Case study: Overcoming coastal challenges

Written by: Dorothy Lepkowska | Published:
Coastal challenges: Clacton-on-Sea in Essex. The difficulties facing schools in isolated and deprived coastal communities has been well documented (Photo: iStock)

The challenges facing isolated and coastal schools are well known. A range of initiatives at Clacton Coastal Academy is helping its pupils to overcome the odds. Dorothy Lepkowska reports

Coastal towns have become the new inner cities when it comes to concerns over academic standards. While Britain’s sprawling urban areas were once centres of underachievement, the focus has shifted to some of the nation’s isolated and disadvantaged coastal areas.

But some coastal schools are bucking the trend, despite the many challenges and difficulties that come with living and working in a socially deprived area.

At Clacton Coastal Academy in Essex, more than half of students are now regularly achieving five or more A* to C grades at GCSE, including English and mathematics – this in a school where most pupils begin year 7 with below average attainment. The pupils come, mainly, from White working class backgrounds, the group now most likely to be underachieving nationally.

Tracy Hemming, the principal of Clacton Coastal Academy, said the school served a “classic seaside town”, with areas of entrenched and extremely high social deprivation, unemployment and a transient population.

“In any one academic year we can expect a quarter of pupils to have come or gone, with many children moving house because of family break-up,” she said.

“Some people come here because they are rehoused from London, and housing is cheaper than in the South East generally.”

More than half – 52 per cent – of pupils are eligible for Pupil Premium funding, which adds around £600,000 a year to the school’s budget.

So how does the school continue to make such progress, seemingly under the most challenging conditions? Targeting funding is a must, Ms Hemming said.

The use of graduates

“Ideally you are not supposed to use Pupil Premium to recruit staff because it is time-limited but we have targeted some of that funding on what we believe are the issues students are facing,” she said. “So we have employed graduates to do small group work.

“Many children go home to parents who support them with homework and sit down over dinner and have a conversation. Sadly, this doesn’t happen in many of our pupils’ homes, so we have to create those conversations.”

The eight graduates are known as “raising achievement coaches”. They are not qualified teachers but work in a different capacity in small groups with students. They all have degree in the subject they are working with so are subject specialists.

“When they start with us they haven’t necessarily shown any intention of going into teaching ultimately but, so far, eight out of 10 have gone on to train as teachers,” Ms Hemming explained.

“They talk to the students and diagnose where they are going wrong and work with them to narrow whatever gaps in their knowledge they might have. They offer a social capacity that our students don’t have otherwise.”

The coaches support students in English, maths and science in particular, and this is a real bonus to the school at a time of acute teacher shortages in these areas.

“In effect, we are ‘growing our own’ teachers,” Ms Hemming added. “We have to do this out of necessity, and the students are carefully targeted into groups of those who would benefit most from this approach.”

Getting them to school

Behaviour and attendance is also closely monitored at Clacton. Part of the Pupil Premium funding pays for a pick-up service for students who might not turn up to school in the morning, or whose family responsibilities, such as looking after siblings or a sick parent, make them late.

In some cases, the family situation is such that education is not valued, or there is no urgency on the part of parents to get their children up for school. For these children, Pupil Premium money pays for fuel and a driver who will round-up absentees and late-comers and ensure they make it to lessons.

Ms Hemming said: “We have staff who are trained as attendance officers who check the pupils are in school, and support them when they’re here. This then has a direct impact on their achievement because they are already in school and the students realise that achievement becomes easier when they are actually here.

“We point out to them how much progress they are making as a result of being in school and that is self-perpetuating and encourages attendance.”

Prefect system

Pupil Premium funding has also been used to purchase shirts for prefects that are a different colour to the normal school uniform. The prefects form an important part of the pastoral care system at the school, looking out for trouble-spots and providing a vital port of call to pupils who have a concern or problem. The waiting list to become a prefect demonstrates the respect and impact they have as role models around the school, Ms Hemming added.

Broadening horizons

Broadening pupils’ horizons has also gone some way to helping to improve achievement at Clacton Coastal Academy. The school ensures that every child goes on a residential course at some point, because many never leave the area.

“There is some trepidation about going too far afield, so we try to broaden their horizons so they see there is a whole world out there,” Ms Hemming said. About half of the sixth formers go to university, due in no small part to visits organised to Oxford, London and Essex universities to raise aspirations – usually these children are the first in their families to do so.

Every year, the school organises a conference for the students aiming to get A* grades in their examinations. The “stretch and challenge” day includes preparation for employment workshops and working with technology. Many children do not have computers or internet access at home, so the school has to provide this for them.

Parents

The school also works hard getting parents on board so that they can support the school’s efforts with their children. Research on coastal academies by Dr Tanya Ovenden-Hope, from Plymouth University, found a common feature of coastal schools was a lack of parental engagement, usually as a result of a poor school experience themselves.

Clacton Coastal Academy organises workshops, on issues such as anti-bullying, to encourage parents into school, and they receive loyalty points on a card for attending school events and parents’ evenings. Once they have collected enough points they are treated to a family meal out. As a result, there is now more of an expectation by parents that their children will achieve, which is a mind-set change that has come about in recent years.

Clacton’s pupils are not unambitious. Many have dreams to go to university and have professional jobs, but schools need more help to support them, Ms Hemming said.

She continued: “Pupil Premium funding is one of the most effective funding streams that we have had in my time in education because it targets those who need it. But the reality is that, with the exception of this, not much else is being done to help schools such as ours.

“We agree with the need to raise standards but the emphasis on EBacc subjects does not suit all of our students and nor does a one-size-fits-all curriculum.

“Students wanting to pursue a vocational route have nowhere to go locally. The nearest college is Colchester and that’s going to cost them up to £600 a year in travel. It isn’t easy trying to increase engagement and participation in learning in these circumstances.”

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education writer.


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