As part of their Foundation Fund initiative, our founders, the St John’s Foundation launched a three year programme aimed at providing children across seven primary schools additional support with reading, writing, maths and oracy, as well as emotional and behavioural support.
Now two years in, they are sharing the impact of the programme and how the children, schools, families and communities involved have been empowered by their work. Read on to find out more.
Academic attainment levels have, historically, been lower among children from under-served backgrounds for a variety of complex reasons. The gap between the highest and lowest achieving pupils has been exacerbated over recent years by the pandemic, and schools have faced a challenging task to narrow this disparity back down to pre-COVID levels. The impact of the cost-of-living crisis on families has further deepened the complexity of this challenge.
Before the pandemic struck, in February 2020, St John’s Foundation launched an ambitious ten-year strategy and pledge to support under-served children through interventions within our Foundation Fund. The specific aim of our fund is to narrow the attainment gap for Key Stage 2 children living in Bath and North East Somerset (BaNES) through a broad range of initiatives. This crucial work will best support children aged 0 to 12 and level out the opportunities for them to thrive.
As part of this strategy, St John’s set in motion a three-year Primary Empowerment Programme (PEP). The programme provides additional support with reading, writing, mathematics and oracy as well as emotional and behavioural support to seven primary schools in BaNES which, together, teach 40% of the region’s most under-served children. Close collaboration with the respective head teachers has helped to shape the programme and direct its focus to where the support would be most beneficial to each school.
Impact: the first two years
At the end of the 2022/23 school year, the PEP completed its second year and initial data indicates a clear movement towards more children meeting expected academic levels for their year group. However, the initiative is not just about hard figures. The wide range of support offered is making a tangible difference to many pupils’ self-confidence and wellbeing, along with the knock-on effects this has on their teachers, school communities and parents.
For example, one strand of support is to fund Free School Meals for non-eligible children in these schools to ensure all pupils have access to nutritious food. With proven links between nutritious food and academic achievement this, in turn, benefits children’s brain development and their ability to concentrate and learn. As well as supporting children’s academic achievements, these measures impact the wider class and teachers, by reducing disruptive behaviour caused by hunger. The initiative also provides support to parents who are struggling to feed their families in these economically challenging times by supporting their financial and mental wellbeing.
Most powerfully, the anecdotal evidence so far has been overwhelmingly positive and far-reaching. Feedback from head teachers often focuses on the difficulty of quantifying the impact of the PEP’s various support streams, as it continues to be so wide-ranging.
One head teacher says that the PEP “has enabled our school to proactively support our children in ways which we would have only been able to dream about without this funding”, adding: “Children now read more books than two years ago and in KS2 they read on average for seven minutes longer each day. They become fluent readers earlier, are proud of their reading and love talking about it. I also feel that the broad range of consultation and training has helped us to move forward and recover much quicker following the pandemic.”
Behavioural and emotional support
One key focus has been around behavioural and emotional support. In the wake of multiple lockdowns, the additional need for help in relation to social emotional and mental health (SEMH), particularly for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) has been overwhelming for many schools, with long waiting lists to receive any support.
As part of the programme, the schools are receiving training, guidance and support from specialists at Brighter Futures to improve learning and wellbeing outcomes for these children and equip the teachers with the tools they need to provide ongoing support. This has in many cases changed schools’ approaches and culture in this area, with positive outcomes such as reduced numbers of suspensions.
Primary Empowerment schools are receiving a range of targeted support around reading, writing and maths provision. This is often in the form of additional staff including a dedicated Reading Teaching Assistant so that children can be heard reading regularly, and resources for one-on-one phonics tutoring. Funds to buy more high-quality books have also facilitated more reading at home. Reporting on progress after the second year of the PEP, head teachers and parents have referred to their children’s improved confidence in reading and this leading to increased willingness to read at home with their parents.
Much of the support provided to PEP schools is through additional resources and training for teachers, helping their professional development but also equipping them with the skills and strategies that will best support their pupils to thrive.
The final year
As the Primary Empowerment Programme enters its final academic year, 2023/24, there continue to be many lessons learned by St John’s, our delivery partners and the schools involved. Outcomes of the programme, both statistical and anecdotal, are being continually gathered to keep the support targeted and relevant. By July 2024 the seven schools will have received invaluable resources to support them in navigating this challenging post-pandemic period and which can be used to continue providing their children with the best opportunities.
There is no simple solution to level up the playing field, but as we move forward in our ten-year strategy, the evidence suggests that the PEP will continue to demonstrate a positive impact over its final year, with progress achieved in a holistic way. The results and lessons learned will inform the nature of future funding initiatives and support, as well as how these schools choose to continue their journey.