Most of my summer was spent driving up and down the M6, travelling back and forth to house viewings in the West Midlands. Having decided to take the leap with my young family and make the move up north, we now had to find somewhere to live. After may trips we finally came upon a house that ticked all the boxes. To my pleasant surprise, we were upgrading to a semi-detached three-bedroom house with a garden for less than the monthly rent of my 1 bedroom flat in Lewisham!
At 9am on Monday September 5th, I arrived at the school reception of Wood Green Academy in Wednesbury – West Midlands. It had finally happened, I ceased being the Key Project Coordinator at Central Foundation Boys School (CFSB) and became Programme Coordinator at Wood Green Academy.
Although starting at a school which had never had the programme before brought some nerves, the school environment itself was nothing new. Having already been through an academic year delivering the programme at CFBS, I was excited to get started on delivering a newly designed Access Project programme that had gone through so much development to ensure the student was at the heart of everything we do.
Inset day brought with it the reality that, in regards to programme visibility and my relationship with staff, I was back at square one. Over the next few weeks, I would need to quickly build relationships with key members of staff and most importantly the office admin team. Anyone who has worked in a school before will know that the office and admin staff are invaluable. They keep everything ticking and can get things done that no other members of staff can, like finding available rooms at the last minute.
Challenges of the Black Country
Coming from a school located in the heart of London, where there are two tube stations within walking distance and several buses running within minutes of each other, it came as a bit of a shock as to just how different the transport infrastructure is in the West Midlands. Getting into Birmingham involves three modes of transport; a walk, bus and then a tram or a train with a journey time close to an hour (WGA).
As most of our volunteer tutors are based in Birmingham, my students will need to make this trip regularly to get to tutorials. As the journey is not straightforward, this could inhibit students from joining the programme. Winter will be fast upon us, meaning the days getting darker, this is the time when parents get a little more anxious about the travel to and from tutorials.
In order to offset the potential negatives of travelling time, it is crucial that I put forward the many benefits of being involved on the programme, not just to the students, but to their parents as well. With a programme like ours, it is pivotal that parents are fully aware and supportive of it. This means that I will be doing many information sessions, assemblies and going along to parent evenings, especially in my first term.
To help ease the difficulties around student recruitment due to travel concerns, we are focusing on recruiting tutors in and around the Black Country. This has led to a focus on working with local businesses in areas such as Walsall, Wolverhampton and Wednesbury to increase our easily accessible tutor pool.
Why are we here?
Having come to an agreement that we should focus on the year groups sitting external exams this academic year (Years 11 & 13), I then found out the Year 11’s will not be in school for two weeks as they are off on work experience!
Going through the list of potential students for the programme both in Year 11 and 13, something catches my eye. I notice that only a handful of students are in receipt of free school meals (FSM) but a substantial number are eligible for pupil premium. Having discussed this with my colleagues, one of the reasons put forward for the disparity is that due to social perception and stigma, many families who in fact meet the criteria to receive FSM choose not to do so. This is issue is not exclusive to Wood Green Academy, there has been a national trend in dropping rates of students receiving FSM (GOV.UKData).
The West Midlands is lagging behind other parts of the country in sending its young people to university, especially in comparison to London and the southeast (UCAS). Looking at the Participation of Local Areas map (POLAR) we can see that the school and its surrounding areas are in POLAR3 quintiles 1 & 2. These areas have the lowest levels of participation in higher education.
Despite the challenges around transport and recruiting volunteer tutors for the region, if we are to stay true to our mission and really engage with the students who need our support the most we will need to find solutions and make it work. This is a challenge I am looking forward to working on alongside the staff and students at Wood Green Academy.