Community Heartbeat

Posted on March 25, 2017


Upon becoming Headteacher at Canons two and a half years ago, I set out to bring together the disparate views of various people involved in the work of  our school into a medium-term vision for the road ahead. I won’t go into too many of the details here, but it involved conversations with governors, staff, students, families and community partners and became an almost two year process in terms of producing a final statement of vision, goals and principles. 

But the main thing that I realised along the way was that constructing, or rather, coordinating, a vision statement is a continual process that stretches far into the past of an organisation and far into its future whilst, at the same time, being an iteratively present-tense activity. It reminds me of the time that my RE teacher told me the Jahweh, from which we get the name Jehovah, simultaneously meant ‘I was’, ‘I am’ and ‘I will be’. How true that is, I’m not sure, but I certainly remember having one of those head-bending moments that sometimes come when one is learning something new and complex. 

There was one aspect of the vision creation/elaboration process that came easily, quickly and from all those with whom I spoke: the twin concepts of ‘community’ and ‘love’. And so, very soon into the ongoing process, we changed the rather prosaic slogan we used on our letterheads and other school literature from ‘A High Performing School Specialising in Science’ to the hopefully more poetic ‘A Great School at the Heart of Our Community’. By the time we made it to the end/beginning of the vision forming/reflecting process that has morphed into the more yin/yang, reflexive slogan ‘At the Heart of Our Community, with Community at Our Heart’. 

This phrase captured a lot about what we care most about as educators at Canons, but also reflected a lot about what we felt we weren’t getting right. We had good relationships with local schools, with families, with neighbours, with local employers and with other societal agents, but the bulk of our school improvement work had been largely that, improvements within the walls and gates of the school itself. Rightly so, but with a tendency to be exclusively so when push came to shove. 

But we were very aware that the landscape was changing around us, and quite radically and startlingly so. Five years of austerity at a national level had already had notable impacts at a local level, not so much for schools (although Canons had seen a couple of years of the salami slicing of our per pupil funding – ‘protected’ by 1.5% minimum funding guarantee each year) but definitely so for local government, for social care and for the police amongst others. More importantly, we could see that this austerity agenda was set to continue for at least another five years or more with the supposedly diverse political parties all saying pretty much the same thing in their manifestos for the 2015 General Election. And, of course, it’s the cuts upon cuts that go the deepest and scar the most: today, as is apparent from daily media reports, health and education have joined the ranks of those cut almost to the bone, regardless of the ‘increased overall spending’ mantra of ministers. 

At about the same time as we adopted the “heart of our community” wording, a time when I was considering my own role in going further as the figure-Head of the school, I came across the 2015 London Poverty Profile (see it here). It was shocking to see just how far the first five years of budget cuts had already impacted. Here are a few of the takeaways that I had from reading it. 

1. Poverty rates for children in outer London (Canons is based in Harrow on the very outskirts of London) is on the increase. 

2. Poverty amongst families with those in work has been increasing massively. 

3. The number of children living in temporary accommodation is on a significantly upwards trend. 

4. Temporary, and therefore, highly insecure work is on the increase too, as is the proportion of those who are involuntarily in temporary work. 

5. Low income jobs have also massively increased for all sectors of the working population. 

6. Harrow has a greater proportion of low income jobs than any of the other London boroughs (that was a real surprise). 

7. Almost as many families in London have been affected by the benefit cap (courtesy of housing benefit for exorbitant rents which go to landlords, not tenants) as have been affected in the whole of the rest of the country. 

8. Even in the face of all these challenges, the FSM achievement gap has been shrinking in outer London. Appallingly, the David Cameron’s government made educational achievement one of the new indicators of poverty, alongside overall employment rates (not including underemployment of course) rather than median income. 

There were many other points that I made about the findings of this report to my leadership team and governors, but a key overall message was ‘how long can we stand by and watch this without seeing the educational outcomes for our students decline?’  I also stressed to these groups the importance of thinking about our staff, as well as our students and families, when considering certain of these indicators, such as the rapid increases in the cost of buying and renting properties in London. 

At the same time I became aware of a general issue and a specific one that demonstrated that there was much more to this discussion of poverty (and its impact upon our school) than statistics. The general one was that, having filled all places in our school for the first time in living memory thanks to our recent successes, we started to see significant pupil mobility that nobody had predicted. Families didn’t return their children to us after the summer break in startlingly large numbers and, upon inquiry, we began hearing stories of relocation because of sudden rent hikes that made hard-working families unable to pay their new rents and out of work families become in breach of the benefit cap. 

The specific issue was from one such out of work family with a large number of children. They had spent a year in emergency accommodation many miles away but had been told to leave that and relocate to a permanent residence in Birmingham. The children in our school at the time were in Y13, Y11 and Y7 and the consequences for their education (especially for the older children)would have been catastrophic. Upon refusing the house they were declared ‘intentionally homeless’ and were fending off social services and a possible care order for the children whilst trying desperately to find a rental property that stayed within the newly reduced cap. That the mother had a dead child buried nearby seemed to carry little or no weight. Eventually, and with as much support as we could give them, they found a place at the eleventh hour and they remained at Canons (with both older children making it to the next phase of education), but I have no doubt that they will be a part of an overcrowding statistic on the 2017 London Poverty Index report. 

We had to do something for our families, but we also had to ensure that we didn’t try to mirror (at a hopelessly inadequate scale) the work of social services, housing, charities or any other agency. Instead we created the Canons’ Community Heartbeat Initiative (CHI), an educational programme with an extended services dimension. 

The initiative aims to utilise our income from lettings to offer provision above and beyond curriculum time, to utilise small amounts of our reserves as a way of leveraging matched funding for joint bids for community-embracing programmes, to inspire teams within the school to identify things that they can do that nurture our school community both within the confines of our walls and gates but, crucially, beyond them, and to remind us all that the interface between the school and the community needs all of our focus for the benefit of both the community and the school. 

In the middle of the last academic year, the CHI programme was established and a Director of Community Heartbeat appointed from amongst our staff (that the two final interviewees had more than sixty years experience at the school between them says it all about how deeply this idea resonated with colleagues). One of my colleagues on the Media Resources team created the logo below, the Director was assigned to our newly created Community & Partnerships Team within SLT and we began planning for where the programme would go. 

This year we have begun (only begun but, as the saying goes, the thousand-mile journey begins with a single step) to make CHI a reality. Today (Saturday) I watched our Cricket Academy children – from Y4s to Y8s and so cutting across the primary/secondary divide – having a whale of a time in their logoed t-shirts: many of them will again be taking part in the ‘camp’ it runs every school holiday. On Monday after school I saw our kids on their second term of Karate which is absolutely free to them because on Tuesday evenings the instructors run an adult session that enables them to do the pro bono work that keeps our kids busy and learning whilst many of their parents are still working. On Tuesday morning I said hello to the many women and one man who come to our weekly English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) class, which is absolutely free for them and shows to their children and neighbours what lifelong learning looks like, as it takes place in our conference room at the heart of the school. Then on Friday I heard that our latest endeavour, hosting Citizens’ Advice Bureau sessions between 4pm and 6pm, is about to commence so that we can help families access vital support and information in these challenging times. 

As well as these specific activities put into place by the Director of Community Heartbeat (who is incredibly self-critical and determined to do more, but understands the importance of sustainability in this area), the very existence of a Community Heartbeat Initiative is having lots of positive unintended consequences. Our library is now open during the holidays, not for interventions but just as a quiet place for revision for children who may have hectic homes, working parents and who simply want to spend time with their friends off the street. We have a ‘Community Slice’ student voice group of students who are neither selected by staff or their peers, but who are chosen randomly to accurately reflect the demographics of the school and wear our CHI logo proudly as they tell us what more we could do in this area. We have an Assistant Head for Community who is the Virtual Line Manager for Y6 and who has done amazing work in getting students from primaries into our school on an almost weekly basis, but who also coordinates our teachers going to those schools on a similarly routine basis. I could go on, but I am already straining courtesy with the length of this post: a reflection of my pride as much as my verbosity. 

There is much more to do for our community. Just as importantly there is much more to do for our students in working with our community. I’m hoping to work with a colleague to establish a KS4 enrichment course with a community and citizenship dimension that will benefit them educationally whilst also helping them become engaged with the small p politics that dictate their worlds. Until then, my unique contribution to the CHI programme has included lobbying our local MP (soon I’m hoping to introduce him to our Student Government), becoming a trustee for the Education Support Partnership (a kind of CHI for colleagues), joining the Improvement Board for our Virtual School (which has responsibility for all looked after children from Harrow) and, perhaps, in stimulating your curiosity by writing this blogpost (we would welcome anyone who wants to visit us and find out more – the CHI programme is something we would love to see ethically franchised). 

Like our Director of Community Heartbeat, I am impatient to see this programme get bigger and more influential for the lives of the people in our community. As a child who is proud to come from a one-parent family, who grew up with the advantage of a strong welfare state (but during the 80s when the assault upon its foundations began) and made it as the first of my family through university into this world of advantage, the stakes are too high to stand by and watch others not having that same opportunity. But more than my own imperative, our Community Heartbeat Initiative came from the history of Canons, the context of our work today and, crucially, from the hopes and dreams of all those who participated in our discussions about the vision for the school for the future. I’d always been wary of ‘vision’. I’m not any more. 

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