On the 11th of August 2007, Sophie Lancaster and her boyfriend, Robert Maltby, were attacked for nothing more than the way that they chose to dress. The injuries sustained were so severe that a year later, Robert had still not fully recovered. Tragically, Sophie, who tried to ward off the assailants as they attacked her boyfriend, died from her injuries in hospital thirteen days after the attack.
In her memory, the Sophie Lancaster Foundation was created. In their own words, the foundation sets out:
To create a lasting legacy to Sophie.
To provide educational group-works that will challenge the prejudice and intolerance towards people from alternative subcultures.
To campaign to have the UK Hate Crime legislation extended to include people from ‘alternative subcultures’ or ‘Lifestyle and Dress’”
Public response to the attack was huge. Sophie’s death came to embody not only the struggle of various subcultures against bullying, but also the senseless persecution of anyone that looks, or chooses to look, ‘different’. The foundation soon found themselves the benefactors of support from a number of bands and public figures, including The Levellers, The Damned, Robin Ince and Courtney Love.
Having generated considerable momentum, the foundation leaders met with Jack Straw, the Justice Minister at the time, to discuss the need to update hate crime legislature. As a result, they achieved their goal of extending hate crime laws to include violence or intimidation of people that adopt a different “life style and dress code”.
This, in itself, was a considerable achievement. But the problem with simply amending the channels by which people can be punished for bullying or for hate crimes, is that in doing so, you are passively acknowledging the fact that it is bound to happen. A retrospective measure, by definition, can only take place in the wake of the action that provoked it.
Aware of this, the company began working with Propaganda, the creative marketing strategists, and together they are approaching the issue with a new focus. Bullying is an age old problem and one that, to this day, conventional retroactive measures have failed to dent. With this in mind, they are now taking a more interventionist approach. The two organisations have created a card game, designed to make school children challenge their initial perceptions of various characters. The rules, in their own words, are as follows:
“At first the players are encouraged to pick a team of five based only on appearances. Throughout the game they find out background information about the characters such as hobbies and skills. The players are then given the chance to revise their first decisions ready to help them in the final stage of the game when they are given a scenario. Those included are an emergency, an expedition, making a Go-Kart and making a rocket. Discussions are prompted throughout to explore the player’s original motives and what they have learnt from taking the time to find out more.”
The Foundation then contacted the sales and negotiation skills training specialists, Huthwaite, to help develop the game. It will be delivered to schools as part of the Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning curriculum. Although this is not the first time that an external organisation has approached schools in an attempt to reduce bullying, the foundation’s approach certainly differs from that of its forebears. The card game recontextualises the issue of judging an individual on appearances in a way that school children can instantly engage with. It becomes an adventure; a game that bears all of the hallmarks of the action-packed cartoons on children’s TV. In this way, the issue is tackled indirectly and the learning experience is taken out of the classroom and into a simulated environment; one in which the players are forced to re-evaluate their initial reactions to the characters in order to succeed.
Now, recontextualising information to make it more engaging isn’t a ground breaking move in training or education. Anyone that has been near a primary school in the last twenty years will be well aware of the fact that just about everything can be turned into a rhyme or a game of some description. Or for that matter, anyone who used to watch Sesame Street, in which the relatively innocent act of counting was ‘recontextualised’ into a nightmarish exchange with a vampire, “Count Dracula”, who fired elemental arithmetic at you whilst you cowered behind the sofa. No? Just me then. Even so, reframing an issue in such a way that the inherent themes are still present but are, to the learner at least, indistinguishable from the ‘learning simulation’ is a great way of helping the learner to challenge negative habits indirectly.
Alongside this, it also stands to reason that the transfer and application of learning is best achieved when the learning process is experiential. You can spend an entire meal in a restaurant telling your child to stop playing with the candle on the table, but you can bet they’ll make a point of persisting. That is, until they burn themselves, at which point the fascination ceases. The message that the foundation’s card game translates is that first appearances can be misleading and offer only a shallow representation of that person. The trick is that the children have experienced this for themselves, rather than receiving the information second hand, and as a consequence, devalued.
Personal development is often attained at the expense of having learnt from the right mistakes. What is important, from the trainer’s perspective, is creating a safe environment in which this can happen. The foundation’s experiential approach to behavioural intervention in schools accepts the fact that children are likely to pick characters based on physical appearance, by ensuring that later, they have to correct these errors in order to progress. Simulated learning environments enable trainees to learn from mistakes that could, outside of the training environment, carry serious consequences. In this way, negative habits – something that people are rarely eager to adapt, if even aware of – can be challenged indirectly, making for a smoother learning process.
The work of the Sophie Lancaster Foundation is truly admirable. What happened to Sophie is a tragedy and I commend the foundation for its work and its rhetoric. Embedded below is an incredibly moving animation commissioned by the foundation to draw attention to the foundation and their efforts. Please do watch it. If you would care to support the charity, or visit their site, click here.