Classroom life – Walken High School

In our school there are a number of young people who haven’t fitted into school life for a number of reasons; perhaps the system has failed their families so they have little faith that school will improve their fortunes. And maybe there’s the temptation or, even worse, the expectation that a more prosperous means of earning a crust exists outside the system.

I work in Salford, an area of Great Manchester that is incredibly deprived. Workless families are common, with as many as three generations of parents having never worked or had a career. As a senior leader for pupil personal development and CEIAG at Walkden High School, the challenge isn’t simply inspiring these children to choose a career, it’s inspiring them to believe they actually can and will have a career at all, and a future. We’ve set up a discreet group within our school called the ‘Rising Stars’ where we’ve created opportunities in their timetables for these children to spend a little time learning about what comes next after school.

These are disadvantaged pupils, but what does that mean? A disadvantaged pupil isn’t just a child from a low-income household. The majority of low-income families provide aspirational, loving environments in which children thrive. A disadvantaged child is one whose home life is absent of any guidance, aspiration or motivation. Without structures in place at home, there are few foundations to build upon. It’s that real and it’s that sad. That naughty defiant kid, a ‘flyer’ from lessons, tends to have a reason for his or her behaviour.

How to make a difference

I am very keen that our school practices ‘enrichment’. It is an educational model requiring no prior seating plan or specific differentiation. The difference a teacher can add to a young person’s life by sitting down and sharing their opinions about life, lessons and their future can have the profoundest of impacts.

I am also very interested in working with industry to improve the prospects of the young people from our school and I attend lots of employer networking events through the Chamber of Commerce and through Greater Manchester’s career guidance networks. It was at such an event I met Andy Lovatt, the founder of Digital Advantage. Andy has had a long career in digital technology and is very enthusiastic to share his experience with young people. “We needed a more structured approach to schools engagement for digital skills and careers,” he says. “We had the opportunity to build a programme designed with industry, that gave kids of all abilities the opportunity to realise their potential, demonstrate their talent and get a job as a digital apprentice.”

At Walkden High School in autumn 2016 we introduced the Digital Advantage programme to the kids from year 8 through to year 11 who were struggling with the demands of secondary school and certainly not fulfilling their potential.

Raised attendance

We had no idea how transformative the programme would be. The groups of pupils that we got involved with the scheme rarely engage in their lessons and can be very disruptive. But take away their ‘audience’ of pupils, remove the teacher’s pressure to achieve exam results, and these young people started to interact and become involved in sessions.

Digital Advantage enters the school as a pop-up digital agency complete with an agency boss and challenges the group to create a product, a brand and an advertising campaign. The group then reveal their commercial to three real digital agencies in Manchester. The prize is £2,000 for the winning school.

Despite their mixed ages, the group shared their ideas and became more confident. The positive discussions they had impressed me so much that I had to film them to show their subject teachers how much progress had been made. One short-term – and highly measurable – result was that the group started attending school more regularly. In one case, a pupil was attending only 60% of lessons and within two months this increased to 75%. And of course, this rise will benefit exam results, confidence and ultimately, job prospects.

Giving them reasons

We are also working with Salford NHS so our children can use the same medical simulations equipment that health professionals use at NHS training centres; with the aim of inspiring a career in health or care.

We’ve partnered with Lloyds Bank, who have held mentoring sessions and mock interviews to develop employability skills. We explored community projects with the Wildlife Trust to foster a connection with nature and our environment, and we even run daily before-school breakfast clubs to nourish our children with an enthusiastic, loving start to the day served with a brew and a bowl of cereal.

All kids have a talent and this needs to be explored. The way to break the workless families cycle is through plenty of one-on-one attention, shared enrichment and experience. Rising Stars seeks to replicate the very thing that a loving family brings; we’re attempting to fill home-life voids. The standard classroom is an alien environment to kids who are trying to finance themselves. Give them a valid reason why they should work academically and this should breed a valuable generation of entrepreneurs of whom the country can be rightly proud.

4 Ways that real life work scenarios in schools can help break the cycle of underachievement:

1. Students with no positive working role model in their lives are inspired into working by the one-to-one attention from an enthusiastic, ambitious industry professional.

2. Time out of the classroom and away from certain social issues gives students a break from feeling self-conscious and allows them to become confident and creative.

3. The process of developing a product or designing a campaign makes a direct link to students’ lesson choices. How can certain subjects help them get the job they want?

4. Visits to digital agencies show that interesting jobs are accessible. The fun environment and casual dress of an agency can be inspirational. Pupils can imagine a future career!

About the author

Joshua Mangas is senior leader in pupil personal development and CEIAG at Walkden High School, Salford