School culture and community: That extra one per cent...

Written by: Fiona Aubrey-Smith | Published:
Ethos: Children at New Wave’s Grazebrook Primary School in Hackney (Image: Supplied)

School culture and community are crucial ingredients for successful outcomes for pupils, but how can we develop something which is often intangible and natural? Fiona Aubrey-Smith looks at some examples

“Why should where you live, which school you attend, where you work, who you know, where you are, or what you can afford, define the boundaries of your learning, and therefore your chances in life?”

Particularly since the introduction of the Pupil Premium, there has been a huge focus on how we can “close the gap”, with attention largely focused on disadvantaged children. But of course there are gaps for all our children in the learning experiences they are able to access.

This is the first in a series of articles that will share ways in which headteachers across the country are making “that extra one per cent difference” to the lives of their children and staff. We start by considering one of the most obvious issues – that of community.

When we join a school, we become aware of features of the community around it – we might observe the type of catchment, the style of home-school relationships, or the nature of the partnerships that the school has for example. But while we can’t change the location of a school, we can certainly change the school community: who’s part of it and what difference that makes to the learning of those around us – both children and adults.

Reflecting on the examples below, consider for a moment how your school defines community, and what that looks like in practice – to what extent each stakeholder has a passive or assertive role and how far the ripples of impact therefore flow...

Raynham Primary School

Raynham Primary School in Enfield, led by the inspirational Marva Rollins, very much blurs the lines between the school and the wider community in such a way that has ultimately led to the school being consistently among the highest performing primary schools nationally for children’s progress.

Ms Rollins’ view is that every child faces a unique set of barriers to learning (the school has 81 per cent EAL, 28 per cent turnover, 45 per cent Pupil Premium, 12 per cent SEND), but that every child equally deserves to have the best possible start to their lives. As she poignantly puts it: “Society doesn’t have expectations of our children because of their backgrounds; no-one is looking at these children to be the next prime minister.”

That social injustice is very much the driver behind the relentless dedication across the staff at Raynham. They passionately believe in their children and will stop at nothing to make sure that each of the 880 attending the school has the right support to achieve the national expectations across the curriculum.

For many children who have arrived at Raynham from war-torn countries, or children whose home environments are unable to support their education, this belief is literally life-changing. As one child puts it: “When I am at school I feel safe and I feel like people believe in me.”

The team at Raynham has carefully considered the key barriers that their children face and have invested time and resource in appropriate and often innovative and creative solutions.

Through family liaison, the school is on constant look-out for issues that are preventing a child from learning and work with families to overcome these. One example is supporting a parent in accessing medical help so the child does not have to take on a caring role.

Another issue facing the children at Raynham, as with many other schools, is children going without breakfast and families who are dependent on food banks. Raynham’s solution has been to seek out money through charitable funds in order to provide a nurture breakfast club, which not only provides food but also nurtures the children’s start to the day and shows them that they are valued and supported.

Above all, it is the belief that stems from Ms Rollins as headteacher – that everyone can achieve, with the right support. This is probably the biggest single influence on the school. But belief is hard to teach – and how do you spread this passion across a staff of 200 professionals and further afield?

Ms Rollins provides extensive professional development for her staff through learning breakfasts, “lunch & learn” sessions, peer-mentoring and coaching. These sessions are vital because they empower the staff with skills, understanding and knowledge – both spreading the passion as well as the practical solutions, and ensuring sustainability across the staff and consistency for the children.

The Compass Partnership

One common thread across school leaders who are passionate about the importance of their learning community is shared vision and values. While we all have these in place, the “meaningfulness” and the “embeddedness” of them makes a significant impact across school outcomes.

The Compass Partnership consists of seven primary schools with very contrasting communities in Greenwich. These schools have built a community that shares a vision and set of values that underpin the work of the schools, but which are also embedded within the culture between the schools. This means that staff, children, parents and partners share an understanding about what the role of the partnership is and where they fit within it.

This kind of focus on equity between children, and in the interactions between children and all adults – not just teachers and leaders – is both profound and purposeful. For example, the partnership made a strategic decision to develop behaviour, including learning behaviours, all without the use of rewards system – instead focusing on creating a sustainable culture of conversation.

Precision in conversation, and the tools to make this possible, is found everywhere – from books to wall mountings – and all adults, not just teaching staff, are trained and supported with the tools and vocabulary for structuring conversations, phrasing challenge and providing support in such a way that exemplifies the values themselves.

This subtle yet powerful and positive use of the environment is what empowers the schools to move beyond traditional behavioural systems – so that every interaction between child and child, child and adult, or adult and adult, is embraced by a cultural familiarity – a culture of conversation – and it is this impact on behaviours and social interactions which reaches far beyond the classrooms and school building.

The New Wave Federation

The New Wave Federation is a group of three schools in London led by executive headteacher Michelle Thomas. Some of the practical ways the federation’s schools work together include sharing specialist staff, such as in the shared performing arts department, which offers all children specialist teaching each week in music, dance, art and drama. The schools share a full-time Spanish teacher too, so all year groups are taught this language. And as an Apple Regional Training Centre, they also share the skills of staff within the federation and beyond.

Ms Thomas said: “Our children now go on joint trips together as we share the same curriculum through the three schools. This is a great way to utilise resources and teacher time as teachers plan together in much larger groups.

“This year this way of working has been a god-send as we cope with life after levels. For us, we have an instant larger group of staff and children to share and moderate our work with. Staff all see themselves as working for the federation and would not think twice about helping out in another school if there is a need.”

Harbour Primary and Nursery School

Harbour Primary in East Sussex is a pioneer for Achievement for All work and a multi-award-winning school. Headteacher Christine Terrey has an infectious enthusiasm for learning.

She said: “We share a common vision that seeps into and across the curriculum that we offer and the values that we promote. We have a short and simple school motto ‘Always Be Curious’ – our ABC. We expect all staff, parents and children to remember that at Harbour Primary we aim for everyone to ask questions, be keen and eager to learn, be inquisitive, be enquiring and to appreciate the wonder of discovering something new and different.”

It is important to them that children first and foremost feel safe and secure and that they develop a sense of belonging, that strong and positive relationships exist and continue to be developed as the children grow.

Ms Terrey added: “We try hard to ensure that our environment is vibrant and rich, and that activities are planned to excite and inspire children to learn. We give children the opportunity to mix with, and learn with and from each other.”

To achieve this the school uses peer tutoring within school and the children learn from pupils in other schools using technologies such as Skype. The staff also maximise the use of technologies to share learning at home, for example, through online learning journals.

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