Reach Academy & Reach Academy Children's Hub

Luke Billingham Head of Strategy – Reach Children’s Hub

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Schools In Their Communities: Taking Action and Developing Civic Life is a collaboration between Big Education and Citizen School.

A school and charity partnership working together to provide community support and to enable community action

The story of Reach Academy and Reach Children’s Hub demonstrates the significant role that schools and partner organisations can play in both providing community support – addressing the difficulties and complexities in students’ and families’ lives beyond the school gate – and enabling community action – galvanising and facilitating the activities of local people to support one another, lead new projects, and pursue social change. Having set out thinking mostly about community support, our experience working in Feltham over the past few years has brought home the power that community action can have for a local neighbourhood.

THE ROLE OF A SCHOOL IN ITS COMMUNITY: NARROW OR BROAD?

Schools are unique: very often, they can be described as ‘universal’ institution. Everyone has to attend full-time education, by law, for at least 13 years, and the vast majority will do so in schools. No other institution in society has that level of reach into the population. This basic fact creates countless forms of contention, of course, about what all our children should be taught, the extent to which parents should have choice over schooling, and so on, but it also presents an opportunity: schools have unique potential for both community support and community action. Schools educate their students and induct them into society, but they are also, more simply, institutions that have an unrivalled degree of influence on the lives of a community’s children, young people and families.

Debate rages about how schools should use this influence, and about how narrow or broad their objectives should be. At one extreme end of the spectrum, some schools adopt a rigidly narrow view of their role, and appear to stand aloof from their community: seeming to view themselves as fortresses of good order in a hostile neighbourhood, they strictly limit their influence to the provision of education, aimed at helping their students “escape” from their current surroundings. On this view, schools are pedagogical institutions that should provide high quality education for their students (treated as individual units of human capital), and nothing more.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are schools that adopt a broad view of the role that they can play: woven into their local neighbourhoods, they invite the community into the school and reach out into it at every opportunity, and try to maximise the positive impact that they can have on children, young people and families, supporting them far beyond the provision of education. From this perspective, schools are not just for education, but institutions that have an unmatched ability to address the social, cultural, emotional and economic complexities and difficulties of its young people, and of its local community.

REACH ACADEMY, AN INNOVATIVE NEW SCHOOL

Reach Academy, opened in 2012 in Feltham, South West London, was founded on the belief that schools can play this wider role in the community without losing their focus on providing high quality education and pursuing the best possible results. Indeed, the only way to develop the academic potential of all who come into the school is to broaden what the school provides: if it is to achieve the best possible results, the school has to support its students and its families through the complexities and difficulties of life, as much as through the curriculum, because the former can prove a formidable barrier to the latter.

Two key features of the school’s structure are especially important enablers of this broad remit – it’s all-through, and it’s small. This allows staff to build deep, trusting relationships with students and families, which are consistent throughout the school, without the often-jarring transition from primary to secondary education (which, in too many cases, is a transition from family-oriented and community-focused primary to more distant and impersonal secondary).

Alongside the school’s structure and its focus on relationships, it has always provided extensive family support and in-house counselling (through Place2Be), available to students of all ages. The results that the school has achieved is a testament to this breadth of provision, as much as to the quality of teaching and learning: the school leaders draw a direct line of causation from the depth of relationships developed with students and families to the results achieved by the students.

THE ORIGINS OF REACH CHILDREN’S HUB, BROADENING REACH’S ROLE SUPPORTING THE LOCAL COMMUNITY

Reach Academy’s founders and leaders (Ed Vainker, Rebecca Cramer, and Jon McGoh) always envisioned the school as a hub for the local community, meeting as many needs of local families as possible. Inspired by Harlem Children’s Zone in New York, they could see the potential of schools as anchor institutions for a range of connected community support initiatives.

The first few years of running the school confirmed the need for this wider provision. Two early observations were particularly powerful motivators: the extent of the gap in abilities seen on students’ entry into nursery, and the extent to which complex difficulties outside of school formed significant barriers to learning for students of all ages.

The conclusion from these insights was that schools are necessary but not sufficient for young people to flourish, even if this flourishing is defined narrowly by academic success. High quality education is essential, but it has to be supplemented by broader support for the student as a person, and for their family, especially in the early years – the child’s first few formative years are fundamental.

I joined the Reach team at the end of 2016 and set to work listening to local people in order to help shape our vision for a community hub organisation that could support children, young people and families beyond what is possible for the school. We knew that we wanted the organisation to complement and expand the role of the school in the community, and we had some initial ideas about what the organisation could look like, but we needed to hear from the experts: those who are living, working, and growing up in Feltham.

We involved three Reach Academy students to assist me and ran round the neighbourhood speaking with as many people as we could. We ran workshops for parents, interviewed and focus-grouped students, held meetings with Local Authority professionals and local community groups, undertook surveys, and co-developed a questionnaire which we then used with local residents on the High Street, where Reach Academy is located.

Alongside this local consultation, we travelled the country to learn from other organisations and schools who are undertaking broad-ranging community support and community action activities, such as Manchester Communication Academy, Pembury Children’s Community, North Camden Zone, and West London Zone.

The result of all this, after analysing and mulling over the findings as a team, was a clearer vision for what this complementary organisation could do, and how it could work to support the local community. After piloting some initial activities in 2017 and gaining support from early funders who saw the potential of our vision, we built a model of how the school and Hub could work together to provide cradle-to-career support for the children, young people and families of the local community.

REACH ACADEMY AND REACH CHILDREN’S HUB: A CRADLE-TO-CAREER MODEL OF PROVISION FOR LOCAL CHILDREN, YOUNG PEOPLE AND FAMILIES

Reach has been approved to open a second school, neighbouring the first. Our long-term vision is to have a campus of institutions, formed of the two schools and Reach Children’s Hub, in a separate building which will neighbour the schools. Together, the schools and the Hub will form a cradle-to-career model of provision, as illustrated in the diagram below.

The guiding principle of this model is that the schools and the Hub are mutually supportive and co-dependent: there are no better institutions around which to build wider community support than schools, but schools cannot provide the very best education for all without the wider community support provided by the Hub, to address the complexities and difficulties of students’ lives beyond the school gate.

Beneath the diagram, I describe each numbered component of the model, including the projects and activities that Reach Children’s Hub has delivered so far and is currently delivering.

1: Feltham 0-2

We recognise the vital importance of supporting families from the earliest possible stage of their children’s lives, and the Hub has its most extensive provision at this “cradle” (and “pre-cradle”!) point in the pipeline. The Hub is working closely with a range of partners to deliver this provision. Through collaboration with local midwifery and health visiting, we are now offering free antenatal education for new local parents, as well as a support group for young mums in the local area. This builds on a peer support programme delivered by the National Childbirth Trust through the Hub in 2018 and 2019, which we continue to support. We have also developed an innovative and wide-ranging project with Save the Children, the Feltham Early Learning Community, which includes a range of activities to support families’ home learning environments in their children’s earliest years, such as Peep and Family Links programmes, as well as supporting the system around local families, as described in (6) below.

2: Reach schools

Many of the children supported through the Hub’s early provision will then attend one of the Reach schools, at which they will benefit from the schools’ support for wellbeing and parental engagement, and at which they also have ready access to the Hub programmes for school-aged children. Through close collaboration with the Reach schools, we will be able to track the progress of the children who benefit from our 0-2 provision into their school years, both to assess the impact of that provision and to identify the need for further intervention. To support parents at the start of their child’s education, the Hub delivers a number of informal support groups for families with children in our nursery, complementing the school’s established practice of undertaking home visits before children first join.

3: Identification of need for further support for those who progress from Feltham 0-2 into other local schools

Not all children supported at the 0-2 stage will go on to attend a Reach school. Among those who go on to other local schools, we will identify the need for further support from the Hub, and will closely coordinate this support with the child’s school. This may take the form of access to group programmes for school-aged children based in the Hub, support for the family or the school to access other local support services, or, where need is highest, could involve ongoing keyworker support.

4: Hub provision for school-age children and young people

Reach Children’s Hub will run a range of activities to support school-aged children and young people. This will include both universal provision, accessible for any eligible student, and targeted provision, aimed at those who require additional support. Our Girls’ Group is an example of the latter, providing group support and personal development for Secondary-age female students identified as vulnerable or at-risk. Once the dedicated Hub facility is built, we hope it can house a range of charities, organisations and services which can provide wide-ranging support for local school-aged young people.

5: Feltham Futures

The Hub’s Feltham Futures project provides wide-ranging guidance, advice and support to maximise the quality of local students’ post-school outcomes, and to support them through their post-school destinations. This includes both group and 1:1 support, aimed at helping students to identify the best pathway for them, to put together successful applications, and to flourish in the first few years after school. So far, as well as direct support for students, the project has involved large-scale community careers fairs, partnerships with local businesses and with charities such as Spark and Career Ready, and a pre-university preparation weekend, which gave local students information and guidance on everything that university entails, just a couple of weeks before they started there.

6: Referrals and “walk-ins” into the Hub; outreach from the Hub; the Hub’s role supporting the local system

As a hub of resource and provision for the local community, Reach Children’s Hub provides support for children, young people and families who are not involved in Reach schools, through a number of means.

Firstly, other schools or agencies are able to refer individuals or families for support through the Hub. New members from other schools can be referred into the Girls’ Group, for instance. Self-referrals have also provided access to Hub provision, such as local people signing up for the Adult Education courses we provided through the Hub in 2017-2019. Once the dedicated Hub facility is built, we will also be able to support people via “walk-ins”: reception and community café staff will be able to triage people into the most appropriate programmes or services for them.

The Hub has also begun engaging in a range of outreach activities, such as Hub staff delivering programmes and 1:1 support in other schools as part of the Feltham Futures project. Through close collaboration with other local schools, we have begun to identify areas of university access and careers support where our Feltham Futures staff can make a difference to their students.

Lastly, the Hub has begun to play a role supporting local systems and services for children, young people and families. We host an Early Help Panel, through which local professionals meet to coordinate support for local families below social care thresholds. As part of the Early Learning Community project, we convene an Early Years Network, which provides free training, support and networking for local professionals working in nurseries and primary schools.

7: Three levels of impact

Throughout the cradle-to-career model, the schools and Reach Children’s Hub can together achieve three levels of impact, with differing amounts of directness and depth:

  • Cradle-to-career impact – we will have the greatest and deepest impact on those children and young people who benefit from the whole cradle-to-career pipeline, starting with their parents receiving antenatal support, continuing through their time in a Reach school, and then on into their young adulthood. Our work with these children and young people will be “doubly holistic”: working with them both across time and across different aspects of their lives.
  • Programmatic impact – each individual programme and activity is designed to achieve significant impact within a well-defined set of specific outcomes, regardless of whether children and families are accessing only that one activity or a wide range of activities.
  • System impact – the Hub’s work supporting local systems and services will indirectly benefit a large number of children, young people and families in the local community. Through the free training provided by the Early Years Network, for instance, local Early Years professionals are enhancing their practice with local children in other settings.

DIFFERENT FORMS OF COMMUNITY SUPPORT AND COMMUNITY ACTION AT REACH ACADEMY AND REACH CHILDREN’S HUB

Working together, then, the school and the Hub provide extensive community support, delivering projects and activities to meet a variety of needs and address a range of difficulties experienced by children, young people and families in Feltham. What we didn’t anticipate when embarking on the Hub project was the extent to which community action would become central to our approach, and we certainly didn’t realise the many different forms that community action through the school and the Hub could take.

Community support is, relatively speaking, the easy part: schools and partner organisations can support the local community by delivering new provision, by bringing existing provision into the neighbourhood, and by effectively convening and coordinating services to the benefit of local families. Any school can engage in this form of community support, in some way: most schools are, to a degree, engaging pro-actively with local services or bringing in existing organisations to support students and families. Many have developed breakfast and after-school clubs, support groups, food banks, and other forms of additional provision which can make a huge difference to families (and which are, in many cases, evidence of failings and injustices beyond the school gates). Through Reach schools’ collaboration with the Hub in Feltham, we hope to push the bounds of the community support it is possible for a school to provide, maximising the role that a school can play in helping a local neighbourhood to flourish.

What we have found through the first few years of Reach Children’s Hub, though, is that community action can have even greater potential. Defined broadly as activities which enable local community members – rather than staff – to be the agents of change, the leaders of activities, or the providers of peer support, community action can transform a neighbourhood. We’ve seen the seeds of this already, across all aspects of the Hub’s work. Our Girls’ Group members have led International Women’s Day events, driven a local campaign against domestic violence, and are planning a project to address mental health issues locally. The NCT’s Birth & Beyond Community Supporters programme, harnessing the abilities of local mums to support new mums in difficult circumstances, has shown us the power of peer support to reduce social isolation, build confidence, and weave vulnerable parents into their local community. Lastly, we’ve seen how projects and groups for parents, however informal, can form the basis of extensive parent-led provision: our parents have created their own activities, trained to deliver support programmes with other parents, continued group mutual support far beyond the “official” end of particular projects, and helped one another in countless small-but-significant ways. We’ve seen how our school and Hub staff can galvanise the collective agency of students, parents and the local community, and the difference that this can make in the area.

THE POTENTIAL OF SCHOOLS AND PARTNER ORGANISATIONS TO ENABLE BROAD-RANGING COMMUNITY ACTION

These examples are all particularly inspiring for me because I’ve seen so many uses and abuses of the term “social action”. The concept is in danger of becoming a fad, whose popularity exceeds its usefulness. As well as working for Reach, I work for a youth and community organisation in East London, and I’ve witnessed a number of “social action” initiatives which follow a similar pattern: local people are brought together, they discuss the pressing problems of the community, they develop some potential solutions, and then the facilitators of the process suggest one particular next step, depending on their leaning as an organisation – the residents should develop a new social enterprise, or do an awareness-raising campaign, or try to influence decision-makers. Often, these organisations have a theory of change based on one particular form of change, and one particular method. At worst, they bounce between communities offering simple ideas for resident-led action, without providing any support for those residents to develop that action.

Building broad community action around a school has two very significant advantages over this narrow form of social action. Firstly, the work is built on long-term relationships and long-term support, so the school can continue to help local people to develop and enact their ideas over many years, if needed, rather than galvanising their sense of agency and then leaving them adrift. Secondly, rather than leading the community action from the standpoint that there is one way to achieve change, based on the philosophy of one specific social action model – be it social entrepreneurship, social media campaigns, or political lobbying – schools can work flexibly with the community to address different local issues in different ways. Some community action initiatives might need a single, focused piece of political campaigning, led by local residents. Others might require the development of a new social enterprise, run by parents but with extensive support in the early years from school staff (or, in our case, Hub staff). In our approach to community action, we hope that the school and Hub can work together to act nimbly and efficiently to support whichever community endeavours local people are developing to support children, young people and families. To enable this, we have recently formed a partnership with Citizens UK, who are helping us to listen deeply to the local community, and to act democratically with and within it.

Reach Academy was founded on the principle of maximising the community support that it could provide, and the development of Reach Children’s Hub has expanded this remit substantially, particularly through the expansion of community action activities. But any school, regardless of its circumstances, can consider its influence in the community, and explore the ways that this influence can be used to both support local children, young people and families, and to galvanise their collective agency.

Even viewed as a purely educational endeavour, community action is an enormously enriching experience for young people, parents, and communities. There are few better ways of learning about society, politics, and history: community action is a way of testing the vulnerability or stubbornness to change of different norms, institutions or practices. My fear is that, without engaging in any kind of community action, people can become complacent about what ought to be continually defended, acquiescent in the face of what ought to be continually challenged, and ill-equipped to judge the difference.

Who wrote this article?

Luke Billingham Head of Strategy – Reach Children’s Hub

Luke Billingham is Head of Strategy at Reach Children’s Hub, an innovative new charity based in Reach Academy Feltham providing cradle-to-career support for children and young people in Feltham, South-West London. He is also a youth and community worker for Hackney Quest, a long-running youth and community centre in Hackney, where he is involved with mentoring, exclusion prevention, youth voice and community development projects. Alongside these roles, Luke is a trustee of Haven Distribution, the books-to-prisoners charity.

@lbilli91

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