We must reduce the educational attainment ‘gap’! I agree – 21% of the poorest fifth managing to gain five good GCSEs compared to 75% of the top quintile is unacceptable. Recent government strategy has been to provide schools with a ‘pupil premium’, money for each child receiving free school meals, for the school to use on interventions that raise attainment. I know from our DfE funded research that this is extremely valuable for many schools, although for others it does not come near making up for the fall in funding. Not all children on free school meals underachieve and schools have been wise in the targeting of support to those who need it. But we need a different solution to really make a difference.
Schools acting alone cannot be expected to make up for the impact of poverty on families. More radical, integrated, holistic solutions are needed. Children need access to high-quality schools and early years provision. They and their families need access to personal, social and health support and to community development initiatives. Our research over many years into extended schools and services, summarized in our book Beyond the School Gates, has demonstrated the transformative impact on individual children and families when they have swift access to a range of coordinated opportunities and services.
A model that is gaining currency in the UK is based on the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) in New York. It is ‘doubly holistic’ tackling multiple forms of disadvantage simultaneously and working from cradle to career. A similar model, Children’s Communities, is being developed by Save the Children with Prof Alan Dyson and Dr Kirstin Kerr at Manchester University. My team at Newcastle University has been commissioned by Children North East to scope the feasibility of an integrated Children’s Community in an area in the north of England.
It’s too early to report our findings, but what’s the case for and against a Children’s Community? The idea is that services/charities/the local authority/schools/companies delivering support for health, education, social care, housing and employment – can achieve far more if they co-ordinate activity around an informed assessment of what the area needs.
You may point out that there is already much co-ordination through existing bodies (health and well-being boards, clinical commissioning groups, etc.) so why a Children’s Community? But existing bodies are focused maybe on family support for certain groups or on many groups but just in relation to, say, housing. They are usually biased towards the agenda of a particular agency (i.e. education or health or social care) or commissioning body. A Children’s Community analyses how disadvantage ‘works’ in an area and formulates a strategic plan for tackling disadvantage across the childhood years and across all the contexts in which children learn and develop. The community is involved in formulating the strategic plan.
When resources are limited, some organisations say that co-operation is the only way, but others fear being dominated by the larger organisations. However, a Children’s Zone – or Save the Children’s ‘Children’s Community’ – offers a way to work out, through co-production, how the resources of all organisations can be used to benefit the community.
A Children’s Community creates a governance structure which gives all partners the degree of autonomy needed to act locally. Existing structures and practices are built on, and the best-developed of these could be supported to become pilot zones. In one area a cluster of schools could, for example, join with the Sure Start Centre, and a community police team to create a vehicle to take interagency activity forward. In another area a housing association could form alliances with an academy and the local authority. Strategic governance is particularly helpful in leveraging funding and resources into the area. Robust evaluation strategies are also put in place to find out what works locally.
Pupil premium is not enough. If schools aligned with more far-reaching efforts to tackle disadvantage, then their potential to make a real difference will be considerably increased.