15 October 2019

Our embedded PhD researcher, Vicky Hirst, reflects on her time as a teacher, the enormous impact that wider socio-economic conditions have on young people's school experience, and how Reach Children's Hub is building a cradle-to-career model of support.

My understanding of the extent to which a school can make a difference has changed dramatically. When I first started teaching in 2011, fresh out of university, I had a very specific idea of what a teacher’s role entailed: teach academic content to pupils to ensure that they make excellent academic progress, thereby enabling them to have a greater chance of achieving positive life outcomes. A straightforward formula, surely. Where pupils required additional support, there would be a few professionals in place to help them academically or pastorally, but that support stopped at the end of the school day and over the weekend. Since those early days of naivety and cringe-worthy lesson delivery, it has become increasingly clear that in order for the most vulnerable pupils to have a chance of achieving such success, the role of a teacher extends far beyond teaching a pupil academic content and the role of a school is both complex and contentious. This may all sound obvious, and I’m sure many teachers would agree that their role is manifold, but there is a tension between wanting to do your utmost to help your pupils and lacking the capacity to do so.

I’m confident that if you ask any teacher, they can think of at least a handful of pupils who did not fulfil their potential at school because they did not receive the right provision, because they had too much going on outside of school, or because their parents, for a multitude of reasons, were not able to fully support them. Sometimes, regardless of the effective school routines, consistent behaviour system, rigorous curriculum and quality pastoral support, pupils do not succeed in school. And these are pupils who, under different circumstances, definitely could succeed in mainstream education. As a teacher, you are left trying to work out what more you could have done. For years to come you will think of those pupils who slipped through the net. You wonder what they are doing now, hoping (falsely?) that eventually they found their feet. You come to realise that schools on their own can only do so much but you also recognise that the same goes for all of the other public services working tirelessly in the local area. The more you are exposed to the system - an increasingly fragile one - the more frustrated you feel.    

It is this feeling which led me to understand that, as a teacher, your impact only goes so far. The social issues which impede the life chances of certain pupils and their families cannot be tackled by schools alone. Providing the necessary pastoral support and academic provision to assist every vulnerable pupil goes beyond the capacity of a typical school. There are not enough hours in the school day to ensure that pupils and their families receive the required assistance to lead safe, secure and fulfilled lives, and nor do schools have sufficient resources to achieve this. Many would argue (myself included, until several years ago) that it is simply not a school’s job to get involved in matters which extend beyond the school gates. Getting involved in a child’s home life and taking on the role of other public services is often perceived as arrogant at worst and naive at best; it is not the school’s role to meddle in the web of thorny issues.

The problem, though, is that the nature of many of the issues which children and young people are exposed to and are impacted by - inadequate housing conditions, household debt, substance abuse, mental health issues, hunger, domestic violence, crime and gang violence, to name a few - have a direct impact on pupils’ academic performance, and the issues are both interconnected and dynamic. They can create an insurmountable barrier to achieving successful life outcomes, and achieving a decent set of GCSE results is a key part of this. Without a wider, co-ordinated network of support and services, a significant proportion of young people end up under-achieving at school or being excluded from mainstream education altogether. And for teachers, your detailed lesson plan, engaging delivery and outstanding behaviour management begin to be seen within the wider context. If your pupils are in no fit physical or emotional state to learn, or if their parent or guardian was unable to support them with your homework because they were working the night shift the evening before, or the pupil is sharing a single bed with two other siblings, then they are not going to achieve their best during your lesson. The pupil may be disengaged, disruptive or withdrawn. They might not attend school that day or they may lie about their lack of completed homework in a bid to avoid a detention, which would mean that they cannot pick up their younger sibling from school on the way home. The list of side-effects is extensive. In such a situation, what both the pupil and the teacher would benefit from is a wider support system.

This is where Reach Academy Feltham’s (RAF) cradle-to-career school design is seeking to have an impact. The school model is attempting to tackle the wider social and economic issues which impact on pupils’ development and the Reach Children’s Hub website outlines how it is intended to work. My role as an embedded PhD researcher at the school is to evaluate its effectiveness in tackling educational disadvantage in the local area; I am externally funded by the University of Manchester and the Economic Social and Research Council. I should acknowledge that I used to teach at the school. It was at Reach that I began to realise that schools can play a role in tackling the issues beyond the school gates but that they cannot do this on their own. Hence the establishment of the Reach Children’s Hub and the Reach Foundation. The Hub plays a crucial role in the school design: it is building a network of co-ordinated, holistic support for pupils and their families through collaboration with local people, organisations and services. The aim is to have a positive impact on its pupils’ life outcomes, including, but not limited to, their academic success.

As part of my research, I am keen to determine what elements of the cradle-to-career school design are context specific and what features can be transferred, with care and consideration, to similar school designs in other areas. This could have implications for the cradle-to-career school design and will contribute to the literature on how design-based approaches to evaluation can help to advance the field of extended education. I am also interested in learning the extent to which the school design will have a wider impact on the social and economic structure of the area it serves. There is a wide spectrum of cradle-to-career school designs, in the same way that schools’ cultures and approaches vary and RAF is gradually working out where it lies on this spectrum. Well-known examples in the United States include the Harlem Children’s Zone (https://hcz.org) and the Strive Together Network (https://www.strivetogether.org). While I am not naive enough to believe that an innovative school design can solve all of society’s problems, it is certainly refreshing to see something different being tried. And given the current state of educational inequality in what is one of the most affluent countries in the world, a fresh alternative is imperative.