The school hall at Miles Coverdale Primary School in Shepherd's Bush reverberates with whirring hoops and clattering plates. Encouraged by staff in checked waistcoats, 13 children are testing their limits: 10-year-old Ashwini has mastered plate spinning with her right hand so she tries it with her left while her friend attempts to spin a plate on his head. A small girl gyrates a huge hoop from waist to neck. Ashwini now walks the tightrope with straight-backed poise, face frozen in concentration. Then nine-year-old Sabirah challenges herself further; tightrope-walking while spinning a hoop on one arm. The instructors seem to know exactly how much support to give and when to let go, never denying children the opportunity to teeter momentarily, then steady themselves. "It took me about three tries then it got a tiny bit easier," recalls Sabirah. "Then I did it backwards. It made me feel happy, being able to do something very impossible."
Albert & Friends Instant Circus is one of 25 "delivery partners" commissioned by West London Zone (WLZ), a charity that identifies children and teenagers at risk of poor outcomes and links them with activities to boost aspirations, academic achievement and wellbeing. Co-ordinated in north Kensington by 12 finance, data and development staff, it supports 505 children and young people aged three to 18 in 15 "anchor" settings in Hammersmith and Kensington; 14 schools and a nursery. At each, a "link worker" supports children one-to-one or in small groups for two years, working alongside partner organisations delivering activities tailored to their needs.
The pupils taking part in the circus skills session at Miles Coverdale are among 24 supported by link worker Sophia Grimaldi, who circulates offering encouragement. "Some come in quite scared and worried," explains youth circus manager Lucy Pittaway. "But when you start breaking it down, they see they can achieve what they set their minds to, with practice. We've seen a massive improvement in their focus and determination, their ability to set goals for themselves and achieve them."
Grimaldi, who has a background in child psychotherapy, has also observed a shift in attitude and confidence. "They're able to persevere with things that initially, they got quite frustrated with," she says. She started as Miles Coverdale's link worker in September. By October half term, with teachers' help, she had compiled a list of children to support, based on data submitted to the WLZ team (see "The Lowdown on the West London Zone", below).
Those identified as needing some extra support face wide-ranging issues preventing them from thriving at school, including a lack of support networks and extra-curricular opportunities, Grimaldi explains. Her support started with a one-to-one session, building a picture of each child's strengths, interests, needs and goals, leading to an individual support plan that includes sessions with partner organisations. She meets each child weekly to monthly, individually or in groups, according to need. She helps pupils evaluate their progress through the WLZ "Flourishing Tree", which sees children attach a leaf for each goal achieved, such as a new friendship or activity. "It's about getting them to reflect and articulate what's going well and what's quite difficult," she explains. "We have a really broad definition of progress."
Academic and emotional support
Grimaldi works closely with partner organisations including literacy charities Beanstalk and Real Action; double dutch skipping project JUMP LDN, and West London Action for Children, which provides therapeutic groups. She says these "provide a real mix of academic and emotional support" alongside physical activities. She selects activities based on each child's needs and interests, discussing afterwards with facilitators how particular children have struggled or thrived, which informs planning for subsequent sessions. Frequent communication with teachers is also "vital" in keeping track of children's progress, alongside weekly conversations with parents at the school gate.
"What appealed to me and senior leaders was that this programme offers a range of resources and interventions that we wouldn't normally have access to," explains Miles Coverdale head, Tara Baig. Grimaldi is "really good at pulling out what children individually need", she adds and this takes "quite a lot of strain" from her special educational needs co-ordinator (Senco) and other staff.
WLZ was initiated by Danny Kruger, founder of criminal justice charity Only Connect, who realised support systems for the prisoners he worked with - family, community, statutory and voluntary sector help - were "much too disconnected".
"We came to the view that the problem is not the amount of resources, but the coherence of the system around young people," recalls Kruger, who is now employed as the government's civil society advisor. "West London has lots of assets; wealthy people, well-funded projects and lots of charities; loads of amazing work. But strategically or systematically, they're not making the impact they could because they're not part of a coherent system."
It was a visit to Harlem Children's Zone in New York that gave him the vision of a long-term "cradle to career" programme involving a broad range of agencies working together in one neighbourhood "in sufficient scale to change the habits of young people". In 2014, he enlisted social policy researcher Louisa Mitchell to design, plan and implement a pilot West London Zone.
Mitchell, now WLZ chief executive, shaped it through a "reference board" of residents, community organisations and businesses, who decided on a schools-based model, piloted in a primary, secondary and children's centre on the White City Estate from 2015 to 2016.
This place-based "zone" idea was one of the main inspirations the team took from Harlem, explains WLZ chief operating officer, Joe Prendiville. "The idea is that you go in as deep as you can in a relatively small, defined area," he says. "Your ultimate ambition is to positively affect a really high proportion of the kids who need it in that area. In Harlem, there's the idea that if enough of them start going to college and university, that becomes the new norm in that area. So the next generation looks up to that and aspirations and expectations change."
At Sacred Heart High, a Hammersmith secondary school for girls, link worker Rachel Elton is helping turn things around for 13- and 14-year-olds who have been on the brink of exclusion, or "flying under the radar" with unsupported emotional and mental health needs. "Issues can present in many different ways; some have obvious behavioural difficulties, but others are much less visible," she explains. "Issues like low self-esteem can present in underachieving and not engaging in the classroom and school life, and in grades not as good as they could be. Unchecked, this could escalate further."
Elton reports to deputy head Ian Donegan and works closely with senior staff, including the Senco and pastoral manager, sharing information and progress. She currently works with 35 year 8 and 9 pupils and describes the identification of girls' needs and goals in her initial sessions with them as the "foundation" for support that follows. Partner organisations include Fearless Futures, a charity delivering a 13-week series of workshops on female empowerment and gender equality to teenage girls. "Girls draw courage and power from the message that they're already amazing, but it's the world around them that's structured in an unequal way," explains chief operating officer Ali Hendy. "This empowers them to become agents for change in their schools and communities."
She says sessions at Sacred Heart have inspired a "sort of sisterhood" among participants, who have been "talking about their experiences, then thinking how they can do something about it".
Gateway to support
This has helped some become "better advocates for themselves", according to Elton. Her role also involves linking girls to opportunities such as counselling, which she says can be a gateway to other support. "It's kind of unprecedented for some to engage with an adult in any way," she explains. "Once they start developing a trusting relationship, they're more open to other opportunities."
Elton loosely categorises her girls into high, medium and low need, determining whether she works with them weekly, every three or four weeks or every half term. She has observed several starting to "shift their behaviour", including two year 9 pupils, who had been temporarily excluded, but are now "starting to take much more responsibility for themselves". Another had been affected by problems on her estate, causing anger issues which prevented her from engaging. "She's much more reflective now," explains former youth worker Elton. "She really wants to do well and is starting to see things much more clearly. She'll seek me out, when previously, she wasn't engaging with any adults. We've spoken a lot about her home life and how that's affected her. It's helping her take ownership of her behaviour."
Another year 9 participant had been bullied at primary school and was self-harming. Low self-esteem prevented her engaging in lessons and performing well academically, but she is now engaging in counselling and after-school study sessions. Teachers have commented on her increased participation.
Miles Coverdale head Tara Baig feels her two-year £18,000 investment in WLZ is proving to be good value for money, based on pupils' progress to date. However, she will have to wait until the end of the summer term to see the academic impact, which will also be crunch time for the first three schools to complete the two-year programme. End-of-year figures from last summer are positive; 80 per cent of 132 participating children improved in either attainment, attendance or wellbeing (see Early Findings on Impact graphics, below).
Prendiville says one of the main lessons from the 2015/16 pilot was the need to ensure schools were fully involved in plans being made for children and the choice of partners. "In the schools where we have that, we've done really well," he explains. "One of the main lessons is making sure our programme is complementing and supplementing what is already going on." For example, schools with pupils involved in the Grenfell Tower fire last summer accumulated "an absolute wealth" of therapeutic services for pupils as a result. This meant WLZ didn't need to bring in mental health partners.
Prendiville says WLZ's immediate priority is to expand into the boroughs of Brent and Westminster, remaining within the zone boundaries, but reaching more children with needs that schools are struggling to meet.
According to Kruger, the essential difference between the Harlem model and WLZ is that the west London project is joining together resources already there, rather than creating a new support system. For that reason, any attempts to replicate the scheme elsewhere would need to be driven and shaped by local organisations, as in west London, in order to give projects "legitimacy and local roots". However, he insists WLZ is replicable, thanks to the "huge amount of work" to develop "importable systems" for identifying participants, managing data and finances and selecting partners.
As WLZ works to extend its reach, Miles Coverdale's circus trainees are also spreading their wings.
"They start with certain expectations of themselves, saying: ‘I can't do this'," explains Pittaway. "We tell them: ‘There's no such thing as can't.'"
THE LOWDOWN ON THE WEST LONDON ZONE
What is it and where is it based? The West London Zone (WLZ) is a charitable partnership aiming to ensure all children and young people within a three square mile zone of inner west London reach their full potential. It operates across north Kensington and north Hammersmith with plans to extend into south Brent and north Westminster.
Who runs it? A "backbone" team of 12 staff in Latimer Road manage finance, commission and support partner organisations and analyse performance data.
How is it funded? Through a "collective impact bond", a payment-by-results scheme, bringing together funding from two local authorities, schools, the government and Big Lottery's Commissioning Better Outcomes Fund and private philanthropists.
Its three-year contracts with Hammersmith & Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea councils are worth £3.8m if it achieves its "medium case" outcomes, based on participants' engagement and progress. Around 30 per cent of its budget comes from central government, 30 per cent from councils, 15 per cent from schools and 25 per cent from the private sector, charitable trusts and philanthropists.
How does it work? Participating schools help identify children by submitting pupil data to the WLZ team, including information about attendance, attainment, special needs and whether children are eligible for the pupil premium. Each school's "link worker" asks all children in years 5 and upwards, or the parents of younger children, to complete the My Voice survey, designed for WLZ by Dartington Service Design Lab to give a broader picture of the issues they face at home, school and in the community. WLZ uses this data to identify those most at risk of negative outcomes.
After agreeing with teachers which pupils to support and gaining parental consent, link workers create an individual support plan with each child. This consists of one-to-one or group support sessions and activities commissioned by WLZ from partner organisations.
Participants' academic attainment, confidence and aspirations, mental wellbeing and peer relationships are measured at "baseline" through school data and the WLZ survey, with academic scores converted into a percentile rank. This is repeated at the end of the first and second year of the scheme.
How many schools and partners? The scheme currently works with 14 primary and secondary schools and one nursery, and 25 partner organisations.
How many children and young people? Currently 505. WLZ aims to support 3,000 over five years.