an in-depth account of their backgrounds and role, as well as revealing so much passion and belief in their work with young people. From these introductions we gained a very strong sense of the diverse roles of the panellists, whilst also highlighting the shared vision and hopes for young people that they also held.

The questions written and submitted by attendees provided a rich source of discussion and debate for panellists and non-panellists alike. So many people contributed their thoughts and experiences to this discussion, and we heard from many practitioners about their own experiences of working with marginalised or disengaged young people. These discussions built into some really very powerful thoughts about how theatre, and the creative arts more generally, can enrich young people’s lives and lead to a feelings of positive self-worth, agency and a greater chance of a positive future.

Too soon, it was time to end the evening’s event and wrap up the discussion, leaving many of us with the sense that the debate and discussion could have continued fruitfully for much longer still. Indeed, it was clear from feedback collected that the whole event was felt to have been a great opportunity to network, discuss, learn and share ideas both across and within disciplines and roles. What also came out very strongly from the event and feedback is the desire among attendees for a continued link between researchers and practitioners to develop, perhaps via regular events in which research work with a focus on children and young people could be disseminated and a practitioners’ forum created… an exciting idea that we are keen to explore, so watch this space!


Questions from the audience

1. Please explain more about the negotiations between the actors and the director during the script creation process.

2. Creative interventions – The importance of story and the whole life story.

3. How can you work with a tired staff group who are concerned with OFSTED? Convincing them and new ways of understanding?

4. What is the support plan for the participants/actors post project?

5. Could acting the part of ‘another’ be as valuable, as cathartic? Psycho-drama

6. Can any cultural experience enable YP to see themselves in a different way and/or if drama/performance offers something extra?

7. Does the need to redress the balance run the risk of allowing those with SEN etc. some opportunities not available to mainstream?

8. What are the actors doing now?

9. Doesn’t censoring the language in schools contribute to censorship of their lives?

10. What qualities are needed to run a drama/creative session?

11. Why is no one here that represents the young people themselves? Were they invited?

12. Why is the play named ‘The Girls’? Has there been any issues with this considering mixed gender of participants?

13. How will sharing life stories from disaffected young people encourage others to reengage?

14. School teachers don’t have time for self-reflection/supervision to think how best to support the disaffected.

15. How do we engage parents?

16. How do you get apathetic students to “care”?

17. In many ways, it seems that these young people are best placed to help others like them compared to professionals who don’t have any actual experience of poor parenting, violence, abuse etc. But it also seems that it will take years of psychotherapy to neutralise their anger. Is it realistic to hope that disaffected young people can be trained to help others?

18. Should more funding be put into supporting schools to meet emotional needs like youth work?

19. Would there be as much/more power in YP watching parents’, teachers’ etc. stories?



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