Understanding students and families

Understanding students

“Working with children in a different environment highlighted how little we knew about our children as individuals; their leadership skills, their ability to innovate, their fears, their co-operative skills (or lack of them!). Staff involved in the project brought this new knowledge back with them.” (Final Staff Survey) 

The vast majority of staff involved in the first phase of Learning Away commented that the project made a significant or transformative impact on them seeing their students in a different light (82% in the final survey), and on them developing a better awareness of students’ strengths and limitations (78% in the final staff survey).

The residentials gave staff space to discover things about students they could not see in the classroom. For example, the more trusting relationships developed between staff and students on residentials meant that students often shared more about themselves, which enabled staff to better understand their behaviours. As a result, staff on the residential developed more effective ways of working with students, both on the residential and back in school. These new strategies were shared between staff on the residential and with staff back in school, so students were managed more effectively across the board following the residential. Secondary staff noted that residentials provided a context where they could learn – from each other – how to manage more challenging behaviour, and that they also continued this learning (particularly within the residential staff group) back in school.

The trust and understanding built up on the residential meant that staff who had been on residentials with students were more effective at, and felt more confident about, diffusing student conflict back in school. Staff felt that when they needed to step in, students listened and responded quickly because of the relationship formed on the residential. Staff also noticed that students were more likely to come to them to ask for help with problems following the residential, as they felt confident they would be listened to respectfully and given practical help.

Understanding families

Working with family groups changes relationships between staff, students and parents in significant ways.

Through the vehicle of the family residentials during the first phase of Learning Away, staff were ‘allowed’ into home and family life. This is a shift in power that can’t be undone and can be of great benefit to the student at home as well as to relationships with teachers at school.

‘A lot of our parents feel they are not good parents. Interventions have been very task focused with not much nurturing. I think what our programme does is work with people in that very supportive, mentoring, enabling way.’ (Teacher, Staff Focus Group)

The residential context also gives students and families opportunities to be immersed in a positive community environment they may not experience at home:

 ‘It’s about promoting positive change. I think for a lot of our families embroiled in daily living, and the stresses of that, for a lot of our parents meeting the needs of one, two, three children on top of their own life difficulties can be a challenge and they can’t see a positive. But taking them out of the community and saying you’re here, this is your family and these are the things you can do, little tweaks can make so much difference. They’re not distracted by the telly or the door. They’re not distracted by the neighbours. They’re not distracted by that sense of overwhelmedness around life’s difficulties. So those two days almost make them see them [their children] as babies as they brought them into the world. It gives them that space and opportunity because even a family holiday can be a challenge.’ (Social Worker, Staff Focus Group)

Learning Away partnerships that have run family residentials found that it was often easier to involve non-teaching staff in these residentials. Catering staff, family support workers, social workers and sports coordinators developed significant relationships with parents and students, providing informal educational support during and, crucially, after the residentials. This support comprised a variety of informal ‘corridor’ encounters, helping to maintain enhanced engagement and aspiration, and more significant support with challenging situations.

‘One student I worked with on the residential was an elective mute. Following the residential – we’d made a pact before we left that when we met each other we’d signal with our hands because on the last day of the residential we were singing and dancing with this broom while sweeping up. She sees me and we wave and signal with our hands at each other. It’s just lovely. She’s made another friend in school, someone she can talk to if she wants to.’ (Catering manager, SMILE Trust partnership)

These new possibilities for supporting struggling students were reinforced by involving the staff, parents and students involved in further activities at school. For example, one school set up a lunch club for parents, catered by their children and also attended by the staff they have got to know through the residentials.

Developing family residentials is not simply a matter of enhanced knowledge of the family, greater respect or trust between the staff member, parent and young person. Working in a triangle of parent, child and educator requires new skills and approaches, as one family support worker illustrates:

‘It’s not conflict, it’s not challenging, it’s gentle and subtle persuasion and negotiation about how you might challenge that child or how you might encourage that child to do something rather than dictate.’ (Family support worker, SMILE Trust partnership)

 The teachers involved in family residentials valued the new knowledge and skills they gained to work in closer partnership with families. Non-teaching staff not only had the chance to develop new skills, they expanded their roles within school, creating a greater sense of a community of diverse professionals all capable of providing valuable support to students.

In both the partnerships working with families the coordinator was not a qualified teacher and, in one case, held no professional qualifications. Both received support for professional development and training from their schools, leading to new qualifications and career opportunities.

Quantitative evidence provided by the SMILE Trust demonstrated the impact of family residentials on the attendance of students who were living in families in need and often in crisis, and were at risk of disengaging from the school community. The attendance of more than three quarters (76%) of students involved in family residentials improved following participation in the programme and, for approximately two thirds of these students, these improvements were maintained in the longer term.

Read more about how to work with families on residentials in our free Families resource.

In this short film, two teachers and a teaching assistant talk about the transformative impact their involvement in their school’s Learning Away residentials has had on their practice and their understanding of their students and their family backgrounds.


Be inspired by our case studies from Learning Away schools.

Explore Getting Started and access free resources to help you plan your own brilliant residentials.

Have a look at our theory about how change happens on brilliant residentials.

Read our recommendations for schools, providers, policy makers and researchers. 

Read our independent evaluation report.