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Once upon a time in Manchester [interview]

John Rowlands and Patsy Hodson

Manchester Communication Academy has been designed to improve outcomes for children, families and community groups in North Manchester. John Rowlands, principal at Manchester Communication Academy, believes in every child’s right to an equitable education. He places staff and student wellbeing at the heart of strategic decision-making. Patsy Hodson is the corporate service director for social investment, and is committed to mitigating the impact of disadvantage so that students and their families can have a fair chance in life.

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Images courtesy of interviewees. // Performing Arts at MCA. Images courtesy of interviewees. // Performing Arts at MCA.

After their big win at the 2017 TES Awards, we wanted to discover just how Manchester Communication Academy (MCA) capitalises on the city’s rich culture and history. We sat down with principal John Rowlands to find out more, and were soon joined by vice principal extraordinaire Patsy Hodson!

How do you go about championing British Values, a “vital” area for the school, at MCA?

John: British Values are indeed vital to the mission of MCA. The principles of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance for those of different faiths and beliefs are integral to the life of the academy. These are not only included in the academic curriculum, but inform relationships between students and staff. They are the basis of inter-staff cooperation; underlie home-school interaction and community participation; and are always salient in the formation of academy policy and procedures. We seek to instill a critical mindset in all our pupils, which will enable them to become resilient citizens in an ever-changing, complex environment.

John Rowlands

Pupils at MCA are given the opportunity to engage in local and national political life, helping them to understand the institutions that allow our democracy to flourish, and providing a stable space in which to debate differences in a safe setting.

We have a huge focus on the acceptance of diversity. 46 languages are spoken by our students, but we foster a culture that this is all one community. We celebrate the heritage of our students, and enable them to discuss and present about their lives in other countries, whilst helping them to buy into our community here in Manchester. We see it by the way we foster relationships between the students. It’s a very diverse population, but our learners are integrated well. We don’t go overboard with what we see as the nonsense British Values Board, saying “we’ve got to be this, and we’ve got to be that”. We foster, within our microcosm, the values that should be inherent in any successful community.

Learning outdoors

Our pupil population is over 60% ethnic minority, and we shape our curriculum, support and opportunities to enable everyone to be included. This works out really well for us!

And how would you say that MCA goes about incorporating what one might call ‘Manchester Values’ into the school?

John: The youth of Manchester is the heartbeat of the city. At MCA we celebrate our diversity as the people of Manchester do. We are united in reaching our goals and striving to move the city forwards. In a city that boasts creativity through our musicians, engineers, activists, sportspeople, poets and inventors, it is our responsibility at MCA to develop future leaders. Our students surpass expectations on a daily basis through a strong work ethic that is shared throughout the city. We’ve got good links with people like local councillors and MPs - we invite them into the school to talk with students. We’re right on a main road here, and thanks to these arterial roots we can take students into the city. It is essential that students find it easy to travel around the city and explore all it has to offer. Our area, Harpurhey, is one of the 1% most deprived areas of the UK, so we try to expose our children to as many opportunities as we possibly can in order to expose them to new learning experiences.

Holiday clubs

It’s about giving them the opportunities to get involved. We recently ran a trip to Belgium and France, for example. We take children on residential trips to the Lake District for team-building exercises, and all of this is provided free-of-charge through the pupil premium fund.

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We must ensure that students feel they belong in Manchester, which is essential when you embrace and serve such a multicultural community. Our students are the future of this city, and we need to ensure that they can become fully active, working residents within it. They want to grow up and thrive in a city that supports them to become the best that they can be. We must ensure they realise that working hard - sometimes in challenging circumstances - will support them in shaping the future Manchester. There are so many different careers and jobs to choose from - including the scientific, digital and creative industries.

Little steps to big futures

The curriculum at MCA must support opportunities for students to develop a wide range of skills that prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow - jobs that currently do not exist. We have a clear focus on Computing and technology due to BT being our sponsor. We have excellent staffing that supports students in coding, programming and training in cybersecurity, as well as exposing students to CAD/CAM technology and 3D printing from Year 7.

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The parental / carer engagement at MCA looks magnificent - tell us more about this.

John: We want to engage with our parents as much as possible. Social media and newsletters are great at supporting communication, but we realise that parents are the experts on their children, and we seek their advice on how we can support them. Almost 70% of our students are classed under pupil premium, and it is incumbent on us to ensure that all opportunities are equitable.

Part of this is through poverty-proofing everything that we do. We give our students free uniforms, and we provide many free enrichment activities from museum visits, theatre trips and Duke of Edinburgh courses. Far too many to mention, but these serve to expose students to a vast array of opportunities that can inspire them in their future. We also give them free cookery ingredients every week. For that specific example, we typically use ASDA Smart Price ingredients, which the students can then use themselves at home. Plus, there’s an ASDA just up the road from us, so the students might then find these ingredients in the cupboard at home and make their family meal. We see this as an essential life skill, and cookery is one of the most popular lessons at MCA.

An MCA cookery lesson in flow

All students have their own progress leader, and we encourage frequent yet informal communication to ensure we can provide the support that is required. As such, we can be responsive to particular home situations that may present barriers to a child’s learning.

A part of this is the family support group - they do a range of things, from food parcels that can go to different families, to a Christmas toy appeal that we run for our community. We ensure that this vision informs everything we do. Across all of these individuals who are involved, we have different projects under the banner of ‘Here And Now’. It’s about what we can do, not just for the parents of pupils here, but for the local community as a whole.

For example, we have a forest school initiative which engages 14 local Primary schools, and is all about getting pupils outdoors. We have a summer school programme that our staff run. Again, it’s not about just our pupils - it’s run during every break that we have, with local children visiting to use our facilities for structured play and organised activity.

Holiday clubs for the community

We try to have a multi-agency approach to the work that we do. For example, we have in-house health practitioners, so if a child is unable to attend due to illness, we encourage them to come in. These trained professionals assess the situation and give the child the care that they need if they can’t get into the local GP. We do as much as we can to make things as easy as possible for our parents, especially as so many of them are facing such challenging circumstances. Ultimately, we need to work together with parents to ensure that their children are happy, safe and successful in school but also experience far reaching opportunities that inspire them to make a vital contribution in the future both within the city and beyond.

Patsy: MCA also has a huge lettings programme, and lots of local organisations use our facilities. We have 1,600 - 2,000 external users every week, and many of those are members of our parent body. We actually ask parents to help us specifically on pastoral issues - in disadvantaged areas, students can often have lots of different social and pastoral issues that are generated outside of the school. These can centre around poverty, unemployment, crime, health issues, environmental issues… We’ve got lots of statistical data that tell us what issues our children are facing, too. We thought that, given how the parents are our local experts, we should get their thoughts on what could be done to tackle the issues faced by students. If a specific child’s issues begin to affect them - be it related to attendance, behaviour or health - we’ll ask parents to come in. We then co-construct a pastoral plan that sits alongside our academic one. Instead of bringing parents in to say “Your child’s not doing this, not doing that”, we bring them in on a completely different basis. We invite them in to spend a lot of time discussing the child’s personal story, so that we know what personal interventions are available for each pupil here.

Pupil wellbeing sounds very much taken care of at MCA. How is this ingrained into the culture of the school?

John: We aim to provide the best conditions that enables all students to learn in the best possible environment. This can be simple things, like taking action to reduce the lunch time queues so students have more time to socialise, or introducing a Year 11-only area for lunches. Student wellbeing must be prominent across the curriculum, to ensure they are supported to make informed decisions and choices about leading an active and healthy lifestyle. In addition to PE lessons, students receive wellbeing lessons throughout Key Stage 3. which focus on healthy minds and lives. We take a five-year approach to help students grow, to help them find their place in the community. Mental wellbeing is a massive issue for many schools at the moment, and we’re trying to support students with that as much as we can. This is supported through a range of external professionals and staff at MCA. We have introduced a health hub, where students can receive support in health matters, as well as engage in mindfulness sessions and emotional wellbeing support. There are reading hotspot areas: quiet areas where students can reflect and have some time for themselves. We also have a multi-faith room where students from different faiths can reflect and pray.

Beyond this, we also have our Wellbeing Ambassador group. This is a student group who help with a range of issues, such as food that’s on offer at lunch, to more strategic things, such as social activities for engagement. So while it’s curriculum-based, we’re very much looking for the students to take the lead with their own wellbeing where possible.

How do you choose which external organisations the school works with?

John: One of our assistant principals is in charge of partnerships. We look at key service level agreements with partners, and we choose them wisely. A lot of it is based on the fact that we’re within this community, at the heart of it. It’s about ensuring that we know what the reciprocal benefit is for each partnership. For example, we’ve got a big drive on improving the aspirations of our students, and then collaborating with key partners, helping students to make more informed decisions about the future.

A key example would be how we engage with the local companies and services who are a part of our community. We form partnerships with these companies, and these collaborations are represented through members of our governing body. This means that we are supported through governance, but also through offering real life work experiences, further skills training and apprenticeships.

Inspiring their future

Pupil wellbeing sounds very much taken care of at MCA. When it comes to staff wellbeing, how do you go about handling this, especially with regards to teacher workload?

John: This is something I’m extremely passionate about. The first thing I said to staff back in September was that, for the past six weeks, they’ve been mums, dads, carers, foster parents, aunts and uncles, and that doesn’t have to stop when they come into school. It’s often the case that teachers are zombies from Monday to Friday, and only pick up their lives at the weekend. This isn’t good enough, and I’ve tried quite hard this year to create the conditions to support them.

The first thing we did was to look at the policy - marking, feedback, how we collect data and so on - and put in some key changes. We felt that the students weren’t missing out on anything - they were still getting the feedback that they needed - but the workload for teachers was far more appropriate.

We also looked at the conditions. All of our departments have at least one two-hour session per week, during the school day, where they can collaborate and co-construct lessons. We don’t like teachers having to meet after school, so we try to facilitate that within our day. I tell teachers every week that I don’t want them to be leaving school with big piles and boxes of books. We try to do as much live marking as we can: in the moment, in the lesson, where the students are getting the instant feedback. This negates the need for staff to take those books home.

We have whole-school staff CPD from 13:00 - 14:00 on a Friday. This time is used to address whole school-needs and to develop effective in-house training. We also plan frequent drop-down Fridays, where we just give the session over to the wellbeing initiative. This could be something as simple as giving teachers a ‘treat box’, and as a department they can have something like afternoon tea, or a Christmas box to help them celebrate the festive season. We have wellbeing activities going on every night, such as yoga, gym sessions, cookery clubs so staff can unwind at the end of the day.

Everything we aim to get right for students we must also get right for staff. It’s about creating a school culture that supports them to be the best they can be professionally, but also be their best personally. I encourage them to have fun at home, and plan as much for this than they do their lessons in school.

Going forward, I’m looking at introducing a car-leasing scheme, as well as employee assistant care package. My latest initiative is appointing an ironing person. This means staff can bring in their ironing on a Monday morning and then pick it up at the end of the day, bringing an end to the Sunday night ironing curse! I would also love to develop in-house childcare for when our amazing staff return from parental leave. It would make life so much easier if they could travel to and from MCA with their newborn, and check on them throughout the day. I think this would really reassure staff and make the transition back to work easier for them. However, this is one idea I have not pulled off... yet!

We want to ensure that staff can work hard while they’re here, giving the most amazing lessons that they can, and also try to ensure that it’s not about having a work / life balance - it should be about having a work / home balance. Work is obviously a key part of anyone’s life, and we’re keen to ensure that there isn’t a blurring of the edges. For me, I see it as a duty of care that I’ve got to ensure that, when people are at home, they’re at home. I want them to be enjoying that time. If we get things right for the staff, they’ll get things right for the students - a cycle of self-improvement that we can all work towards.

Once Upon A Time

How has the Once Upon a Time project helped Manchester Communication Academy to benefit from Manchester’s rich history and culture?

Patsy: One of the academy’s absolute core aims is to minimise the impact of disadvantage on children and families in the community. The Once Upon a Time project has helped massively in this endeavour. Our belief - which is based on current research - is that the richer and stronger the community is, the better children do in the classroom. The project is about combating social isolation, making sure that we take advantage of the school’s rich, numerous intergenerational opportunities. For example, children studying Citizenship might spend time working with local adults on their community campaigns.

Once Upon A Time

It’s about making sure that the school community is as rich as it can be, and making sure that intergenerational traffic is present throughout the school. Our fundamental belief is that a school is not an island. The stronger the school’s link with the local community, the more likely we are to succeed as a school.

What do you hope to achieve in the next year?

John: We need to ensure that students are happy and successful. That has to be our #1 priority. We have to help them achieve and prepare for the next part of their journey - be it the students coming from Year 6 into Year 7, the students that are leaving in Year 11, we need to make them aspirational about their journey, give them the tools for getting involved with the community and beyond. In order to do this, we need to ensure that we have high-quality teaching and learning, as well as give students an equitable range of opportunities. We want them to have the skills necessary to make real changes that will be felt for years to come, both within this community and beyond.

John and Patsy

Patsy: Our aim for Once Upon a Time is to support the project to such a degree that it reduces social isolation and loneliness in the local community. We also want to increase the membership of the project, and have a bigger impact on the older adults in the community. To increase the opportunities for our students, we want to further develop a programme of social action for them. This means activities like visiting care homes. One thing you might be interested in - we’ve taken the model of Once Upon a Time, and we’ve offered the exact same programme to parents in the area. This programme is called ‘Happily Ever After’! What we’re doing, again, is building up all of this oral history for the benefit of the local community. Many of these parents come from other countries, so we’re getting a fascinating collection of international oral histories together. At the moment, they’re all working on a big cookbook. Not only will this features a variety of recipes, but other materials like maps of those countries!

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