Vulnerable students need more than a quick-fix catch-up

11 Oct 2020, 5:00

With the National Tutoring Programme about to get under way, one primary leader says schools need to use catch-up funding more creatively to address the needs of the most vulnerable

“This is Operation Encompass. We are calling to inform you of an incident…”

I received a lot of calls like this during lockdown. Operation Encompass’s aim is to directly connect the police with schools to coordinate support for children living with domestic abuse. Nationally, there was a 49 per cent increase in calls to abuse helplines during that period. Here, it was much higher.

But domestic abuse is not the whole story. Since lockdown, I have walked to houses to collect children and bring them to school because they can’t bear to leave home. They’ve spent more time with their parents over the past six months than they ever have before, and some children don’t want to leave that. Others don’t want their parents to be home alone without them there to help.

Great Yarmouth Primary is a school in a white working-class town on the Norfolk coast. It serves one of the most deprived communities in the country, but the immense challenges we face are shared nationally.

School must become an oasis for vulnerable families

Our school was graded ‘inadequate’ in November 2018. (It no longer is, but I’m resigned to the fact I may be waiting a while for Ofsted to come in and confirm that.) When I took the job as principal in January 2019, the school was permanently excluding too many children and those in school were not learning enough. Had our pupils been able to take tests last year, we would have seen significant improvement in outcomes. Importantly, we did that without permanently excluding any children.

But what I see better than ever is that this is not something we should hold high as an achievement. It is the least we should be able to deliver.

The impact of Covid goes well beyond expected SATs outcomes. “Filing the gaps” in academic attainment matters, but schools like Great Yarmouth Primary need to consider their spending way beyond tutors and quick-fix catch-up materials. We must use our resources to make ourselves more inclusive, especially of the most vulnerable. School must become an oasis for these families. In fact, without addressing their needs first, the gap will only grow wider and catch-up will only get harder.

In practice, I have appointed an inclusion team to work with the most vulnerable, to be on gates, to speak to parents and families every day and to signpost additional support so that no family slips through the net.

And everyone has worked incredibly hard to make remote learning possible, with an accessible online curriculum that mirrors curriculum in school. But there’s no point being accessible if you can’t be accessed. Over half of our families have no suitable device at home on which to work, so we have had to buy them the resources.

With a focus on “aspirations and resilience”, we have made PSHE front and centre of our curriculum, rather than the “must-do” afterthought it too often is. This is as beneficial for the adults as it is for the children.

Finally and crucially, we have overstaffed, with three teachers per year group in a two-form entry school, and we have invested in our teachers’ professional development. Everyone has been on inclusive leadership training.

All schools should be proud of the work they have done in the face of Covid. The legacy of that effort must be that schools that work with the most vulnerable are given the opportunity to invest in ways that best serve their communities, rather than to be led by funding priorities that ignore their contexts. We can no longer accept that some of our students will be left to languish in a society bereft of opportunities to improve their circumstance.

For our part, we’re already receiving far fewer calls, and that’s a first massive step towards “filling the gaps”.

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