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Highlees Primary: where every child really does matter


Dr. Sue Robinson

Working with vulnerable families at Highlees Primary School helps to ensure high standards of education and well being for children. In May 2015 this was recognised by Ofsted:

‘The academy provides outstanding support for pupils whose circumstances make them vulnerable. It works very closely with their families and with other agencies, and has excellent procedures for making sure that pupils are protected.’

Before the visionary Emma Ward joined as Principal in May 2012 Highlees had many interim headteachers and was placed into Special Measures the following October. In September 2013 it joined the Elliot Foundation.

Emma and her team faced a massive task to improve the school. The number of challenges to be faced would have daunted many prospective heads. Fortunately not Emma, and she set about making improvements towards ensuring Highlees is the successful school it is today.

In this case study, Dr Sue Robinson talked to Emma about what drives her approach and about some of the initiatives she has implemented to safeguard and support her school and community.

Getting to know families and their needs Emma and her team have always believed it was important to reach out to families ‘which are all vulnerable in one way or another.’ They are tenacious in doing all they can to get to make contact.

‘It takes a while for people to speak to you. They stand and look at you on the playground first and maybe 6 months after you keep saying ‘hello’ and talking to them, they come up to you. I have seen Jo run across the playground after someone she needed to speak to and so yes, we are tenacious. We will turn up at someone’s door.’

She stressed the importance of ‘getting the parents to trust you’, making good relationships and how ‘you have to treat different families differently according to their needs’.

‘We’ve always said that we want our children to be safe, happy and secure and another mantra is open, honest and transparent… Language and values are important and we use these mantras with our parents and say we will be open, honest and transparent with you if you are open, honest and transparent with us. If a parent has a problem say, with attendance, and I don’t know about it then they will get a letter from me. If a parent says we are having this or that difficulty then I will ask, what can we do to support you?’

Challenging behaviour from parents is something many schools and staff in England have to manage. Emma tries to understand what might provoke it and has strategies to combat aggression.

‘Many of our parent’s experience of schools is horrendous and they can transfer that, such as the bullying they suffered or a teacher who left a nasty mark on them, to us. The behaviour is the bit you see but you have no idea what is going on underneath.

Emma is trying to break the cycle of negativity and ‘facilitate hope’

‘There is no such thing as a naughty child in our view. They are empty vessels and get filled up. If a child is in a home where there is domestic violence, the mum is on anti depressants and is terrified to go outside and she is just surviving, is she going to be able to offer her child the best start? Is she going to make sure they get to school, is she going to remember to smile at her child that morning or tell them that she loves them? Probably not in her state and so aren’t we obliged to do something as human beings? Isn’t it just about love thy neighbour?’

There is a degree of tough love in the school’s approach and Emma is also keen to point out that ‘we aren’t soft and hold our parents to account and we will tell them they are wrong and shouldn’t be doing that.’

‘If a parent hits a child it’s child protection. We make sure we do everything we can to support a parent but we might still have to pass it on’

‘During SATs week we wanted to ensure that children were on time and had a breakfast and so were in the right frame of mind. We went and knocked on doors to get them in and in one case the parent just pushed their child out and wouldn’t speak to us.’

What changes has Emma seen in the attitudes of parents to school?

There are many examples of improved attitudes including this example

‘We had one parent who used to come in and swear at me and other staff. We had a milestone last week when she came in and asked for my help over something about child protection’

The team at Highlees is ‘still busy establishing trust’ but they have nevertheless also gone a long way to establishing relationships and parental engagement.

What activities have successfully engaged parents?

Emma recognises that schools ‘receive children for 25% of the day on average’ and that it is important to recognise that parents also play a big part in their children’s education outside school. A difficulty for her parents is that even for those who wish to help educate their child ‘they don’t because they can’t.’ How has the school sought to help these parents?

Bingo ‘Our parents love bingo. Jo makes a big song and dance about it and we make it fun and low key. We find things to get them in. That is what it’s all about establishing trust and to make them feel they can come over the threshold.’

Using the hub for supporting parents

‘The hub started in September 2014 because the Children’s Centre shut. The Children’s Centre was often empty and Jo and I found it frustrating. A lot of what was offered was ‘done to’ the parents and of course parents couldn’t access it if the children were over 5 years of age. In some cases Children’s Centres encouraged dependency and parents weren’t made to be accountable. They could say ‘they’re telling me to do this’. We are about putting stabilisers on for parents to support and help them initially but then expect them to carry on themselves.’

The hub now offers parents family values and parenting courses but Emma and Jo strive to make sure that it isn’t ‘like going back to school to be told how to be a parent’. Ways they support parents is by engaging with other organisations.

‘ASDA come in and we have a fantastic link with them. They cook with the children and the parent comes in. We stealthily add in family values to those sessions but it has to be implicit rather than explicit.’

‘We have been trying to get someone here for mental health, we have people from women’s aid in the hub. We are about to start self-defence classes for our mums and we have a food bank here. To subsidise the foodbank we have created care packages based on donations from friends of the school’

‘We also have a ‘new to you’ initiative. This is a way of getting clothes and uniform, etc for people who need them. One child wasn’t going swimming because they hadn’t got trunks, so we provided them.’

Homework club is another way. If you bring your child to the club and stay with them we will feed you. It’s only beans on toast but it helps them and it helps to improve their child’s learning. It’s an easy cost decision to make.

Schools are on the front line. They are dealing with the issues every day and the impact this has on children. Financial cutbacks have impacted on the services provided to families by local authorities. This impacts on the school’s budget.

‘We are investing a phenomenal amount of money. Are we doing this because there has been a cut in services? Yes! There’s nothing there anymore, there’s no one for me to call on so we have to do it for ourselves.’

For parents to support the school they have to understand what the school does

Induction into school life is an important process for children and parents.

‘A new child arrives and they meet with our mentor and they receive support to complete the paperwork as a lot of our families regardless of ethnicity can’t access the paperwork. We signpost them to GPs, to housing and so on. They then get a tour of the school.’

‘This year we are introducing a return meeting 2 weeks later because at first parents don’t know what they don’t know. Families get an opportunity to ask questions at the second visit they hadn’t thought of previously or as a result of their child being in school. Our EAL mentor always does that as she is the right face and understands how to handle the parents. If she gets an inkling of any issues or concerns it is flagged up to the safeguarding lead.’

Protecting and safeguarding children

Highlees has very high deprivation factors and pupil mobility, which have contributed to a high volume of safeguarding issues. The school’s rigorous approach to safeguarding has seen the introduction of the Vulnerable Pupil Panel.

The school has created a coordinated approach to safeguarding. In addition to the Principal, the panel includes the Vice Principal who is a recognised expert on safeguarding children and the Special Needs and Attendance and Behaviour Leaders.

‘Teachers complete paperwork and attend the meeting to look at what we need to put into place and we decide on whether it’s a home visit or safeguarding procedures and can direct resources and support.

‘As principal I am able to act quickly if I believe an agency or service is not providing the agreed action to support. We are willing to risk upsetting a parent by a home visit they don’t think is necessary than finding we’ve missed a vulnerable child.’

Safeguarding doesn’t finish when the summer holidays start

While Highlees provides safeguarding weeks every term such as anti bullying and e.safety they are also aware that their responsibility to their children and families doesn’t end with the school term as many of their children will be at home alone during the holidays.

‘We are running workshops about how they keep themselves safe in the summer. Things like how to use a kettle safely and what to do to keep themselves safe in the park. Asking the children, someone knocks on your door so what do you do? How do you make yourself a healthy dinner? We aim to help children assess risk confidently

A relentless focus…

Emma Ward and her team have created a real climate of trust and partnership for learning at Highlees and she is relentless in ensuring she doesn’t take them or the community for granted

‘We never sit and think ‘we’ve cracked it’. We are always looking at different ways to improve what we do.’ [Asking] Am I offering the very best for our children and families? Are we bringing out the best in our children? If doing that means we have to do more, reach further for our families then as challenging, difficult and emotional as that may be, it’s worth every penny and all the effort.’

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