Supporting disadvantaged children and families in the North through education


03rd June 2020

Supporting disadvantaged children and families in the North through education

The following is an edited transcript of a telephone conversation from earlier this year, with Fiona Spellman, Chief Executive of the Shine Trust. 

Supporting disadvantaged children and families in the North through education

Caroline: Hello, Fiona. Firstly, could you tell me about the Shine Trust and the work that you do?  

Fiona: Yes, sure. The Shine Trust is a charity that funds projects that help to raise attainment and offer opportunity to disadvantaged children from the North East, North West and Yorkshire. 

We moved from London to the North in August 2017, to try to tackle the significantly wider educational gap in an area that gets far less investment than the capital. We often work in partnership with aligned organisations to reduce educational inequity.    

I’m pleased to say that, since we were first established in 1999 – just over 20 years ago now – the Trust has invested more than 29 million pounds in programmes which have collectively benefited over a million children. 

Caroline: Congratulations, Fiona. That’s great to hear. Can I ask how and why you become involved with Shine? 

Fiona: I began my professional career as a maths teacher but realised that the children had a whole range of other barriers in their lives behind the school gates that had an impact on them at school, too. That was when I discovered Shine, applied for a job there and was successful. I initially thought that I would work there, on something education related, for a few years and then use that experience to get back into the classroom and teach. I really relished the opportunity that Shine gave me, to address educational barriers in a much more strategic level. That was eight years ago and for the past two years, I’ve been the chief executive. We’re now based in the North, where we know we can make a real difference.  

Caroline: We’re also based in the North and although there are challenges, there are examples of and opportunities for incredible educational growth, aren’t there? What kinds of projects do you support here? 

Fiona: One of our ambitions is to support innovations in education, which have the potential to change educational outcomes and life chances of the most disadvantaged children.  

The programmes that we support vary, including one that supports individual teachers to shine through innovations in their practice. It focuses on the early stage, where a teacher wants to try something out in a classroom, finds that it works in that context and we’ll fund grants to help scale up and replicate that approach. One example of this is a teacherBruno Reddy, who created the wellknown Times Tables Rock Stars program. 

Caroline: Yes, many (if not all) of our listeners will have heard of this resource. 

Fiona: Of course. So, Bruno was a secondary maths teacher who found it nearly impossible to get the time he needed to teach the timetable, which basically assumes that children already know their times tables. But, obviously, we know there are lots of children who come into secondary school without fluency, which holds them back in maths. Bruno decided to tackle this issue by creating an online competitive resource.  

Times Tables Rock Stars is now in 15,000 schools internationally. It shows how teachers can identify great solutions and can change their practice to meet needs more effectively. However, they often lack access to funding and support to make those ideas happen. Shine sees its role as identifying, supporting and helping to upscale great educational practice in the system.  

Caroline: We work with primary schools and early years practitioners. It’s interesting to see that a number of your projects focus on support for young children and familiesdon’t they? 

Fiona: Definitely. We see education as part of a child’s overall life experience. One thing that our education debate very rarely highlights is that the geographical areas that have been the least successful educationally, are often the areas that have been the least successful economically. 

One phase of education that really needs more investment is preschool, from ages three to four. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds already suffer a significant language and vocabulary gap when they start formal education. We know from research that they are much less likely to succeed throughout their education.  

The gap in the north of England is about twice as big on entry into primary school than in London. We need to take this very specific challenge seriously. I came across a study recently that showed that if you want to know which individuals will be a very high cost to society (people who are long term dependent on the state, involved in the criminal justice system and so on), one of the most reliable predictors is their language skills at the age of five.  

If we don’t work with parents in the earliest phase of a child’s life, we’re really missing a whole generation of children. We need to give more of these children a fighting chance.  

Caroline: Absolutely. We often see the impact of thoughtful collaboration between schools and parents. I can imagine you do, too, Fiona?  

Fiona: Yes, I see lots of good practice around language and literacy in the home environment and collaborative work with parents during early years education. This approach helps adults who lack confidence to understand how they can support their child’s learning and communication. 

School is massively important, but the reality is that so many other factors beyond the school gates shape the outcomes in the classroom. Some of the best teachers I know are out in the community, building bridges and fostering close relations with parents.  

The evidence shows that if you really want to make a sustainable change for a child, you need to be looking at how you share successful early years approaches with parents.  

Caroline: Can you tell us a bit about some of the other projects that Shine is focusing on currently? 

Fiona: Definitely. We’re interested in digging a bit deeper into the reasons behind school exclusion at the momentSo, we’re funding a programme in Manchester with eight secondary schools, working alongside the local authority and other charities to reduce school exclusions for the most vulnerable. We know that being excluded from school is associated with a whole range of poor outcomes. Alongside our partners, Shine is working on a longterm strategy to really understand what is driving school exclusions in a way that isn’t about blaming schools for their practice but is about trying to understand the issue and focus on earlier identification and prevention. 

Caroline: That’s interesting, important research. For anyone who wants to find out more about this project, details are on your website, aren’t they, Fiona? 

Fiona: Yes, along with all the projects we support and how we can support schools, teachers and work with other organisations.  

Caroline: Is Shine able to influence national education or social policy? 

Fiona: Shine works with organisations who lobby government and we provide evidencebased research to support policy making. People can often feel quite disempowered by the political approach. I think that there’s a really important role for charities like Shine and others in our sector to help to make sure that the policy agenda in education is much more aligned with the evidence base of what works and less vulnerable to the ebb and flow in ideology or political changes. 

There’s a real need in education for a much longerterm strategy that’s got cross-party consensus. It’s not necessarily about what people think, it’s more about what we know as a system. 

Caroline: That’s a great point to end on, I think. Thanks so much for talking to me today, Fiona.  

Fiona: Not at all. It was a pleasure to share the work we’re doing with you. 


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