Case study: Working in challenging circumstances

Written by: Fiona Aubrey-Smith | Published:
Very proud of my mother and Raynham Primary School. It is an incredible place with incredibly ...

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Despite the incredibly challenging circumstances its pupils face, the ethos at Raynham Primary School is one of finding that extra one per cent that will make the difference. Fiona Aubrey-Smith paid the school a visit

Raynham Primary School is one of the largest primary schools in the country, situated in Edmonton, north London. Raynham's intake is more than double the national average on deprivation indicators and includes children from the most challenging of backgrounds – including families who have arrived here from war zones and children who witness crime in their home or community on a regular basis.

There are 37 ethnicities represented, 54 languages spoken, and while there are 81 per cent of the children for whom English is an additional language, sometimes there may be only one child that speaks a particular language in the school.

It is not unusual for a child to start at Raynham perhaps aged eight having neither attended a school before, nor with any English language.

Yet last year, Raynham was in the top 10 per cent of schools nationally for its key stage 2 attainment, and in the top three per cent for progress (and that has risen in 2014 with more than 99 per cent of children in maths and more than 92 per cent in English achieving or exceeding expected levels).

This is a school which is humbling and inspiring in equal measure, and from which every school across the country – whatever the context – can learn.

Marva Rollins, headteacher of Raynham, explained: "A total of 21,275 of Enfield's children are in families who are in receipt of out of work benefits, and there are 3,501 children in Enfield who have at least one parent in work yet are still living in poverty. But, while these are indicators of poverty, this doesn't mean that the school should adopt a deficit model.

"We are always looking for what we can do – what is the one thing that we can do that will make a difference? We are always, always, striving for those one per cent gains – in absolutely every single thing that we do. It means finding a one per cent margin for improvement in everything that we do.

"We are a team that asks: what would happen if, what would we need to do to get to, and what else can we do? Our children need us to do this for them so that they can succeed.

"Think about the reality of our position in our society. People don't have high expectations of the children in Edmonton – no-one is waiting for them to run the country. But, they deserve for us to believe in them. And we do. Think what a difference we can make if we do succeed. We can change the futures, the aspirations of these children and their families."

For the team at Raynham, their passion and commitment to raising standards of attainment and aspirations for their children is rooted deeply in their understanding of the community and context of the school. Visiting the school, the vocabulary used to describe children, families and the school's activities is consistent and is loaded with a sense of equality and togetherness. It is often difficult to determine where the school ends and the community begins, and this deep knowledge of the myriad of factors affecting the children's ability to learn is used powerfully and effectively.

It is a powerful lesson for us all to reflect on: how deeply do we really understand the communities within which our children live? Do we articulate our understanding through the language of RAISE or the language of the community? How do we act on our understanding in such a way that makes a real, tangible and positive impact on the children and their families?

The enabling power of language

When the school's children arrive – at whatever age – they have to learn: English as a means to communicate, English as used by the community – so that they are choosing and using appropriate language for their home lives – and the English of learning in the classroom, so that they can access the curriculum.

"For us, for our children, our journey starts with language," explained Ms Rollins. "We know it takes nine to 10 years to reach the final stages of learning a new language and that this is in parallel to the seven years in a primary school, so we have to think deeply about how we give each child the language that they need to succeed, despite the challenges that they face outside of school."

Given these challenges, Ms Rollins's view about the role of the school is simple and clear: "If you choose to come to Raynham Primary School, then you deserve to have a good day in school. Even children from the most challenging of circumstances embrace the environment that we provide for them. Because they know we care; they don't feel safe on the streets but they feel safe here."

Recently, a visiting group of headteachers from across the SSAT's Primary Network, witnessed what the Raynham team refer to as Grammar Seminars (see photo), which consist of 120 year 6 children, all in the hall together for 30 minutes, absolutely captivated by a single teacher who is resourced with no more than a paper flipchart and a pen.

Every single one of those 120 children were engaged, participating, and able to access the learning underway. Every single child was making progress with their language development, and every single child behaved impeccably. But even more remarkable is when you think about the catchment and context that all this takes place within.

It has taken great dedication and perseverance by staff to introduce the Grammar Seminars, not just to year 6 children, but throughout the school, every week, and the impact that this has had on the children is profound.

Ms Rollins added: "We can't sit around wondering why our parents will not help their children. If they could then they would. Those who can do. So we need to help our children. They're in a tough little environment but we can make a difference.

For example, we have breakfast booster classes where children eat and learn; not just year 6, but many children, every day from 8:15am. These children then get the right kind of start to their day.

"Every child in the school has fruit, and every child has a water bottle. We keep bread and food on site so that if a child is not getting fed at home we can feed them. We have families who need to access food banks, but sometimes pride can be a barrier, or the time it takes to access the food bank means that these children are hungry, so we keep food at school so that they are cared for straight away. We have a charity that supports us with funds enough to be able to do this, for which we are so grateful."

Leadership: of the school or the community?

Raynham is also a hub for community support that extends far beyond education. Ms Rollins explained: "Community services come here, into our school, and our pastoral team close the gaps – we have midwives, library service and classes for parents among others. The staff leading these have responsibility to identify the neediest families, and to help parents to help their children to learn – so that the families are supported in helping their children."

One of the things that is so striking is the dedication and commitment to solution-finding. Ms Rollins does not see problems. She sees situations that need a solution, and this belief has permeated throughout the school at every level and has transcended the belief into a culture where "anything is possible". Significantly, the school's leadership team recognises that to lead the school, they also play a significant role in leading the community.

Vocabulary, data and solution-finding

Put simply, you won't hear the staff of Raynham talk about problem children, targets or Ofsted. There is a shared vocabulary that gently focuses on the expectation that for Raynham children, solutions need to be found – through a shared responsibility for seeking them out.

Ms Rollins explained: "We have had to learn all kinds of things to enable these children to succeed; ranging from restraint training to learning support to social intervention and pastoral programmes. It is the responsibility of the year group to ensure that the children attain well, and the responsibility of the leadership team to enable them to receive the support that they need to ensure that this happens – whatever that takes.

"The earlier we close the gaps the better it is for the children – that's why we use teachers for interventions. We spend a lot of time looking at the huge range of data that we collect – what is the gap that means that child has not succeeded in a particular area – and then we spend a lot of time talking through with the child to understand what it is that has led to the problem, or misunderstanding, or gap, so that we know exactly what intervention they will need, and how best to make that happen." 

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Very proud of my mother and Raynham Primary School. It is an incredible place with incredibly dedicated people in it with the desire to change the community from within.
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What a great snapshot of a fantastic school. Marva and her team do an amazing job with the community of children and families at Raynham. It is a very special place.
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