Last week, it was great to see one Cabinet Minister getting out of the 'conference zone'. Justine Greening might be Secretary of State for International Development but while in Birmingham, she took the opportunity to find out what's going on closer to home with a visit to a school in one of the most deprived parts of the city.
Statistically the odds are stacked against pupils attending Holte Secondary School in Lozells. The area is the first point of settlement for many economic migrants, refugees and displaced people and successful families tend to move out, leaving the most vulnerable behind. 65 per cent of pupils are eligible for the pupil premium, nearly 90 per cent don't have English as their first language and there's a high proportion of pupils with special educational needs. Over 90 per cent of parents have no experience of further or higher education.
Given the school's catchment, the impact Holte has on its pupils is crucial to their life chances. Only last month, the Office for National Statistics found that educational attainment is the most important factor in explaining poverty in the UK. But fortunately for children growing up in Lozells, this is no tale of sink school failure: Holte is leading the way in enabling pupils to succeed, irrespective of their backgrounds and home circumstances. Ofsted has praised its high and still rising educational and personal development standards and rated it Outstanding. Pat Walters, Head Teacher, explains: "we have a strong culture of achievement. Every child is supported to develop academically and socially, to make the best of themselves".
Pat is an exceptional Head, (named Head Teacher of the Year at the TES School Awards 2013), with a remarkable staff team and she's also tapping into a new and unique source of extra support: the talent, energy and idealism of local young people in Birmingham who've volunteered to go back to school, full-time, Monday-Thursday, for a year.
Last September, ten trailblazing young people from diverse backgrounds teamed up to make a difference at Holte School and its adjacent primary, Lozells School. Serving as 'near peer' role models, mentors and tutors, the 18-25 year olds, known as City Year UK corps members, were uniquely well-placed to build meaningful connections with students, break-down varied barriers to learning and build confidence. Together, they gave over 13,500 hours and made a measurable impact. 77 per cent of pupils targeted by the volunteers for poor behaviour received fewer warnings, while focused interventions also helped improve attainment. Pupils from Years 5 and 6 who received daily corps member support because of additional needs all progressed, with 85 per cent of marks improving faster than the national expected rate of progress. As of this September, a new City Year UK team of 13 young people is following in their footsteps.
But why do they volunteer? Firstly, far from the celebrity-obsessed stereotype, the young people who give a year are more likely to be inspired by Ghandi! They want "to be the change... [they] wish to see in the world". And, they also recognise that volunteering will stand them in good stead. City Year UK's volunteers develop personal and professional skills and experience which employers are looking for.
Justine Greening met Nadhja and Nick who are both serving on this year's City Year UK team at Holte and Lozells Schools. During work experience at another school, Nadhja, 18, discovered a passion for supporting vulnerable pupils but also wants to build her own confidence, gain experience of new situations and learn to speak in front of groups of people. Nick has lived with Cerebral Palsy all his life and is no stranger to a challenge. With the help of his family, friends and a good old dose of Botox, Nick was able to go from being wheelchair bound from a very young age to walking completely unaided, shattering people's perceptions of him. His drive to succeed and overcome barriers is what inspired him to join City Year UK. He believes that no matter the obstacles people face, they always have the power, drive and talent to achieve anything, especially children.
Born in Rotherham and growing up the daughter of a steel worker who was made redundant, Justine Greening knows something about overcoming obstacles herself. Her message to corps members and pupils was to "be all that you can be" and "to believe that you can achieve anything, don't ever think you can't". She feels strongly that all people in this country should have the opportunity to climb as high as the next person, regardless of where they've come from. We hope that her visit to Holte showed her how, even in the very toughest parts of the country, inspirational teachers and young volunteers are tirelessly putting in place the rungs which will support and inspire the next generation to do just that.