Alex Hughes – How can we enable children from disadvantaged backgrounds achieve their full potential?

When discussing my place in this panel the thought came that I would give the view from the front line but in recent weeks it has felt a bit more like no man’s land with so much uncertainty and rapid changes of direction!

Accordingly, in my few minutes speaking to you I’ll give my view, some of which is research and evidence backed as well as my own impressions developed over the past 10 months in school during the pandemic.

When considering the question of how to enable disadvantaged students to fulfil their potential it is important to consider what forms disadvantage takes and how it manifests itself in school. At Ninestiles we talk regularly about tackling disadvantage and removing barriers to learning some of which have been reinforced during this period. I’ll split the impact into three main areas and then address some tentative ways forward which I’m sure discussion will build upon.

Firstly, there is impact on student outcomes and attainment. The Ofsted Annual report last year suggested that year 7 student writing scores in Sept 2020 were equivalent to the most recently assessed year 5 scores and considerably behind where the same cohort were in year 6 – students are regressing. We recognise this and are actively addressing it through our well designed curriculum but we are seeing students achieve less well than in normal times. Our internal data shows that it is a challenge for us to ensure they learn and remember as much as before.

We also place a huge emphasis within Summit Learning Trust (of which Ninestiles An Academy is a part) on reading and literacy as many studies have shown the impact on outcomes of low reading ages. Again we have found that students are increasingly likely to be behind their chronological reading age, something we’ve been tackling for years that feels like it has gone backwards. We’re lucky within Summit in that we work across all primary, secondary and sixth form phases which allows us to address this right across the age range with shared understanding, approaches and packages. Importantly, all of these measures impact most starkly on the students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Disadvantage of course takes many forms; we rightly use the term to reflect PP or FSM students but at the moment SEND students are being disadvantaged by the absence or alteration of the specialist provision that is so vital to them fulfilling their academic potential.

Schools such as Ninestiles are working creatively to address these issues and there are solutions through technology such as personalised breakout rooms and personalised support packages that will become a part of our usual practice but nothing quite replaces the support and intervention given in the moment that usually occurs. We’ve also reached out to families to ensure our must vulnerable and disadvantaged students are still attending at this time.

The second main area of impact has been felt through student and indeed family well-being and mental health. A report from the children’s commissioner Anne Longfield recently identified that as many as 1 in 6 young people are currently suffering mental health issues and NSPCC data suggests eating disorders are up a third amongst children. Our students have demonstrated a fall in self-regard, confidence in their learning and their perceived learning potential. The Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp recently said confidence is a fragile flower and so much of its growth for young people happens in school, that is currently missing. 

We now have more children in receipt of free school meals than at the outset of this and our safeguarding teams are heavily invested in supporting students and their families. The DfE state of the Nation report in 2020 indicated that in the first phase of the pandemic 33% of low income families saw a significant drop in their income compared with 29% from more affluent families. We have certainly experienced this as well as increases in every safeguarding indicator you could care to mention.

There is also a feeling that admitting to being disadvantaged comes with a certain stigma attached. When we first reached out to parents we had 26 families identifying that they needed support with internet access. We’ve actually helped over 15 times this number but it is indicative that families didn’t feel that they could or should come forward initially. In school our usual systems are in place to deal with disadvantage sensitively and discretely often without the student realising it. This pandemic has laid disadvantage bear very starkly indeed.

This links back to the Annual Ofsted report and a key point that the partnership between schools and external agencies must be strong and secure.

I think the 3rd major area is the cost of lost opportunities and in the long term this might prove the hardest to resolve. I’m sure the audience and panel will have lots to contribute on this front but it is the intangibles that school gives that are hardest to measure.

PP students nationally attend less well than their peers and are move likely to be over represented in the PA groups, this has been exacerbated in this period. When students are not in school through lockdown, bubble closures or indeed parental apprehension then students miss out on expert teaching, structured days, behavioural norms and routines reinforced by staff and their peers, a hot meal and social interaction. Not to say that these issues only apply to PP students either but the challenges on these fronts tend to be more prevalent.

They miss out on the cultural capital, trips, visits and enrichment opportunities that are embedded in our Summit Learning Trust curriculum offer. These chances enlighten and enrich our most disadvantaged students in ways their peers routinely experience as well as raising their aspirations, I’m sure you saw the news on Tuesday (26 January 2021) from the Office for Students that said of the 20% of society most likely to not attend university, 93% of them are from a disadvantaged white background.

We always offer a series of university visits to all students but particularly promote the attendance of disadvantaged students so they see uni as a viable option and aspiration. This year we did it virtually and 76% of our year 9 students felt the visit had helped them aim higher and consider university more fully. Increasing access to this type of virtual event will provide a healthy mix with live, onsite and can be done more frequently and more cost effectively.

The topic tonight talks about supporting students to reach their potential and of course in this tough time we have seen some green shoots and hope. The laptop and internet access schemes although initially slow to get going has allowed us to support almost 400 families at Ninestiles and more than 1500 across the Summit Learning Trust. As a result, we have seen increased student engagement with our online learning platforms and software packages. For the first time we are seeing PP students out questions and out watch our non-pp students and over 90% of our students are active on our platforms.

The importance of school as a focal point of the community has been reinforced and this can be built on with schools supporting more actively in mental health support, tackling food poverty and supporting families as long as we are properly resourced and financed to do so. At lot of this work has naturally been picked up by schools with a strong moral imperative but we must have support to do it effectively.

This period has also seen an increase in the Trust and appreciation for teaching staff and those who work in schools in all their roles. This hopefully offers a platform for education to be shaped by the professionals within it. There are various groups and discussions taking place within the professions but a system that values the needs of the learner over the need for an easy accountability measure is one that would help us serve our communities more effectively.

My final point is a somewhat self-indulgent one as a teacher.

I wonder how many here (in the audience) tonight chose a GCSE, A-Level, university course or indeed career because you were inspired by a teacher?

That very human interaction and presence of a positive role model who makes you believe anything is possible is currently missing for so many of our students, I wonder what the long-term impact of that will be?

About the author:

Alex Hughes was appointed Principal of Ninestiles in 2019 having previously been Acting Co-Head of the school in Acocks Green which is attended by nearly 1,500 pupils.

Ninestiles is a member of Summit Learning Trust and a UNICEF accredited Rights Respecting School that prides itself on actively tackling disadvantage and removing barriers to learning to ensure students are able to reach their potential.

Alex was born locally and in a blog (in 2015), wrote: “From the day I walked through the door (of Ninestiles) ten years ago I’ve felt a warmth and compassion in the place that just brings people together.

“I was born just down the road and my father went to Ninestiles as a boy so I understand the community that we live in and have always been at home in a multicultural melting pot but life at Ninestiles has always seemed so diverse.”

Alex Hughes, Principal of Ninestiles, An Academy, in Acocks Green, Birmingham spoke at The Lunar Society event on Thursday, January 28, part of the Society’s Futures series, and gave his view from the ‘front line’ of teaching during the pandemic – and the longer-term issues faced by many children in Birmingham