This article was originally posted in Headteacher Update 3/3/16.
The raft of challenges facing Richmond Hill School made narrowing the gap seem like an outrageous challenge. However, by tackling the barriers that prevent pupils from being ready to learn, among other strategies, the school is making huge strides. Daniel Sobel explains
I read yet another news article about a large academy chain that fails its students and in particular “those from poor homes”. Unfortunately, there have been many articles like this in recent times. I conjecture that it is because planning over a group of schools tends to deal with the symptoms and not the causes of the attainment gap.
Sometimes, when you throw more maths at a cohort of boys who are significantly below their attainment levels, they don’t respond positively because it doesn’t necessarily address the fact that they may have language acquisition difficulties and the maths language is complex. Or that they have parents who decry maths at home as a “waste of time” because of their own difficult experiences when they were young.
The reasons could be many but certainly what they all have in common is that there is something personal behind the large wall of data. I have written previous articles for Headteacher Update about how to identify and track this soft data, capturing the personal issues and translating them it into action. My formula for narrowing the gap is straightforward:
- Start with the early years and catch narrowing the gap as early as possible.
- Make sure every school is trained and equipped to carry out nuanced, detailed assessments that accurately identify the inhibiting issues.
- Make sure teaching staff are trained to deliver consistently outstanding personalised learning through differentiation and adapted curriculum.
- At every strata of the school ensure soft data is captured, tracked and demonstrated (individual students, interventions and whole-school data).
- Encourage and support the headteachers to face outwards to their parents and evolve into a school that regularly meets with the traditionally hard-to-reach parents and, from that base, build aspiration in the home.
A common problem in delivering these steps is number 5. For me, this is the denouement of the entire process. I think results will always remain elusive for a school’s bottom 10 per cent gap cohort unless we directly address the causes.
The example of headteacher Nathan Atkinson and Richmond Hill School shows how this really can be done with a bit of tenacity and gumption.
Case study: Richmond Hill School
Richmond Hill was the kind of nightmare challenge that most heads would quietly think to themselves they would be daft to take on. It has every category of challenge that is on the official and unofficial lists. The Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index places the school within the lowest two per cent and the Index of Multiple Deprivation is 69.55.
The school is ranked 22/155 in terms of deprivation for schools in Leeds. More than 33 per cent of pupils live in households which rank in the lowest three per cent of deprived households in Leeds. Nearly 90 per cent live in the lowest 20 per cent of deprived households in Leeds.
Since September 2014, 153 children have joined the school through the in-year admission process. Of these, 107 remain in school. Of the new arrivals, 64 per cent have some form of additional need – English as an additional language (EAL), SEN, social, emotional and mental health needs, or child protection issues. Eleven children have been admitted who have significant behavioural needs.
Overall, 66 per cent of pupils are eligible for free school meals, 48 different languages are spoken in school, with Portuguese the most widely spoken after English, 35 per cent speak EAL. There are currently 60 pupils who receive intensive additional teaching because they are new to English and a number have had no experience of schooling prior to admission.
Half of children are from an ethnic background other than White British. The most significant ethnic group after White British is Black African children, followed by White Eastern European heritage. There 25 children who are of Gypsy Roma Traveller heritage.
So, what would you do to narrow the gap in a school like this? I am not sure that the Department for Education or the larger academy chains really have the answer to this fundamental question. However, Nathan seemingly wasn’t put off. We met because the East Yorkshire Authority had asked me to look into how to increase learning outcomes for looked-after children and Richmond Hill volunteered to be a guinea pig. I had an opportunity to spend some quality time with Nathan and the school and what I walked away with was that rare feeling that I had come across something genuinely and deeply inspiring.
Differentiation and soft data
The school had some significant work to do with the staff. With the help of Wendy Knott – a SEN specialist teacher and expert on differentiation – the school rapidly embedded highly effective differentiation and personalised learning. Her work focused on how to deliver high-impact differentiation within a manageable amount of time for the staff.
This fostered a different outlook and helped them to rethink their views of the pupils as having individual needs which could be met by the teaching staff. Instead of instantly blaming the child for a behaviour challenge, they sought to consider their own responsibility for how they could include that pupil better.
I focused on implementing whole-school soft data systems and getting the SEN department on track. There was a need to simply import an SEN system and effectively start again. The SENCO was heavily bogged down in paperwork and meetings and hardly ever left her room. We worked out a way that she could be present in classrooms every day and reinvent the role of the SENCO as being a supporter of inclusion in the classroom rather than a repository for all problems vaguely SEN.
Nathan and his equally inspiring deputy Judy had already started implementing a whole range of school-changing activities and the challenge which I helped to solve was how to best capture and demonstrate the soft data impact of these strategies. Much of this kind of work I have written about in previous articles for Headteacher Update (See http://bit.ly/20YDhq5) and it is worth reflecting on this because there is a direct correlation between your capacity to measure and track soft data and the real impact that targeting soft data issues can actually have.
Barriers to learning
Nathan identified the many barriers to learning that are caused by life in the local community. They began with the obvious basics such as attendance and punctuality. Soon after Nathan began, one word became loud and clear and he wrote it in quite large letters in his office as if he was gripped with a mad inspiration.
The word was “HUNGER”. Their speaking with students and their parents revealed that a high percentage of children attend school each day without having any food and often not even a drink. Subconscious neglect as well as general poverty are just two of many reasons for this desperate situation.
It is common knowledge that trying to teach students who are starving is ineffective. Hunger affects concentration, energy levels, attentiveness and emotional wellbeing. Prolonged exposure to a lack of food ultimately results in children working below age-related expectations. Throwing additional maths and literacy at this cohort would fall flat. Even one-to-one specialist teachers and any of the fancy computer programs available for schools could not overcome this significant barrier.
But, providing children with food each morning would be costly both financially and in terms of time when the timetable is already beyond capacity. Nathan got round this by intercepting large quantities of bread which had past its sell-by date but not its use-by date. They provide toast each morning to all pupils (600) using only this “waste” bread.
Preparedness for learning
You might argue that the challenge to ensure that children arrive at school ready to learn could be considered to be a combined effort between home and school with the emphasis on home. However, when schools are judged for their outcomes the imperative has to shift towards increased effort from schools – in loco parentis.
Nathan had opened a Pandora’s box. What other steps could the school take to maximise the pupils’ wellbeing and preparedness for learning? The needs of the community are massive and he and his staff had decided to do all they could to reach out to them. They realised that if they could intercept bread then maybe this could be done with other foods too?
Perhaps through the medium of food they could get the hardest to reach parents to engage with the school at last and possibly thaw their iced hearts towards education. If this was a movie rendition there would be a montage at this point where you would see Nathan and his staff converting an empty learning space in the school to create a café, built to look and feel just like a high street coffee shop.
The school worked in partnership with local supermarkets, caterers, independent traders and wholesalers who generate tons of waste food that predominantly ends up in the bin. They set up a weekly food shop where a wide variety of products have been distributed through this initiative including fruit, vegetables, pastries, cakes, bread, cheese, cooking oil, tinned and jarred products to name a few.
This food is then made available to parents and members of the school and wider community on a “pay as you feel” basis, which ensures that the food is valued and that people have a sense of worth.
Parents who would normally avoid the school were now coming regularly. Parents started to talk to the staff over a coffee, share worries as well as their laughter and as a result of these interactions they developed an entire community’s trust in the school and this was the biggest hurdle to developing a real shift in aspiration.
Nathan and his team have developed many other wonderful interventions that are entirely focused on bringing their families into the school and fostering a positive contact. Attendance has improved as a result of Nathan’s work, children are keen to come to school and start their day with breakfast and a chat. Parents are more widely involved in school life too, at the most recent parent-teacher consultations, 90 per cent of families attended meetings, this enabled them to share success stories as well as the next steps in learning required for their children.
When dealing with realimpoverishment, you could not hope to narrow the gap without addressing preparedness for learning. As I said above, it takes more tenacity and gumption than any policy document or formal research can tell you.