Coastal schooling: living on the edge, and far from the centre

I’m locked in a battle to close the gap with Nick. Nick and I play tennis every Sunday. He usually beats me. (Okay – as of the end of last year, he always beats me). I go to my coaching session each Tuesday and my coach and I go through the shots, the play, that means Nick wins more points and we try to work on a response. At the end of the hour I’m usually happy that I’ve got the answer to Nick next Sunday. He beats me next Sunday again. Trouble is, Nick is having coaching sessions too, with a different coach. And as I improve, so he gets better. And as Nick is a good seventeen years younger than me, his trajectory of improvement, I suspect, is steeper than mine.

But then, Nick and I are both closing the gap on Michael – who isn’t having any coaching. It’s all relative.

Translate into teaching, and it was always a priority ambition to close the gap, in my coastal community school that drew two-thirds of its students from the villages and rural hinterland beyond. We had one of the broadest social breadth intakes you could conceive, with areas of the coastal town that on maps of social deprivation used some of the colours from the more extreme end, to students from families of affluent farmers and leisure industry owners who skied twice a year and had holidays in the Caribbean each summer. The breadth of student intake was one of the reasons for staying there over 26 years as head of Geography and leading the Humanities Faculty. And in mixed-ability classes from Year 7 to 13, that meant each lesson was involving lot of human variation in home-life, ambition, and perception of the value of education.

So, addressing the breadth of student life-experience and attempting to close the gap was an in-your-face challenge; daily and over the years. But how do you …. what’s the word… ‘compensate’, ‘enrich’, ‘build capital’… with one group you feel need the leg-up, without also feeding that subject knowledge, capacity to write, absorb exam technique… to all the other students? Voluntary lunchtime lessons were invariably attended by those already motivated. Pre-exam revision days captured the attention of those who were more likely to do well. Even the Saturday Parents’ Exam Technique days brought in the parents of those you knew stood the better chances. All these served to enlarge the gap; never mind reduce it. They were all Nick’s getting the coaching and doing more with it, faster.

But as the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) notes in its report of June 2019 titled: ‘The EEF Guide to the Pupil Premium’ (see link below), the use of this funding provision in closing the gap between disadvantaged students and their peers can frequently find best use in improving experiences that benefit all students. Their three key suggestions being:

· Improving the quality of teaching provision

· Targeting academic support by narrowing focus on a few key strategies

· Developing strategies that address key obstacles faced more frequently by disadvantaged students (who extend across the ability range) such as attendance and behaviour

Coastal schools serving largely rural catchment areas are particularly liable to incurring potential obstacles to pupil achievement. Schools in deprived areas of London have been noticeably more successful at raising levels of attainment over recent years, than their provincial cousins enjoying the sea air, but burdened by the friction of distance. In a 2015 report for the Future Leaders Trust, research by Dr. Tanya Ovenden-Hope and Dr. Rowena Passy identified a range of impediments, ranging from difficulties over teacher-recruitment, difficulty of meeting with parents due to rural isolation, to limited opportunities of skilled work for school-leavers affecting students’ future expectations.

With hindsight, I believe it was largely attitudinal qualities we were able to effect a change within our students and their families; changes that we didn’t necessarily set out to focus on, but that over time we came to recognise we were addressing successfully. They were (and I aim to expand on each of them in further posts, but leave them hanging here for you to consider what you do to breathe life into each one):

· Anticipating that students will value learning for its own sake, not just as a means of scoring in an assessment or meeting their ‘target grade’.

· Using that ‘value’ to ask questions, to enquire, to challenge when something doesn’t make sense or contradicts something else they’ve learnt, or because they’re excited to know more.

· Developing self-belief and confidence in their own ability and competencies as they stand, and in their potential to expand and deepen them.

· To have an ambition – for themselves, their family and their community – greater than the one that superficially presents itself.

· And to begin to have a commitment to life-long learning; not something that ends with their last lesson at school (or for some – well before then)

During my quarter-century plus at the school, I was delighted to see one female and one male student go to Oxford and Cambridge University respectively, to continue study in my subject. But was equally delighted with the student who failed the subject at GCSE, but managed to gain a pass in it at A level, and get into university – the first in her family – with the most basic of grades, going on to hold a key position in the NHS now. Other students who left school with few qualifications have kept in contact on social media and have set up their own businesses, or taken over family concerns successfully. And it has been noticeable how many have left to go elsewhere to university or college, but who return and want to use their talents and influence within their original communities. That’s when personal achievement really starts to create an up-swell in an isolated community.

In my current role as a governor of a Special School and Residential Unit, I come across students with the most intense physical and communication handicaps. For some, closing the gap means, at most – in all likelihood – giving them the means to express preferences, make choices and communicate need and joy. But those achievements will be down to the most dedicated professionals working with them, and identifying the best techniques they can employ to close the gap between what probably would have been… and what will be with their effective intervention. That’s the most crucial of gaps to close: expanding a future that once looked constrained and limited.

(postscript: Last night I beat Nick over three sets for the first time in eight months. It will need another blog to analyse how that particular gap was narrowed.)

Further reading:

The EEF Guide to Pupil Premium (2019) pdf

Future Leaders Trust (2015) pdf: Combatting Isolation: Why coastal schools are failing and how headteachers are turning them around

By Andy D

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