Breaking the cycle of disadvantage

9th February 2018 at 00:00
With a firm belief that students from poorer backgrounds can attain the highest standards, and a robust framework in place, it is possible to turn around schools in deprived communities

I often read about politicians and their views on social justice, social mobility and how important such ideals are to their political party. However, I sometimes wonder what these terms actually mean.

And there are so many statistics and reports on child poverty and educational outcomes. To be honest, I never quite know what these are telling me, apart from the fact that disadvantaged students attain less well. Hardly surprising.

What I do know is that child poverty is increasing. The number of families struggling to cope is increasing. I know this because my school is dealing with the fallout of rising poverty levels every day. And as austerity measures continue to bite, cycles of disadvantage deepen.

Education is, I believe, one of the few antidotes we have. So, when given the opportunity to lead the Oxford Academy, a school that serves one of the most deprived wards in the country, I had to take it.

Bottom of local league tables

The community we serve is a community with challenges, but a community with good people at its heart. However, the school was at the bottom of local league tables when I arrived. It was under-subscribed, had high rates of exclusion and a high staff turnover; a story that has been told so many times before.

Although, I was an experienced senior leader and felt confident that we could make a difference, it would be fair to say I was apprehensive. But I took confidence in the fact that I had spent many years researching and visiting schools that had become sustainably successful from challenging beginnings.

And while there is not enough space for me to detail here all of the things these schools do to achieve this, what I can say is that they all work within a framework for continuous improvement, which they adhere to with integrity.

This framework places a focus on improving teaching and learning, positive student behaviour, an appropriate curriculum, rigorous quality assurance and being at the heart of the community.

Belief in the power of education

It is this framework that my school also adheres to, supported by belief in the power of education, valuing and trusting staff, simple systems and recognising success in and out of school. Perhaps the most important belief we hold is that our students are capable of achieving the highest standards.

There are so many things that we need to continue to improve. However, we are proud of our achievements so far. Progress is consistently well above average, we are now oversubscribed, and for the very first time, one of our students has had an Oxbridge interview.

Have we broken the cycle of disadvantage? For some, undoubtedly yes. Have we made a significant difference to all? Definitely not, although we will continue to strive to do so.

If our politicians are genuinely serious about child poverty, social mobility and social justice, our solution is a simple one: fund education to the levels it deserves. Education has the power to break a cycle of disadvantage and, as a society, we need to believe in its power.

Niall McWilliams is headteacher of the Oxford Academy

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