How can we close the attainment gap in schools for children of all backgrounds? This is a perennial question for educators, and one I set out to address by exploring the experience and history of teachers who have a determined, no-nonsense approach to providing an excellent standard of education to all young people from differing backgrounds (Luby, 2020). These teachers were known to me through my prior work with the Ad Astra primary partnership – a group of seven schools in the Nottinghamshire area. Through the use of professional conversations, voices are given to schools and teachers striving successfully to tackle the disadvantage gap through evidence-based practices.
This extract from chapter five of my book, Closing the Attainment Gap in Schools: Progress through Evidence-based Practices (2020), investigates a school in a Nottinghamshire village in which the majority of the pupils live in the top ten percent of England’s most deprived areas. In the interview, the head teacher, Chris Wilson, talks freely about the inspiration of the Ad Astra partnership and its continuing impact within his school regarding the five perspectives of poverty – material, emotional, language, experience and aspiration. He talks openly about promoting ambition within both pupils and parents such that they have a road map for their future lives. Chris is candid about bringing in outside expertise from the health service and he is proud of his staff and their generation of award-winning ideas. The Ramsden school staff promote a broad-based, experiential approach to homework and make innovative use of their subject knowledge specialisms. With his staff, Chris inculcates a long-term understanding of evidence-based practices and encourages a Dutch, Leerkracht approach to curriculum and professional development i.e. continuous improvement achieved through innovation and collaboration at the chalk-face.
Tackling the disadvantage gap: One school’s approach
Audaces Fortuna Juvat – Fortune favours the bold. So runs the motto of Ramsden primary school: and the school lives up to its motto. However, I was oblivious to this when driving to Carlton-in-Lindrick for my meeting with head teacher Chris Wilson. Driving out of Blyth, the winding road and the lush countryside of Hodsock Priory caught my attention. Entering via the southern route from Worksop, a mere three miles away, first impressions are of a pretty village. This is unlike the other schools in the Ad Astra Primary Partnership. This is no Bowbridge housing scheme; nor former mining stock like Jacksdale, Kirkby-in-Ashfield and New Ollerton – but appearances can deceive.
Monday 29 April 2019
AL: We’re at Ramsden Primary School with Chris Wilson who’s the headteacher and Chris, I was just recalling the first time that I came here. This school, this area is very pretty but you soon disabused me of that notion. Could you maybe expand upon that please?
CHRIS: Yeah, in the 1970s there was a load of high rise flats that were knocked down in Worksop town centre and a big estate was built just across the fields here. And this school that has been here for 200 years traditionally was meant for the people, I suppose, that worked for the squire… and this school was the catchment area for those, I suppose. And all the rough kids, as it were, went to the newly built school that was purpose built for all the families that were moved from the high rise flats and into the estate just behind our fields… but quite a lot of the children from the estate came to ours – to the extent where it’s now nearly 90% of the children that come to Ramsden Primary School are from the estate, that is, shall we say, fondly referred to as ‘The Bronx’.
AL: Okay so, now Ad Astra, what’s your thoughts on it looking back?
CHRIS: I thought it was a great idea at the time. I thought it was inspiring… to get some of the schools that… were addressing the kind of poverty issues that affect their educational lives; and the fact that we were all in a wide ranging area so that there was no kind of direct competition – which meant that we were confident enough to work with each other and share ideas. And the perspectives of poverty… they were good then and they’re still relevant, very relevant now. So…
AL: So, is there any of those five perspectives… my recollection is that each school was supposed to kind of focus on one of the perspectives, kind of specialise in that and then move onto another.
AL: So which one did you… which one did Ramsden focus on?
CHRIS: We were working on the poverty of experience and ambition and hopefully working on future jobs, future careers which we actually went on to do something with Together for Worksop and we ended up working with the sixth form college in Retford; and all the Year Six children in all the primary schools around Worksop were invited to go to the Post-16 Centre in Retford where they were having this kind of market place where they could learn about the future careers and jobs. Because a lot of times what we found was that by the time children were making their choices about what they wanted to be, they were making choices that weren’t compatible with their ultimate ambition. So, we realised, ‘Well, children need to try and have a think about what they want to be a little bit earlier…’ but also for the parents, so that they could have some sort of viewpoint and road map about how they were actually going to get from A to B if you like.
AL: So, you are kind of saying by late primary they should actually be thinking of spreading, expanding their horizon and thinking wider and greater?
CHRIS: Well, yes, to a certain extent; but also then containing it as well… because… we’ve found that its only when kids start hitting Year Three and Four that they start then wanting to become You-Tubers. It’s not even footballers anymore… its somewhere else that gets money very, very quickly. So your kind of ambition to be a lawyer or your ambition to be this, that’s still not around. Its ‘I want to be rich and if I can’t do it by being a footballer, I’ll do it by showing people how to put make-up on through You-Tube videos…’ So it was that kind of thing that we tried to show well fine, just like when I wanted to be a footballer, ‘don’t give up your dream’ – but realise that it might not happen and you need to think about what else you might be able to do as well.
AL: So, what exactly do you do in the school then to encourage them to think about their ambitions?
CHRIS: First of all, we started just having a look at the kind of opportunities and jobs that our parents were doing and asking parents if they would come in. A lot were basically electricians, nurses… one of our parents who’s a nurse just said to us that she had a friend who was a doctor that worked at the hospital and he could come in as well; and we were over the moon at the idea of getting in a doctor as well… Pierre Bourdieu and the idea of the doctor and the habitus and all of this kind of thing… it’s about understanding and if the children are just trained to pass the exams in numeracy or English, whether its reading or writing. Yeah, they will be able to do that; but if they haven’t got the additional wider knowledge then they’re still going to end up down that narrow path and not realise about what kind of opportunities are open for them.
AL: And does it not now give them more reason to want to do the drill and the learning because they can now see an ambition that could be realised?
CHRIS: Absolutely –
AL: There’s a purpose to this numeracy, this writing, it will enable you at some point in the future to become a nurse, a doctor, an electrician?
CHRIS: Exactly! The children at the moment are just in danger constantly of being… misunderstanding the fact that… they’re just being drilled, or they’re just being taught; and if they don’t understand why they’re being taught it, then they’re not going to find it as attractive as if they’ve realised that, well, in actual fact… I’d love to do this for a job, or… what do we need to do to be able to do that? Well, you need this, or you need that, or you need an understanding of science, or you need an understanding of maths; then they’ll actually think that there is more of a purpose in doing it.
AL: What is it you really want them to achieve?
CHRIS: What we want to achieve is to get the ambition of understanding what they can achieve… and if we can get the parents to understand right from a very early age that these kinds of things are possible, then that’s what we’ll try and do. So I’ve been talking about university; but what we’re trying to do then is take it all the way back down then to an 18 months’ year old child; and then think about how we can affect the parents of that 18 months’ year old child –
AL: How do you?
CHRIS: Well, first of all, it basically started from… the Together for Worksop meetings we found that health was just…. having more and more cutbacks. So we thought, ‘Well, the only way that we could do that is if we employ these kind of people ourselves.’ I came across a school nurse who was retiring… and she said, ‘Do you know, if I could just have a job for two or three days a week I’d be over the moon’. So, I said, ‘Well, funnily enough, this is what we would like to do’ – and where we started to develop… we could have a parents course and all these parents’ courses could have a focus every week. So we decided that it would be very early language: how do you develop language in 18 months’ old children? How do you develop health sleeping patterns; how do you develop healthy eating patterns; because we thought if we could develop all of these kind of healthy choices in the parents while the children were 18 months’ old then that could be the very start, if you like, of how we could affect children coming to our primary school. Not just at the age of five when we get them; but actually at the age of 18 months which is well before we get them. But if we could get parents to come in at that age we’re already two-and-half years ahead of ourselves.
AL: So, to me, you’re really broadening the understanding of education because you’re now saying we’re not just here to educate the children, we’re actually here to educate the parents?
CHRIS: The parents as well, yeah, …our new hash tag is your kids are our kids…
Chris goes on to speak freely about how the inspiration of the Ad Astra partnership continues to have an impact within the school regarding the five perspectives of poverty (this is developed in chapter five (Luby, 2020)). He speaks of promoting realistic ambition within both pupils and parents such that they have a road map for their future lives; and his school brings in outside expertise from the health service such as speech and language therapy services and eyesight specialism. Notably, the Ramsden staff generate an explosion of ideas and some of them are award-winning: from the more ordinary broad-based, experiential approach to homework – to the extraordinary and innovative use of staff’s subject knowledge specialisms regarding the five perspectives of poverty. Chris’s school is ‘ahead of the curve’ with respect to developing curricula fitted to a school’s context through the adoption of a Leerkracht approach to curriculum and professional development; and this engenders a long-term understanding of evaluation and evidence gathering as Chris encourages a relaxed approach to The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills – a non-ministerial department responsible for inspecting and regulating services that care for children and young people, and services providing education and skills demands.
Ramsden primary is but one example of many schools in England that exhibit collaboration for collective impact. Eye C of E primary school in Peterborough is outward looking and provides excellent, and often free of charge CPD to nearby schools. The Forge Trust in Nottinghamshire pools resources, ideas and people as the six trust schools collaborate to enhance the life chances of pupils sited in areas of socio-economic deprivation. From the Netherlands we learn of the ‘steering paradox’ in which brave school principals acknowledge that ‘bottom-up’ change is superior to ‘top-down’ – and so they allow classroom teachers to take the lead even when their proposed changes run contrary to the principals’ long-held beliefs. This builds trust. This builds collaboration for collective impact. And, contrarily, the term collaboration for collective impact came from The Scottish Attainment Challenge – an initiative that is national in scope – regional in practice – and also successful in tackling the disadvantage gap. All, though, are united by a common theme: ambition.
- How ambitious should classroom teachers be?
- Is the approach adopted by Chris inspiring – or worrying – or both?
- How ambitious are you?
Luby A (2020) Closing the Attainment Gap in Schools: Progress through Evidence-based Practices. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.