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Community spirit Coronavirus

How community makes or breaks educational attainment

Rob Day, policy assistant at Local Trust, sets out how place affects education, and how innovations from Big Local areas demonstrate the difference that empowered, resourceful communities can make.

The importance of wider community to young people’s educational attainment has become clear over the course of 2020. Young people have faced enormous turmoil over the last seven months; unable to go to school, not knowing what will happen with exams and their futures, and finally met with a controversial grade-prediction algorithm that overwhelmingly favoured students from privileged backgrounds, pushing many across the country to protest and ultimately force a government U-turn.

While shocking, the algorithm fallout should not be seen merely as an unfortunate consequence of COVID-19. Rather, it reflects deep issues within an education system that has been failing young people and their communities for years – issues that became increasingly clear during my recent research for a submission to the House of Commons Education Select Committee, and particularly through conversations I had with Big Local residents as part of that research over the last few months.

Local Trust has identified 225 neighbourhoods across England that face worse socio-economic outcomes across all metrics, even when compared to equally economically deprived areas. Educational attainment in these ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods was markedly lower than other areas prior to COVID-19. For example, only 43 per cent of young people receive five A*-C-grade GCSEs including Maths and English, while 18 per cent of 16-24 year-olds have no formal qualifications at all. Just 20 per cent go into higher education. This compares to 45 per cent, 16 per cent and 24 per cent in equally economically deprived areas respectively.

Without action, this gap is likely widen as a result of COVID-19. Home-schooling during lockdown has been a major challenge for all parents – but for some of the most deprived families it has been almost impossible. We have heard through conversations with Big Local residents that, for pupils across the country, concentrating on schoolwork without a teacher present is extremely difficult. As one resident stated, children see their mum and dad “as parents or carers, so for them to become the teachers doesn’t mix”. Similarly, it was noted that for many parents, teaching subjects that they themselves struggled with at school is daunting, adding extra pressure to an already profoundly stressful time.

These issues are further compounded by the fact that, in the most deprived neighbourhoods, online education is less accessible. Many families do not have wifi and, with public libraries shut, often the only devices from which children are able to do online work are mobile phones using pay-as-you-go data.

These obstacles to home-learning will inevitably widen the attainment gap between the most and least affluent young people.

Community steps in

Big Local partnerships across the country have made clear that community can play a significant role in supporting families and young people to achieve their full potential.

Nowhere was this more evident than in my conversations with Gaunless Gateway Big Local. In June, I spoke with Gavin and Gillian, who are setting up Cardboard Castle: a hyper-local online learning platform and learning resource for young people and parents alike, designed to be accessible to everybody.

Cardboard Castle received £3,000 of funding from Gaunless Gateway Big Local to create, as Gavin and Gillian describe it, “a different way of working” that removes the “stress around replacing the class teacher” when trying to learn at home (whether that’s during lockdown or just doing homework). The result, still in development, will be a platform containing short informative videos, and ideas and materials for home-schooling activities across different themes, including art, local history, nature, numeracy and literacy.

This includes activity packs optimised for accessibility even without wifi or a printer, with material that can be easily copied out onto paper; interactive learning in the community, such as a mobile ‘book-swap shop’ that encourages children to swap their old books for new ones from other children in the area; and even collaborations with local tourist sites, providing ideas for  educational days out in the area. There will also be an advice section for parents struggling with new demands of home schooling. Though Cardboard Castle remains in its beta testing phase, several of these core elements have been trialled during lockdown.

Learning through sharing

I also spoke with Julie, a Big Local volunteer and Head of Art at Bishop Auckland College, who set up an online gallery to share pupils’ work, which has developed into an online community stretching beyond Bishop Auckland. During lockdown, she asked her pupils to create one piece of art a day for 30 days and send her a photo of it using their phones. This could be any form of artwork they wanted, meaning that it was accessible to all students, and she promised to put all the art onto a Facebook group. She was astounded by the positive response from her pupils, many of whom she said were working part-time in frontline occupations “and still getting distinctions on their art projects”.

Showing love with art from Local Trust on Vimeo.

The project has been a great success, and the Facebook group now has almost 450 members from across Bishop Auckland and beyond. Parents have written to share how excited their children were that their artwork would be put up in the online gallery. One young man in Leeds, who had spent nine weeks shielding on his own, says he has now set up an Etsy account to sell his artwork after positive feedback from the group online.

Inclusivity has been key to the group’s growth. Julie noted that members have begun to swap tips and tricks, as well as creating an informal (socially distanced) material-swapping network so that everyone has access to art materials. Julie’s instinct as a teacher has also enabled young people to learn more about the art they are producing, even in lockdown. By sending online material to members of the group, she has introduced children to the work of Frida Kahlo, Vincent Van Gough and Tony Cragg.

Beyond COVID-19

Both of these projects are now looking at how they can build a legacy beyond lockdown to improve educational attainment in Bishop Auckland. Julie is hoping to get some physical gallery space to build on the momentum of her art group, while Gillian and Gavin are talking to local schools about how Cardboard Castle will be able to supplement in-class learning and support both teachers and pupils as they return to school.

These are just two of the many stories coming out of Big Local areas all across the country, but they highlight how, provided with the resources and freedom to create change, communities can support young people to fulfil their potential. These insights – alongside other stories from our newly constituted Policy and Advocacy Panel and data from our work with Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion (OCSI) – formed the basis of our submission to the House of Commons Education Select Committee Inquiry into “left behind white pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds”.

The submission highlights the barriers faced by young people in the most deprived neighbourhoods, and the need for strong, dynamic and inclusive communities in overcoming them. These are facts that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis, and must be front and centre of any attempts to ‘build back better’ and improve educational attainment in the long term.

As a community we need to start changing those aspiration levels.” Stephen Perez, community development worker at Arches Big Local

Learning is about far more than words spoken in a classroom – and adjusting for periods of home-schooling is about more than simply migrating a syllabus online. For equal opportunity of education to be possible, power and resources need to be handed to residents to work alongside schools and young people to ensure that learning relationships and materials remain accessible to and effective for everybody.

If you are a member of Big Local or Creative Civic Change and would like to join the Policy and Advocacy Panel, please contact Rob Day on