Transforming lives

A bursary can completely change a disadvantaged young person's life. John Towers, Headmaster of Homefield Preparatory School in Sutton, explains how his school set up a programme to help children in care – and how other schools can do the same.

Photo: Homefield Preparatory School
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Across the independent schools' sector, partnerships with state schools and community organisations are flourishing. The Schools Together website shines a light on this picture with nearly 6,000 vignettes of partnership outcomes sharing transformational impact. Many of the larger schools have formalised and significant partnerships, for example as sponsors of state multi-academy trust schools; elsewhere, even modest sized schools have committed to action and our prep school in South London is such an example.

Back at my school's founding in 1870, we were surrounded by farmland. But as the railways and London grew to embrace us, we grew with our locality. There is more diversity than you may think within the independent sector. In our school, 80% of our families are from ethnic minority backgrounds and with a joyous mix of language, culture, religion and socio-economic experience. Such diversity brings intellectual and social capacity to a community. More than characteristics, such as gender or ethnicity, this diversity usefully manifests in what life experience is brought to the game – how people think and act.

In the 21st century, parents are cogent of the need for cultural capital from a school as well as ‘soft skills’, such as the ability to organise or to collaborate. We need critical thinkers who can benefit from diversity and thrive in a rapidly changing future of work and society. Prospective parents resonate with who we are and how we act, in sharp contrast to outdated private school stereotypes. They are delighted to learn that I do not report to shareholders, but to a board of volunteers from the local community. They are assured that, with our modest surplus, we plan ahead to realise charitable impact: a civic minded school.

With this diversity and purpose in mind, we have invested targeted bursary funding and resources to identify and support some of the most vulnerable children in our locality. Looked After Children (LAC) are those in the care of the Local Authority, who are placed with foster carers, in residential homes or with other relatives. My school – Homefield – partnered with Sutton Local Authority and the 'Virtual School for LAC' to include this vulnerable group within our provision. We collaborated to develop an identification tool and process before enrolling LAC students into our school on full bursaries.

Our goal was to transform the lives of this most vulnerable group of children by raising their attainment using our academic and pastoral resources. Our first LAC student started full time attendance in 2018, our second by 2020. Listening to our partners, we also realised there was a strong case to broaden the offer. So, our first larger groups of LAC students started to attend regular ‘masterclass’ provision in Science, French and Sports. A year in, the foster family of our very first LAC student reported that this initiative had, 'Changed all of our lives for the better… and for good.' Standardised assessments and wider achievement indicators demonstrate that our LAC students' progress is outstanding.

John Towers and Richard Backhouse discuss the transformative effect of bursaries.

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Given our local success we wanted to share our work. The Independent Schools Council helped, providing me with a speaker platform at the Institute of Development Professionals National Conference in London. Within a week we noted nearly 1,000 downloads of our 'Toolkit'; a free resource to demonstrate the process we undertook, how we managed roles and responsibilities, how we started placements and took careful measure of impact. With these children, that have so often had a challenging start to life, you need to get it right. Come September, I’m doing a similar pitch at the Independent Association of Prep Schools Annual Conference, with an update of where we have got to and what we have learnt.

It's a project that has formed strong relationships, between ourselves and the Local Authority, with Cognus who provide school services to the state sector locally, and with Local Councillors. It's helped our students to be part of a more diverse group of learners. It's even helped specific 'soft skills'; for example, our Year 8 boys coached younger visiting students during cricket masterclasses. Our capacity and commitment to bring time, care and bursary support to help the community is something our teachers, parents and boys do rally toward.

Our first boy on the LAC bursary programme, initially, found it hard to maintain eye contact such was his low self-esteem. Yet, within a year, his peers had voted him Form Captain and he had represented us on a sports first team. When he came to collect an achievement award from my office he didn’t just look me in the eye, he also engaged me with a wry smile and a conversation around life's journey. Just that one outcome made all the effort worthwhile and yet this work continues to give as it scales up.

Good school leaders know that 'open doors' alone are not enough to provide impactful charitable outcomes. You need to apply initiative, empathy for community, and get out there to make it happen. In the education sector this powerful sense of immediacy often gets good things done. What a great vista for these vulnerable young people.

More information about Homefield's work with Looked After Children – and their free toolkit for other schools to consider – can be found on the Independent Schools Council's 'Schools Together' website – https://www.schoolstogether.org/case-studies/looked-after-children/

John Towers Photo

John Towers is the Headmaster of Homefield Preparatory School in Sutton.

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