How two schools are tackling child poverty head-on

Henry Hepburn visits two schools that are tackling the attainment gap and changing lives through their doggedness, determination and innovation
15th February 2019, 12:04am


How two schools are tackling child poverty head-on

It takes only a few minutes in a taxi to find out what the area around Craigroyston Community High School is like - or, at least, how it is perceived. “This is where I was driving when I got pelted with rocks by some seven- or eight-year-olds,” says my monotone driver, like a hangdog tour guide in a Monty Python sketch. Look over to your right, he advises me, and you’ll see where some baby-faced joyriders tore through Pilton’s housing schemes in a stolen Lamborghini.

A bit further along, he says, is where four teens clung to a moped as they raced through the gap on a footpath between two mothers pushing infants in prams. “That’s the sort of place this is,” concludes my unofficial guide: lawless, dangerous and full of young people with little ambition, other than to tear through life with reckless abandon, and with zero concern for anyone in their way.

If this taxi driver were to pick up any teachers from the local secondary school, I’d fear for him: these are exactly the sorts of low expectations and self-fulfilling prophesies that they rail against every day.

Craigroyston headteacher Shelley McLaren is a genial figure, full of the bounce you’d expect from an idealistic school leader only a few months into the job. But get her on to the sort of comment she often hears - even from people within educational and professional circles - that stealing motorbikes is just what happens around here, and her mood does a handbrake turn: “It’s those conversations that get me really angry.”

The implicit message, she believes, is that you can’t expect much from pupils around these parts, other than stewarding them through a smattering of low-level qualifications. But McLaren is having none of it: “These children have the absolute right - it does not matter where they live - to the best chances in life, and we need to give them that.”

If you’re looking for a school that confounds educational expectations in an area of entrenched poverty, you can’t do much better than Craigroyston. But what marks it out? “It is, fundamentally, not having the excuse of poverty. We could sit back and say, ‘Oh, our children are living in poverty, they’re not going to make it - it’s cyclical, they’re not going to get a job, they’re not going to do this.’ It’s about absolutely having high expectations of every single pupil, and never faltering on it.”

Another crucial aspect is that “we’re very good at thinking on our feet”, says maths and numeracy curriculum leader Lynn Brown. The school believes that one size never fits all, and will try anything that stands a chance of giving students a boost. This requires a willingness to go above and beyond - and the best example is the support offered to young people who are no longer even at the school.

A few years ago, staff got to thinking about how much effort goes into nursery-primary and primary-secondary transition, in stark contrast with the sudden break that occurs when pupils conclude their school years.

For Craigroyston leavers going on to university - often as the first member of their family to do so - the result was depressingly predictable: very few stayed the course.

“In the past, it felt pretty much like, ‘See you later, enjoy your life!’ ” says McLaren. “We’d worked so hard for so many years to build these great relationships with them that it just seemed such a shame.”

Head of English and literacy Eiméar Haskins, who is also S6 year head and the school’s adviser on university admissions, says: “Pupils were achieving the grades to get into university, we were all working our backsides off to get them into university, but they would either not go, or start and drop out within weeks.

“It would be so galling - and we just knew that the key thing [missing] was the support networks.”


Helping students stay the course

Craigroyston leavers struggled with aspects of university life - and, sometimes, an inferiority complex - and it did not take much for them to drop out: one computing student who did not like his course was all set to quit after speaking to the wrong person and believing, mistakenly, that he could not switch to maths.

Now, Craigroyston has a support network for former pupils at university, including a Facebook group, regular text-message exchanges with teachers, catch-ups over coffee, and an open-door policy at their old school. And staff will respond to requests such as, “Miss, my essay’s due in an hour - can you proofread it?”

The school now has much better contacts at universities - mostly within Edinburgh, where it strongly encourages pupils to remain so that they do not leave behind their support networks - and knows where to direct students to for assistance. This level of concern is highly unusual from a school, as demonstrated when a Craigroyston staff delegation met a dumbfounded university department head, who said: “You’re’re … from high school?”

The post-school support scheme, which started in 2017, has had a dramatic impact: 12 leavers have gone on to university over the past three years, and none has dropped out. Staff now get the pleasure of seeing former pupils thrive and reinvent themselves at university. Brown chuckles, recalling a recent visit by one young man, who swaggered into a class wearing a tie, waistcoat and black trilby, and gave her a bear hug, with the wide-eyed pupils in the room gasping, “Who’s that?”

Another big success at Craigroyston has been its attainment champions scheme: 16 staff each mentor four S4-6 pupils, meeting them for 15 minutes a week and offering a constant source of support.

Teachers are matched with pupils they have a strong rapport with, and are paid for their time - averting the danger, says McLaren, of this work “falling off the table if they’re really busy”. Pupils, meanwhile, glow at the thought that they have been picked out by a teacher.

McLaren adds that the scheme has been a driving force behind a surge in attainment: in 2015-16, the year before it was introduced, 28 per cent of S4s got five National 4s or better; the year after the attainment champions came in, 69 per cent did so.


Champions of progress

The attainment champions’ main focus has been on S4 students, particularly the “middle 60 per cent” between the academic high-flyers and those who are really struggling.

In the past, they might have ambled through their senior years without causing much drama but nevertheless falling short of their potential.

Sometimes, the close attention of the champions identifies easily resolvable problems - one girl could not see from where she sat at the back of the class because she was short-sighted. Her champion arranged a trip to the optician.

At other times, a trivial incident might lead a pupil to believe that a teacher does not like them, which could be enough to put them off that teacher’s subject. Haskins says the champions have pinpointed such issues and “fixed relationships”.

Other pupils have been dealing with traumatic events, such as the death of a close family member. English teacher Cat Grant says the champions can keep their studies on track and provide support by doing “soft, simple things” such as remembering a birthday.

Brown recalls one girl she used to work with who was disruptive, would wander corridors rather than coming to class, and looked certain to drift into a jobless future. Brown invited the girl to help with an S1 class, and “discovered straightaway what a talent she had” : she showed hitherto undetected patience, perseverance and an ability to nip problematic behaviour in the bud. “She was absolutely amazing - I don’t think I could actually have taught this class without her,” says Brown. The girl is now a full-time, qualified nursery teacher.

This school year has seen the introduction of a similar scheme: attendance champions, for S1-5. These 11 teachers each receive a Nokia “brick” phone for reminding pupils where and when they have to be, but also to make it easier for pupils to get in touch when issues arise. Some pupils will, for example, have caring duties, such as taking younger siblings to school.


Blazering a trail

Staff are also determined to change how young people see themselves - and how they are perceived by others. The school takes pupils to the Edinburgh International Book Festival each year, but had become concerned about how this played out.

“We’d be in the crowd with what we’d call the ‘Harry Potter schools’ - with their blazers on, looking really smart - and we had a uniform but the kids were just wearing bits and pieces, and you could tell that they felt a little bit lesser,” says Haskins.

A stricter uniform policy was introduced in 2017-18 - in came blazers, while “belly tops” and sweatshirts were outlawed - in an attempt, says McLaren at “not solving poverty but trying to eradicate the look of it”. It was “probably the biggest initiative we’ve ever done - I dreamed about blazers”.

As with most things at Craigroyston, there was a unity of purpose among staff and a determination not to let standards slip even a little. “If you let it go a wee bit, you just lose it - this is a daily, hourly thing. There will be someone right now getting a tie for a pupil,” laughs McLaren. Tonight, she is going to Matalan to pick up some trousers, and “half the school” is going around in trousers donated by a single maths teacher.

The effort has been “one million per cent worth it”, says McLaren, as it makes the pupils “all look equal”, and has improved behaviour and confidence in and out of the school.

Now, adds Haskins, at the book festival the pupils “feel like they deserve to be there as much as everyone else”.

If the main message from Craigroyston is that you help pupils who live in poverty by setting unstintingly high expectations, a primary school dealing with similar social issues says the key is to get the whole community on board.

St Stephen’s Primary in Glasgow calls to mind Batteries Not Included, the schmaltzy 1987 children’s film, produced by Steven Spielberg, in which the tenants of a New York block of flats resist developers who have demolished every other building in their neighbourhood. St Stephen’s is the last building standing on what is now a construction site, and will soon be demolished to make way for a new-build.

You would think this would infect the school with a depressing atmosphere, but that is far from the case.

Donna McKay is headteacher at St Stephen’s, in the Sighthill area, as well as the adjoining St Kevin’s Primary for children with additional support needs, where around 95 per cent of pupils fall into the two most severe categories of poverty in the Scottish index of multiple deprivation. McKay, who started at the school after the summer break, says of one innovation that “like a lot of the best ideas, it’s very simple” : the first half hour of the school day is given over to breakfast.

From 9-9.30am, children and staff say their prayers and eat together. St Stephen’s used to have many latecomers in that first half hour of the day, by which time core literacy or numeracy lessons were often under way.

The school, which receives support for the scheme from a community programme run by investment bank Morgan Stanley, decided that a “soft start” to the day would benefit many pupils: latecomers would not fall behind in their learning or struggle through to lunch on an empty stomach, while parents would feel less stressed about not having money for food.

Teachers also benefit from this unusual start - which is different to traditional breakfast clubs that run for selected pupils before the school day. Meeting pupils in a relaxed environment means that they are more likely to open up about what they really think of the school, whether they’re happy and their perceptions about the learning.

“Children now know it doesn’t matter when they come in: there’s food, there’s a nice atmosphere, they’re being listened to,” says McKay. Late arrivals have gone down markedly since the scheme started in November. “I’m not naive enough to think that giving them breakfast is going to sort all my attainment issues, [but] there’s nothing more basic than food and ensuring that your children are treated equally.”

McKay is proud of “how we have continued to build up the community when there is nothing round about here [now]. The school has become everything.” She adds: “You don’t have a school unless you have your parents on board.”


‘Clothed, fed and ready to learn’

With that maxim in mind, St Stephen’s provides families with link workers from the charity Barnardo’s to help with housing; three-course Christmas dinners (plus entertainment by the staff) for extended families; and a community chef who works with parents. The school does not charge pupils for anything and, before Christmas, it provided new children’s jackets, wellies and food parcels. “We make sure our children are clothed and fed and ready to learn,” says McKay. “We look after and nurture the children as if they’re our own.”

She believes it is vital for a new headteacher to get to know staff, pupils and families from the start, “and, more importantly, they have to get to know you, because how you develop a successful school and overcome adversity is through trust and respect”.

For about two-thirds of St Stephen’s 166 pupils, English is not their first language. Families come from Somalia, Kenya, Libya, Iran, Iraq; they have fled civil wars, female genital mutilation, religious persecution and domestic violence; some were trafficked into the country and are wary of authority figures.

Every school dealing with poverty - indeed, every school full stop - has a unique set of circumstances, believes McKay, so she spent her first two months at St Stephen’s working day and night, largely talking to people: “You don’t have to evaluate anything; you just have to get them to know you as a human being.”

McKay describes her approach as “quirky” - this is reflected in her spiky hair, 14 ear piercings and glittery Dr Martens boots - but not “frivolous”. She encourages staff to find unique solutions for their unique cohort of children. “I don’t fit into a box and I don’t expect the children in my school to fit into one either,” she says.

And she is deeply sceptical of anyone who has easy, off-the-shelf answers for how to help pupils living in poverty. “You don’t come to the north-east of Glasgow for an easy shift: the complexities of deprivation are massive.”

Henry Hepburn is news editor for Tes Scotland. He tweets @Henry_Hepburn

This article originally appeared in the 15 February 2019 issue under the headline “Great expectations”

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