Welcome to this episode of the Qualified Tutor Podcast. This is, I believe, the 73rd episode of this podcast and those numbers continue to astound and surprise and excite me. So, my name is Ludo Millar, I’m the host of the Qualified Tutor Podcast and today we are welcoming on Fiona Spargo-Mabbs.
So, as a brief introduction to Fiona, we are going to be hearing a great deal about Fiona’s unique journey and what it has taught her about the relationship an educator, a teacher, a tutor can have with a student. As well as the impact this relationship can have on children’s decisions about drugs and alcohol specifically. Now, this perspective is not one we’ve really kind of looked at before on the Qualified Tutor Podcast. So I’m very excited to hear where this discussion takes us. Fiona is the mother of Dan Spargo-Mabbs, who died in 2014 from a lethal amount of the drug MDMA and since that day, Fiona and her family and her team have worked very hard to change perceptions of the dangers of drugs and alcohol in young people. The Daniel Spargo-Mabbs Foundation was set up that year, in 2014, to support and to educate young people and those around them, to understand the potent substances, you know, drugs and alcohol. And today they deliver, workshops, plan resources and curricula as part of PSHE programmes in school, train teachers and also run the youth ambassador programme to promote peer to peer learning and community within students. And Fiona is the director and founder of this foundation. Fiona has also, before, before you’ve heard enough of my voice and before I introduce Fiona properly, Fiona has also recently released a book titled ‘I Wish I’d Known’. Now, you can perhaps already guess the topic of this book, I Wish I’d Known, and we’ll be exploring this a little bit more, kind of, later on. As ever, the links to the foundation and the book can be found in the show notes below. So, without further ado, Fiona, welcome to the QT Podcast.[Fiona]
Hi, thank you for inviting me in.[Ludo]
No, thank you very much for joining us. This is being recorded on Tuesday the 3rd of August, just as it seems the whole world is beginning to take some holiday, take some time off. Which is a great thing to see and a great chance for people to decompress and relax. So thank you for taking the time, Fiona, to join us.
Now, our first question as listeners will know, is this. What is your ‘why’ as an educator, Fiona?[Fiona]
So, I’ve been working in education for over twenty years actually, and the charity if more of a recent venture but I’m, I’ve been an English teacher working in adult education for many years before we started the charity and I just believe that education is the way that people can find fulfilment and freedom and empowerment. And also, joy. We’re hardwired as humans, aren’t we, to learn. We can’t help ourselves. My parents are in their late eighties and they still get such joy from learning something new. Even if it’s only from Pointless! But educators, kind of, enable people to, sort of, channel and focus that. My specialism within adult education was family learning and specifically family literacy. And that was all about, it’s working with very vulnerable families and working in some of the most deprived parts of the borough. I’m based in south London in Croydon and, that is all about the kind of, transformational power of education within a family unit and within communities. It’s all about working with parents who’ve got limited skills in English and maths themselves and whose children are underachieving or at risk of underachieving. And, kind of, breaking that cycle of underachievement and resting on that, the whole what I was always passionate about adult literacy for was that, kind of, empowering. The dynamic that it can, it can open the doors that poor literacy skills close and the negative outcomes that can, that can be waiting for people. It just can transform lives, it can transform communities. You can see it around the world. Just being able to read and write well is just incredibly, so I’m saying empowering far too often. Education is key, and that’s why when Dan died, our first thought really was, I knew that I needed to have known more. And I knew that Dan needed to have known more and I guess, maybe that’s because I am an educator but I- but I- I know that if I had known more and if he had known more, he would’ve come to that moment of decision better armed than he was and he would have stood a much greater chance of getting to come home safely.
So that’s why we started the charity, because we realised that Dan wasn’t alone in that. Schools were really struggling to do drug education well or at all, under enormous pressures of budgets and timetables and so on. But also, there was just a huge lack of resources and support available for schools and we realised, because Dan was Dan and just not someone who would have been on anybody’s radar really to come to harm from drugs, we realised that any young person was- was vulnerable to making a bad decision. To making a series of bad decisions about something which, which has become increasingly available, accessible, affordable and, kind of, normalised for many young people. So that’s what we do and why we do it and why, why I believe education is key fundamentally. But why I believe that education is- is absolutely vital in supporting young people to make safer choices about drugs, which is what we’re all about.[Ludo]
Yeah, so could you go into that a little bit further? There is an incredibly moving and powerful story behind what you do and so if you could tell our listeners. What does the DSM Foundation hope to achieve? What is your goal as a foundation?[Fiona]
So, the goal, that’s our tagline, ‘supporting young people to make safer choices about drugs‘, and it is just all about, about that. It’s about giving young people all the information and also, kind of, inner resources and outer resources to manage those decision making situations safely. It was, it was Dan that made us realise what, that this was so incredibly important and I guess, a lot of what lies behind, what lay behind it certainly to start off with, but I guess still does, is what, I mean, my book is called ‘I Wish I’d Known’.
But really, our vision is that all young people have access to really effective, evidence-based drug education. And all the adults that influence their lives as well, so their parents, and their teachers, and their tutors. But all those key influencers that are spending time with them, and the people that are around supporting them. We just don’t want any young person ever to have to face a decision about drugs without having all the information, and understanding, and life skills they need to be able to make that choice safely. And so we do that in lots, and lots, and lots of different ways. We deliver workshops to young people directly in schools, we’ve got a whole suite of planning and resources for teachers to deliver drug education in PSHE at schools in lessons from Year 6, all the way through to the end of sixth form. We’ve got, we train teachers and all sorts of other professionals that work with young people. We do lots of working with parents, is really important. Obviously, my professional background is working with parents, but also, as a parent, the day it all when horribly wrong, parents are really key. We’ve got a youth amba ssadors programme which you ref- you mentioned at the beginning. We also commissioned a play, so we used drama as well, because drama can be such a powerful way of communicating a message to young people. So we commissioned a play by this incredible playwright, Mark Wheeller. Dan loved drama and he loved his drama teacher, and his drama teacher loved him and became one of our first trustees, so it’s her idea. But it’s a verbatim play, so all the words in the play are the words of Dan’s family and friends and, that was published by Bloomsbury, it’s on the Methuen Drama list, back in 2017. So that has been studied and performed, and taught, like literally around the world. Before Covid hit, it was in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, and, but we also commissioned Mark to adapt it to tour so we’ve got a shorter version which is adapted for a touring company, four actors. So as a charity we funded a theatre in education tour of schools, so there’s a performance and then there’s a workshop afterwards. A drugs education workshop afterwards. So that’s, obviously we couldn’t, we haven’t been able to live tour that yet this year, we just managed to get on in, we did it in Spring Term, so we managed to get most of it in before Covid hit last year. But we have had a film made so we were able to have a- get some funding to have a film made of the production. So there’s been a virtual tour this year. But really exciting about the play is that’s going to become a GCSE drama set text from next year which is amazing. So not only is it, we commissioned it with the drug education message in mind, but it also happens to be a really, really good play.
So it’s up there with Shakespeare and Malorie Blackman, Benjamin Zephaniah all sorts. So that’s what it’s all about and I’m involved in a number of quite, kind of, strategic projects as well. For example, doing a lot of work around the y- the risk of young people’s exposure to drugs on social media and I’m chairing quite a high level working group with, that’s working with Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, National Police Youth Council, Home Office, you know, other charities working in the Online Safety Space. We’ve just had a national drug education conference and we’re always developing, kind of, new ideas and new projects. But I could talk forever.[Ludo]
Yeah. That’s a pretty good summary of what the DSM Foundation does and hopes to achieve, so there’s an amazing amount of work being done there. And I want to just look at the book that you’ve written a little bit more, because this, you know, obviously it’s important once you’ve written a book, to tell people about it and to promote it.[Fiona]
So I wanted to know, so who is it, the book is titled ‘I Wish I’d Known’, who is it, kind of, targeted at? Is it targeted at educators, or parents, or at, or at children, kind of, young people themselves?[Fiona]
Well, it was, it’s targeted at parents but actually we’ve heard from so many teachers and schools who’ve found, who are saying this is, this is, this should be on the PSHE curriculum for teachers, you know? Because it covers so many of the issues that are relevant to the young people that educators are working with as well. And in fact, at the moment I’m writing a set of supplementary materials to go with the book as well. So while, which will be available from the publisher’s website, they’ll just be available digitally. They’re not going to be printed but they, they kind of, sup- support and extend the book. So the first set of those is for parents and professionals working with, parents of and professionals working with young people with various neurodiverse conditions. Primarily ADHD, Autism, Conduct Disorder, but mainly those first two and, and that’s prompted by so many parents and special schools actually. And teachers contacting us, concerned about how they come about that differently and recognising there are different sorts of risks for these young people. And a second set which is for mainstream schools and, and people working with young people in an educational context. So that includes stuff around drug education, writing a good drug policy, but also how you can build a lot of the kind of, issues and important pieces of information and advice in the book into a cross-curricular delivery, or extra-curricular delivery. And those conversations, informal and formal, that you can have with young people that you’re around.[Ludo]
Wow, yeah. Yeah. So the link to the book will be in the show notes below, but I think the, the scope, the applicability of this book to- to various kind of, the various kind of parties of a students education, you know. The parents, the schools, I think that’s that’s really what will help to make it such a, kind of, successful book and one marker of that would certainly be being part of the PSHE national curriculum. That would be an amazing step for the book. Yeah, so really, it’s kind of, the primary place for parents and teachers to learn more about this area. And also, for tutors![Fiona]
I spoke about this just before, I mean, you know, this being the Qualified Tutor Podcast, you know, many of our listeners are, of course, tutors themselves. So I was wondering, Fiona, if you had some insight into how tutors are able to approach this area of PSHE and, kind of, drugs and alcohol and kind of, how tutors might be involved in this conversation.[Fiona]
I think there’s, there’s, I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t thought about it before I was preparing for this podcast because I’ve worked in and around education and with, kind of, alongside tutors in various roles for many years but I just hadn’t thought about the really important role that tutors could play in terms of young people and drugs and decisions, which is what we’re all about. There’s a, I mean, not only are there cross-curricular opportunities to embed information about drugs and alcohol into, into pretty much anything that you’re teaching. And that, the supplementary materials, one of the things I’ve done is put in some examples and ideas for things you can do. So there’s, kind of, ways of building in, kind of, direct instruction if you like, into the other stuff that you’re doing as tutors. But there’s also, there’s the element of, I mean, traditionally, and I know it’s not the case any more at all, especially after covid. Traditionally tutors have often been busiest at those transition times, so helping kids prepare for the 11+ or SATs, or GCSEs or A-Levels and those are the most vulnerable times for young people. Particularly the move to sixth-form and even more so the move to university, in terms of drugs and alcohol, because of all the kind of social shits and changes, and that different exposure to a different social environment which can involve drugs. And finding out where, how you make your space and identity in your adolescence which is so difficult in that new space. So supporting the, the young people that you’re working with to manage that transition safely as well. And I know that that’s not what you’re being paid to do, but nevertheless you will inevitably, I know, end up doing all sorts of extra-curricular bits and pieces as part of what you do in your relationship with the young people that you’re working with. And I think that’s the most important thing, that relationship, and I love the phrase you used before actually, Ludo. I don’t know if it’s a standard phrase in tutoring, but that learning relationship. I thought that was a brilliant phrase, because actually, every rela tionship that anybody that’s doing any sort of education is a learning relationship. The relationship is absolutely key to whether somebody does or doesn’t learn something. But in tutoring you’re so, you’ve got such a special and unique position in a young person’s life. Unlike anybody else, you’ve got, you’ve got, generally speaking, and I know some people might be doing small group, but generally speaking it’s one to one. You’ve got that focussed time, however frequently and a trusted relationship, because it wouldn’t work if it wasn’t a trusted relationship.
So, all that, in terms of the stuff explicitly about drugs and alcohol. And you know, making sure that as a tutor you’re up to date, and that’s where I’m not to pitch for my book again because you’ve done a brilliant pitch for my book, thank you. But it is, there’s so much jammed in to that that’s all about what is it that’s around for young people now, what is it that they’re making decisions about? What are the those different dimensions of risk that they’re having to cope with that makes it complicated, that adolescent brain stuff that makes managing risk and decision making so hard. What can make communication difficult for teenagers? Again issues with mentalising, interpreting facial expressions, all of those, kind of, the hormones that can make things act in the moment again, to do with that neurological process as well. But all of that stuff which is, so keeping informed and aware yourself as an individual tutor within that relationship that you’ve got, so that you’ve got things to bring to it but also lots and lots of listening and, and everything that you can do as a tutor to build all those protective factors across so many, that can help young people across so many areas of risk. And specifically you know, my heart is in terms of drugs and alcohol, but everything overlaps for young people. Everything about building confidence and self-esteem, that’s incredibly, that can be incredibly protective for young people in terms of those decision making situations. Helping them develop good coping and problem solving skills, all of that can help them in those moments of decision when everyone’s watching them. There’s everyone around them. They’ve got to make a decision. If they’ve had that extra reinforcement of, of resilience that’s come, that can come from all sorts of directions, but I think that tutors are uniquely placed to build that in a way that it’s much harder for a class teacher to do. And parents is a different relationship again, but I think tutors can play a really vital role.[Ludo]
Yeah, I think that’s one area that, that makes tutors particularly important is that they aren’t a teacher and they aren’t a parent. They are a trusted adult, but you know, they don’t, they haven’t had years and years of nagging the child and they haven’t, you know, stood up in front of the child and bored the child with some curriculum topic teaching that they have to because of you know, the pressures from school board and you know, exam boards and that kind of thing. Which a teacher has to go through, a teacher has to teach what they need to teach for the curriculum and they have to get through it by the end of the year otherwise, you know, the students won’t learn. So they’re in that, kind of, caught between a rock and a hard place, as is a parent who has to, you know, live the life of parent and make sure the student, sorry, their child is on the straight and narrow, that kind of thing. So they’re also caught between a rock and a hard place, whereas a tutor is, you know, is perhaps caught between a rock but there’s no hard place. So, you know, the rock is that they’re a trusted adult with responsibilities but they’re not bound by those other pressures that a teacher or a parent are under.
So I think you’re absolutely right, I think they’re in this slightly freer position where they have the time and the, kind of, the patience to build a relationship with the student, to, you know, not cover that topic in the last half an hour of the session if the student doesn’t want to and in fact talk about, you know, the risks of alcohol or the risks of you know, the different drugs that there are that might be accessible to that student or, you know, whatever it is which, you know the teacher doesn’t have time to and the child is not gonna listen to their parent talk about because that’s mum and that’s dad and they’re not going to listen to them anyway.
And that kind of thing, yeah.[Fiona]
And also, another big difference I had only thought of it while you were talking, but a big difference between both parents and teachers is the whole, kind of, behaviour management, discipline side which can put so many barriers up for young people and so many defences. And I would imagine, I don’t know, but I would imagine it’s unusual as a tutor in that one to one role to have to deal with too many behavioural issues in a very disciplinary, you’d be more cajoling and winning people over I imagine, if there’s anything needed. It could be more to do with confidence and encouragement rather than having to impose a behaviour policy, or you know, impose sanctions because you’ve said if they didn’t do this then this would be the consequence.[Ludo]
Or even having punishments or sanctions as a tutor. I’ve been a tutor for six years, now. I don’t have punishments, you know what I mean. That’s not part of me as a tutor’s repertoire. So, exactly, it’s not about punishment; it’s about encouragement.[Fiona]
A different relationship altogether, you haven’t got that fear or that threat, or whatever. And adolescents learn much better through carrot rather than stick. Absolutely. Not just in terms of their neurological development, but in just in terms of that emotional, relational side of their lives. Which is so important.[Ludo]
Yeah, absolutely, but I love that phrase, adolescents learn better through carrot than stick. [LAUGHS][Fiona]
Most of us do to be honest.[Ludo]
Yeah that’s true, exactly. Only the people who came up with that phrase probably. So, we’re just coming towards the end here, but certainly not done yet. Because there’s one area that I really want to ask you about which we kind of touched on implicitly there. Which was this idea of a trusted adult. And in the book you certainly mention the importance of a trusted adult to a student, to a child, to a young person’s development. How do we remind educators of this responsibility? Of this? Of the fact that they are in a trusted adult position whether they realise it or not?[Fiona]
Educators as in tutors? Or anybody working with them?[Ludo]
Or teachers, yeah.[Fiona]
Yeah, you would hope that they would know that. But I know, especially teachers, can get so incredibly busy and have so many pressures on them that they are, but absolutely. If you are working with young people you have a responsibility, not just for their learning, but also for their welfare and wellbeing. And ultimately, children and young people, well, and adults for that matter, will learn better if they’re if they feel safe and happy and the adults around them are the ones that will create, will help to nurture that. I mean, obviously it’s complicated because you’re not the only adult in their lives and there can be difficult things going on. But actually, for some young people that space, either at school or possibly with a tutor, but that education space is where they feel safest. You know, if home isn’t somewhere that feels safe or restful or consistent, you know, having a place that is stable, where there’s a routine and a rhythm and where they know that there are adults that do care about them, that can be something that can mend harm. Relationships are the most healing dynamic in all of our lives. And educators are the second most important influence for young people. The government commis sions a survey of schools every couple of years and asks lots of questions about smoking, drinking and drugs, this is in England. There is another survey in Scotland. But for eleven to fifteen year olds. And one of the questions they ask is, where would you go for useful information about drug use? And top of the list, which always surprises parents is parents, but second on the list is teachers. And that may or may not surprise teachers but they are the second most important, and of course young people spend second most amount of their time, that doesn’t sound very grammatical, but, you know, the second biggest amount of time is spent in an educational setting. So the, the teachers have, and educators have an incredibly important role, not just in, in learning but I mean, as anyone that works in education knows, learning isn’t just. It’s not hard times and facts, facts, facts and, you know, all that stuff. I mean, nobody would think that in a million years but not necessarily think through the fact that what they’re doing is, is, has the potential to enable young people to live full and free and fulfilled lives. Way beyond anything that they’ve ever learnt.[Ludo]
Yeah, yeah. It’s yeah. To kind of pause and take a moment to reflect on that, because it’s pretty, it goes right to the root of why we educate young people, doesn’t it?[Fiona]
Why does school exist? What else can school achieve other than teaching students to pass grades, which it seems to be, you know, the most important thing about school in today’s society, rightly or wrongly. And actually, you know, tutors, just as much as teachers and the people who make education system decisions higher up in government and you know, the department for education, just like all of those people. Tutors have to think about why they’re doing what they’re doing and what the end results are and the end results are not solely that a student passes their exam or that they get paid their thirty pounds an hour, you know. The end result has to be a higher level piece of thinking, doesn’t it? And if that can be done in conjunction with the parent and the school then everyone wins. No-one benefits from parent-teacher-tutor being out of sync, and that’s what has been the case largely in the past ten, fifteen years of tutoring, Is that certainly, tutors don’t speak to the teachers. Tutors don’t speak to other tutors, and sometimes tutors don’t even speak to the parents regularly after the initial contact, which I find, you know, mind boggling. But, there’s, you really helped me to think about things differently, Fiona, and hopefully vice versa as well and maybe I’m giving myself too much praise there …[Fiona]
No, no definitely, because actually, it was that, it wasn’t as I said, we were saying this before hand and I just said it on the podcast as well. Admitted my shame, that I hadn’t thought through the role that tutors could play in terms of young people and drugs and decisions. And I would be really interested to hear what, what would be useful, if anything, from us in terms of reproducing or supporting tutors in their role. Are there things that we could, resources that could create or a space that we could provide or training that we could offer? You know, is there anything that we could do? If anybody felt that this would be a valuable addition, a valuable dimension to their role.[Ludo]
Well that’s a brilliant way to finish, Fiona. It’s not often that we do something like this, but if you’re listening to this podcast and you can see a way or you’d like to see a way that the Daniel Spargo-Mabbs Foundation, who run workshops on drugs and alcohol and decision making in children, could collaborate, could work with tutors, could provide resources or workshops to tutors then email your thoughts to email@example.com, that’s me. And we will collate those responses and Fiona and I will share those responses with Fiona and we can see what the conversation will look like there because we know that there is a conversation there. And there is scope for collaboration between tutors and those working the kind of, decisions and young people field. There’s definitely work to be done there because schools can’t do it all by themselves, so you know, who knows? Perhaps in six months, a years time there will be a collaborative workshop training series between the DSM Foundation and QT because that seems to be, that’s the strengths of both of these organisations and it’s, I guess, it’s up to you the tutor base. The tutor network in this country, or beyond, you know, abroad, to bring those ideas to life or to at least suggest those ideas. So that’s what we are leaving you with today is, if you have any thoughts on this conversation that we’ve had or anything that’s triggered thoughts in your mind about what the potential collaboration could be then email firstname.lastname@example.org and we will listen to what you have to say. But thank you very, very much Fiona, for joining us. That was a very in depth and thought provoking which is what every podcast episode should be so thank you.[Fiona]
Thank you, thank you so much, it’s been lovely to have the opportunity to talk to all your tutors and to you.[Ludo]
Well, and let this not be the first time, you can find us in the qualifiedtutorcommunity.org, that’s both listeners and also, Fiona, yourself and there’s a 1,300-strong community of tutors discussing all kinds of things every single day on there. So, that’s a great place to start. But also visit the dsmfoundation.org.uk website to learn more about what Fiona and her team are doing. That will be in the show notes below, but until next time everyone, thank you very much. Have a great August and we will see you again for the next episode. Thanks Fiona.