Why it’s necessary to develop leadership skills in disadvantaged students

Manpreet Kaur, English teacher at The Romsey School, describes how this school is making the Student Leadership Accreditation available for all, not just those who are most likely to volunteer

How many times do you see the same students apply for Duke of Edinburgh awards, a prefectship and the exciting geography, MFL and history trips? The frightening reality is that, very often, it’s the students from the wealthiest backgrounds who seize every opportunity outside the classroom, basically because of their supportive homes. It’s the disadvantaged students who need these experiences the most that end up missing out.

I haven’t been teaching long, but from my experience of school and the teaching world, we are all aware that it’s the same class of student who ends up with a detailed CV at the end of their schooling career, because they took hold of the opportunities that school gave them. Sutton Trust research makes it clear that those from more advantaged homes are more likely to be enrolled in extracurricular activities than students from poorer backgrounds.

Sharmini Selvarajah, deputy director of the Cabinet Office, elaborated: “35% of households earning more than £52,000 a year have paid fees for extra-curricular activities for their children in the past three months, compared with only 9% of households earning less than £14,000 a year. In other words, a child from the richest fifth of families is four times more likely to enjoy paid-for extra-curricular activities than one from the poorest fifth.

“As you might expect, it’s those from the most advantaged backgrounds who are most likely to take part in activities and also have the most money spent on them.”

I recently took over the delivery of the SSAT Student Leadership Accreditation (SLA) programme in my school. It is a qualification run by SSAT for students to gain a recognised, national achievement which can be added to their CVs and may well aid their chances of achieving FE, HE and/or the career paths they seek. The programme is designed to be manageable for students of all abilities. For example, they are tasked with putting together a portfolio which showcases how they have met three main criteria: ‘developing myself’, ‘contributing to my community’ and ‘working with others’.

Immediately, I planned ways in which the programme could appeal to students who wouldn’t typically be engaged. I organised assemblies focused on people who are “behind the scenes” in their industry – and how they are just as significant as the obvious key players. However, despite a huge interest in student leadership accreditation, I still found the majority to be the stereotypical students.

This wasn’t good enough, and I wasn’t sure how else I could make a big impact across the school to engage with enough students. So, I decided not to. I decided to start small. I chose three students from disadvantaged backgrounds and focused solely on them. The other students would self-manage (and coming close to submission time, I’ve seen how well they’ve done this), but I could focus more on a few that I thought could succeed with my help and support. I started having regular one-to-one sessions with them, speaking about their portfolios.

This soon revealed another reason why these students don’t seize these opportunities: because they don’t usually stay committed to any extracurricular activities, it was difficult for them to complete their portfolios: they didn’t have any evidence to showcase. I realised I needed to help them become more involved in school, so any opportunity that came up I threw their way. Bake sales, charity events, talks taking place in school, and workshops. Now, finally, their portfolios are developing and thriving, and they have started to take initiative themselves.

It’s still a long way to go before we can reach all disadvantaged students. But hopefully with more schools introducing programmes like SLA and focusing on the students who need it the most, they will see it as something that they can finally be a part of.

And then we can start to make more of a difference.

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