Can schools really afford to invest in outside providers?

  • Can schools really afford to invest in outside providers?

In the middle of a funding crisis, schools are still turning to outside providers to meet students’ needs – Sal McKeown has been asking why…

At the Education Show recently, I was struck by the number of private companies providing workshops. When schools are struggling to pay for essentials – and are even referring families to food banks – why would they pay strangers to come and teach their children? One thing I know for sure is that no educational establishment allocates budget without a clear idea of how their students will benefit, so I set out to find what these experts can offer, and why schools need their services.

“We call them The Team in Pink,” says Ciara Warnock, “and PET-Xi’s curriculum knowledge and ability to inspire young people is really impressive.” Ciara became headteacher of Orchard Park School in Croydon three years ago and needed outside help to raise attainment and restore confidence. One of the issues was the new, linear GCSEs which were replacing the earlier modular system. No one knew how this would play out in practice, nor the impact of moving from course work to a final exam. She called in PET-Xi (pet-xi.co.uk) because the company claimed detailed knowledge of the new specifications, and its team includes national examiners.

It worked. Now Ciara has brought them back in for other students and other purposes. Recently, PET-Xi ran a Y7 catch up programme for a small group, predominantly Pupil Premium children, who had an intensive course designed to improve their skills and confidence in decoding words, recall and retrieval, vocabulary and comprehension. Currently, the team is working with students on a Certificate In Finance course and a suite of MS Office qualifications; so far, participants have achieved a hundred percent pass rate.

What makes PET-Xi special? “All the sessions start with a high energy burst from a motivational leader which hooks students from the outset,” observes Ciara. “The sessions with our learners are so intense, meticulously organised and engaging that students reap the benefits of this personalised approach.”

Specialist solutions It is easy to see why a school would bring in superheroes to transform exam results and provide intensive tuition to targeted groups who are underachieving; but an increasing number are starting to call on outsiders for aspects of wellbeing, safeguarding, resilience and careers. It seems that staff are being spread thinly across curriculum subjects and with high staff turnover, SLTs are redeploying PSHE and citizenship teachers and pastoral staff to cover English and mathematics, leaving a gap that can be met by specialist providers.

For example, Commando Joe’s (commandojoes.co.uk) provides character education. The organisation recruits and trains former military personnel to run clubs and one-day workshops, or to work over several months alongside teachers to instil self discipline, confidence and teamwork in young people. Since 2012, the company has worked with over 350 schools with 175,000 pupils. It’s received £3.2 million of grant funding from the Department for Education and been the subject of several favourable research projects.

Careers focused

Young people see the relevance of curriculum subjects when they are allied to career goals. Zakon (zakon.co.uk) is a new company run by experienced police detectives, which builds on the fascination of the British public with all things forensic. In the course of a day, students can learn about fingerprints and DNA, law and the criminal justice system and take part in a mock trial that gives them the chance to develop persuasive arguments and practise presentation skills.

Again thanks to television, people know about paramedics, midwives, nurses and doctors – but in fact, there are over 350 different NHS career opportunities, so Tom Warrender’s company Medical Mavericks (medicalmavericks.co.uk) visits schools with a mini mobile hospital unit and sports science equipment to show what is on offer and the different qualification routes. Schools often start by signing up for his resources – 50 posters, a free 200 page book, From Classroom to Clinic, and a digital magazine three times a year – and then turn to him for workshops.

Last year, Medical Mavericks worked in around 300 schools. “It’s the kit that is the unique part,” explains Tom. “Sometimes we go in and find kids are quite hard to get onside, but once they get their hands on the gear they are engrossed, because we are not just showing them a PowerPoint or a video about NHS careers.”

Guidance and advice

Simon Finch (simfin.wordpress.com/about) believes that schools need guidance to make the best use of outside experts. A former teacher and local authority advisor, he runs internet safety training – and provides CPD resources via Twitter and Facebook, so the face-to-face session is just part of the whole package. He urges schools to plan properly so they have objectives, resources and a way of reviewing the impact of a session.

His pet hate is staff who ask for a copy of his PowerPoint and videos. “They say, ‘Can I magpie that?’” he reports. “But my unique selling point is my knowledge and the examples that I bring. They have all been carefully curated, yet some schools want to take the nub of your work and save money by doing it themselves. I wouldn’t ask the plumber to leave his tools so I can fix my boiler free next year and save money.”

While schools may think twice before paying strangers to work with their learners, the providers I interviewed were both professional and dedicated, with a real sense of shared moral purpose. “I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t think it mattered,” confirms Simon Finch. “It is the best job in the world, helping schools to be the best they can be.”

Consider this…

Like most schools, Bellerive FCJ Catholic College in Liverpool needs to be ever more mindful of budgetary constraints. Nonetheless, it uses PET-Xi to help its young people aim high in their choice of university and career, and has also brought in external trainers to update staff on County Lines and radicalisation. Deputy headteacher Paul McMenamin offers schools these tips:

• Local schools whose judgement we trust have given us suggestions which have been really good; personal recommendations are hugely valuable.

• Think about whether you would benefit from outside expertise. Could it save you time? Would it help to drive forward the School Improvement Plan?

• Re-evaluate each year. You may need to change to providers who can offer a slightly better deal, or look at running events with another school and sharing costs.

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