Beyond these walls

15th October 2010 at 01:00
Teachers are well aware of the value of getting their pupils out of school and into the community, but too few have the opportunity - or resources - to make their ideas a reality. But that's where the Sinnott Fellowship comes in

Robots may seem an unlikely way of bringing people together, but in one school they have proved to be the perfect vehicle for promoting links with the community.

After observing how a group of pupils enjoyed building robots in their spare time, Tim Smith decided to take it further. He turned the informal group into an official school club and invited parents in to help their children.

The result is that in the mornings, parents and pupils design their robots together. In the afternoons they compete in Robot Olympics.

"There's always a moment in the day when the room goes quiet and parents and children are completely focused and engaged with each other," says Mr Smith, an advanced skills teacher in design technology and film studies at Prudhoe Community High School in Northumberland. "It's improved social cohesion and strengthened family groups."

The scheme was made possible by the Sinnott Fellowship, set up following the death in post of former NUT general secretary Steve Sinnott in 2008. The pound;400,000 government-funded fellowship aims to support school staff who are passionate about social action in any of its myriad guises - anything from allotments to trips abroad.

"Steve was a fantastic champion of education," says Christine Blower, Mr Sinnott's successor at the NUT. "He knew that pupils do not just learn when they are sitting at a desk. It's critically important to learn from outside opportunities as well."

The fellowship gives teachers the opportunity to work on community activities by providing their schools with money to pay for cover. A total of 15 bursaries are offered each year, enabling the recipients to devote two days a week over two terms to their chosen projects, with no strings attached.

Mr Smith was one of the first cohort to be awarded the bursaries. "The fellowship proved that my work was valued and gave me a chance to reflect on what I was already doing," he says. "Instead of just putting my head down and getting on with things, the extra time gave me a chance to think and plan strategically."

Since founding the club, Mr Smith has gone on to train new "robot leaders" to run similar sessions, extended the activity into local primary schools and secured additional equipment so that more than 600 family members can take part each year.

In addition, he has built work experience links with local production companies - no easy task given that the North East boasts just 1 per cent of the UK media industry. A school-based radio station, operated by pupils and the wider community, is also in the pipeline.

Also among that first cohort was Marcia Clack, family and community engagement manager at Phoenix High School in White City, west London. She used the opportunity to embark on a sustained effort to promote community involvement in the school.

In the early days, she would organise gatherings at the school's dedicated family learning centre and no one would show up. Undeterred, Ms Clack visited the local community centre and spent hours standing at the gates of local nurseries and primaries, handing out leaflets about Phoenix events. Slowly, people started coming into the school.

Ms Clack and her team began by offering the adults "soft" classes in the arts, crafts and flower arranging. But as confidence grew, so did the opportunities. Twenty-nine adults took their English and maths GCSEs thanks to the school this year. Others have dropped in for coffee and biscuits or basic language skills.

Earlier this year the school held a free, three-course dinner for parents. Other parents choose to gain a food hygiene certificate or their European Computer Driving Licence, a qualification demonstrating competence in computer skills; some opted instead for pottery classes or family mentoring sessions.

"People know this is the place to come to for making mosaics, gaining qualifications and everything in between," Ms Clack attests. "It has had an incredible impact on the pupils. Just having parents talking to their children about what they are learning raises aspirations and underlines the importance of education."

She says its community links have played a key role in the school's success. "It's all part of being at the hub of this community and improving perceptions of the school," she says.

"Fifteen years ago, nobody wanted to send their child here. Now there is a waiting list. Local people know this is where good things happen."

Jackie Barnes, assistant head at Morpeth Secondary School in Tower Hamlets, east London, was keen to use her fellowship to support underachieving teenagers. At the time of Mr Sinnott's death, she had already been running her "It's your Life" project for nine years, but she had never had the time to stop and commit to paper what components made it a success, or how it could work elsewhere. The Sinnott Fellowship gave her the opportunity to formalise the initiative.

"The world for many of our pupils is small and closed," says Ms Barnes. "It may just consist of the local shops, school, home and the doctor's surgery. We show them that there are many more experiences out there that they can access."

Support for pupils can range from academic help to life coaches, with input from everyone from former pupils to local businesses. The intervention does not necessarily stop when the children leave school: in some cases it continues until they are considered to be "work ready".

Such support is essential for children who struggle to access the curriculum, argues Radhika Bynon, development manager of the Sinnott Fellowship. She says the fellowship aims to help teachers break down some of the barriers that get in the way of children's learning.

"You can be the best teacher in the world, but due to things beyond your control, certain pupils will never engage," she says. "What these teachers do is open the door to wider opportunities and other adults who may have greater success."

Many schools are already involved in voluntary work, community-based activities, mentoring or buddy schemes. The fellowship gives teachers the chance to enhance, extend or raise the profile of these existing activities.

"The old adage: `It takes a village to raise a child' really is true," argues Ms Bynon. "Schools cannot be isolated from their communities. The ones at the heart of their community - making both local and global links - reap the rewards for school and pupils."

Although applications are now invited for the third round of awards, at the time of going to press no decision had been made about whether the Government would make the funds available. But Carl Ward is in no doubt about the importance of continuing the scheme.

As director of innovation and development at Sutherland Business and Enterprise College in Telford, he used his fellowship to finalise the school's trust status.

"This is a deprived community and we often have to put kids back together again before we can even think about grades," he says. "By working with the whole community, we are able to do it."

These community links include a partnership with the charity Age Concern that sees something of a role reversal: a 90-year-old man teaching teenagers basic computer skills. Elderly people also help the pupils with their allotment, building goodwill between groups that can be mistrustful of each other, Mr Ward says.

The fellowship also helped Mr Ward develop the school's enterprise learning partnership, culminating in 650 pupils from all the local schools taking part in a "festival of learning" at the RAF Cosford Museum in Shropshire.

Pupils could learn Japanese under the wing of a Spitfire, before moving on to one of the 30 other activities, from dance classes to rocket building or singing. It is hoped that next year's event will see 2,000 children take part.

Links with Lesotho and South Africa also resulted in a school trip last year. At the Lesotho youth forum, nine and 10-year-olds taught South Africans of all ages how to set up their own sustainable co-operative businesses. The Sutherland pupils now sell jewellery from the village and send back the profits.

When the school was given a notice to improve by Ofsted last October, it would have been easy to justify neglecting its community work to concentrate on teaching. But it is a mark of the importance with which these links are regarded that the school decided not to change tack.

"It was a risky approach but we were convinced that you cannot divorce a school from the community it operates in," Mr Ward says. "If you are not at the hub of your community, how can you represent or help that community, including its young people?"

Marcia Clack agrees. From humble beginnings, Phoenix High now runs a Safe Holiday Scheme with the police, local football club Queens Park Rangers and local sporting enterprise Active Planet. "Involving the community should not be an add-on," Ms Clack says. "It is often the first thing to get squeezed out, but if the community is excluded, it is the pupils who will ultimately suffer."

The deadline for applications is October 29.


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