Together we can break the link between poverty and attainment
Huw Powell, Headteacher, Mary Immaculate High School, Cardiff
Reducing the impact of poverty on educational attainment is one of the most significant challenges facing schools in Wales, and has been for some time.
Almost one in three children (28%) are now classed as living in poverty in Wales, and this can have a devastating impact on their life chances.
One report suggests there is a 27-percentage point attainment gap between students aged 16 eligible for free school meals and those who aren’t.
At Mary Immaculate High School, we teach students from some of the most deprived areas of Cardiff, some of which are among the poorest in Wales.
Free school meals
Over a three-year average, 39.6% of our students were eligible for free school meals, significantly higher than the all-Wales average for secondary schools of 20.2%.
Every day our staff face the varied and complex challenges that come with this, from physical problems like lack of uniform to deeper issues like lack of aspiration and resilience.
Now, the work we have done to mitigate these problems has been recognised by schools inspectorate Estyn, which has asked us to prepare a best practice case study to share with other schools.
The bad news is that there’s no magic bullet, no one single solution that can transform students’ fortunes. I know we all wish there was.
The good news is that there are strategies that other schools can employ and, with a lot of hard work and dedication, they can make a difference. But I won’t pretend it’s easy.
Barriers to learning
At Mary Immaculate, we’ve embedded this at the strategic level. We try to identify barriers to learning and then find effective ways of removing them, to give our students the resilience and the aspiration that they need to succeed.
It’s fundamental to give students a good offer combined with good pastoral support. For that you need to make sure you put the best teachers and pastoral staff in front of them, and we’ve been very lucky to employ some brilliant, dedicated people.
We’ve put several specific things in place. One of these is The Bridge, a dedicated facility that works to support and nurture those students who need a little extra help.
The Bridge works as an intermediary between home and school, providing a safe and structured environment in which staff deliver a range of activities carefully crafted to meet the students’ needs.
We also have an enrichment curriculum for years 9-11, which offers opportunities for students to develop skills in areas beyond the curriculum. This has included gardening, textiles, first aid and British Sign Language.
In our academic review programme, we set aside time in tutorials to discuss topics that will help build students’ cultural capital and improve their knowledge of the world around them. This can include current affairs and world events, or important dates like Remembrance Day or 9/11.
Through our Horizons project, we track our students’ experiences through the school to make sure everyone has access to visits, trips and other opportunities and no-one misses out.
And, on a practical level, we make sure we have spare items of uniform and that our kitchen serves a range of healthy and filling meals, little things that can make a big difference.
Together, all of this makes a difference, but we know we can’t rest on our laurels, especially because Covid has had a huge impact on everything we’ve been working on.
In some respects, we are almost having to rewrite the rules because students are coming in with greater needs than ever, their mental health and resilience having been significantly affected by the pandemic.
Our main challenge now is to try to get them back to some kind of normality, and to try to engage their families to ensure they attend school regularly.
We’ve found that by providing a supportive environment in which pupils are challenged, they will want to attend.
We’re proud of what we have achieved and the difference our work has made to young lives. But we don’t have all the answers, and we are still keen to learn from other schools.
Working together, schools can help reduce the impact of poverty on attainment and in turn help raise the aspirations of our young people, and, who knows, maybe eventually Wales itself.
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