Teachers working in areas of significant deprivation know that the odds are stacked against their students. For a number of years, narrowing the gap has been a mantra for central government, with a narrow focus on academic attainment. But despite the number of interventions, locally and nationally, the attainment gap between our students and their more advantaged peers remains as wide as ever.
For many schools, this has led to recognition that our role has to be to confront inequality. We must organise our structures, systems and resources to address the needs of young people and their families. That’s quite a challenge for headteachers.
My school, Manchester Communication Academy, serves some of the most deprived communities in the country. Our context is one that will be familiar to many other schools: high levels of persistent and generational unemployment; poorquality social housing; low educational attainment; and lowerthan-average life expectancy.
Data from the Index of Multiple Deprivation gives an overview of the local context, but a more forensic approach is required to truly understand the impact on young people.
When the vulnerable are the majority
One of our first strategies was to personalise this data and to classify and rank students according to their level of vulnerability. Students are placed in categories including: special educational needs; young carers; free school meals; Ever 6; travellers; asylum seekers; and speaking English as an additional language.
This categorisation shows that 82 per cent of our students are vulnerable and statistically likely to underperform.
Given the high proportion of young people who, on the basis of this data, are already disadvantaged by their home backgrounds, our early help provision has to be universal, and it has to take account of family and community circumstances. As a result, we have an extensive offer, which all students access and which reflects our context.
Examples of this early help offer include: the provision of free uniforms to all Year 7 students; pastoral support and attendance teams; an extensive programme of after-school study support; holiday clubs; and community access to all our facilities. None of this makes us very different to other schools, but further analysis of our contextual data has resulted in some bespoke solutions.
In our catchment area, poor health leads to a life expectancy 10 years below the national average, and there is a high incidence of life-threatening illness related to respiratory issues. This means that significant numbers of our students will experience bereavement more frequently, and at an earlier age, than many of their peers. This can knock them off track.
We also know from health screening that almost 50 per cent of our Year 7 intake have compromised respiratory systems, which has an ongoing effect on their health and fitness.
Change starts from within
Using this knowledge, we have made a number of changes to our systems and structures.
We employ professionals who are able to diagnose and treat health issues. An academy nurse carries out health screening, contacts GPs and parents about respiratory problems such as asthma, and delivers health education to students. A counsellor, trained in bereavement, assists young people and their families in dealing with grief. A health and fitness specialist supports health screening, offers families help with nutrition and dietary issues, and works with students on fitness programmes designed to improve their respiratory capacity.
We have a varied and customised curriculum offer in health and wellbeing that takes account of local issues. Our aim in PE is for 100 per cent participation and we can achieve this only by offering a wide range of activities. These are often delivered via local coaches and community clubs, which cater for the diverse needs and strengths of our students. In a typical lesson, the offer might include judo, badminton, cycling, use of the gym, circuit training and yoga.
Our knowledge of context has been crucial in determining our approach to the health and wellbeing curriculum. The preponderance of food banks in our community, the high number of students with low body mass index scores and the higher than average number of students on free school meals have led us to “poverty-proof” our courses. We provide ingredients for cooking in curriculum time, for family and adult cookery classes and for after-school cookery clubs for students.
We focus our resources on prevention. Our tracking systems enable us to monitor the progress of vulnerable students and we intervene as soon as they show any dips in progress, attendance or behaviour. If they hit any of these tipping points then a second layer of internal, more targeted provision is brought into play. Our early help team intervene with these second-tier students, brokering additional support where necessary; this might include access to our in-house educational psychologist or speech and language therapist.
The time to act is now
It is still early days for us as an academy and we do not claim to have all the answers. Data shows that the vast majority of our vulnerable cohort have stayed on track, requiring no interventions other than the universal provision. We have 100 per cent participation in health and wellbeing lessons; we have evidence of incremental improvements in the respiratory capacity of Year 7 students; and less than 2 per cent of all pupils are at the high-end, high-cost level 3 provision that requires intervention from external agencies and alternative provision.
There is no doubt, however, that schools and academies in challenging areas are at the front line of early help. Given the increasing impact of austerity measures and cuts in local authority spending, choosing to do nothing is not an option.
Lynne Heath is principal of Manchester Communication Academy