Idea from Harlem transforms young lives in west London

A scheme lauded by Barack Obama is steering pupils out of hardship and into university

Two years ago Phoenix academy in Shepherds Bush, west London, was put in special measures. Its headteacher, Oli Knight, knows that turning around academic performance and behaviour in a school where many students come from challenging backgrounds isn’t easy. But he’s hoping an ambitious project inspired by an American success story can make the difference.

Phoenix is one of 15 secondary, primary and nursery schools being supported by a programme of interventions run by a relatively new charity, the West London Zone (WLZ). The aim is to steer children in one of the most deprived areas in the country away from a life of hardship and into university. Its CEO, Louisa Mitchell, says it’s about “driving change for an entire generation”.

WLZ is the idea of Danny Kruger who in 2011, as head of the criminal justice charity Only Connect, visited the Harlem Children’s Zone charity in New York. HCZ co-ordinates intensive interventions from various agencies to equip the poorest children for university. Support starts early – parents of under-threes attend Baby College for lessons on child development – and continues until the child is 18.

There are also two “Promise academies” for children aged three to 18 that offer a longer school day, a focus on academic achievement and extra-curricular activities, as well as on-site medical and psychological services. In 2016, 98% of the senior year students at the first Promise academy were accepted into college, with the then president, Barack Obama, describing HCZ as “literally saving a generation of children”, and used it as the model for his Promise Neighborhoods programme, rolled out in 20 states, which also uses multi-agency support to improve educational outcomes.

Driven by a conviction that the formula could work in the UK, Kruger founded WLZ which, after a successful pilot in 2015 in London’s White City, launched its first full two-year programme. This has recently just come to an end and the second cohort is about to enter its second year.

This year the charity reached 505 students, and the aim is to have a positive impact on the lives of 13,000 children over 10 years.

So how does it work? Each participating school has a WLZ link worker on site (Phoenix has two), who matches selected children with services provided by 24 partner organisations, including one-to-one tutoring, confidence building, counselling and sporting activities.

Some take place in school, and others on the partner sites. The balance of activities is important, says Mitchell: “There’s no point putting a child into extra maths and English if mentally or emotionally they’re not ready to engage.” The aim, she says, is to identify needs and provide an “ecosystem” of support so they “get the right thing at the right time”.

Having link workers who can relate to the children is crucial. Farial Missi, a psychology graduate, is one of the Phoenix link workers and a former Phoenix head girl. She says a lot of the children she supports come from broken families or have parents who are recent immigrants. Many “don’t have a trusted adult in their life”. “The most important thing is a child having someone who can listen to them without judgment, to guide and support them through whatever they’re going through.”

Children are selected based on anonymised data provided by schools. Instead of selecting those in crisis (most of whom are already receiving professional support), the project chooses young people whose home and school difficulties put them at risk of poor outcomes. The link workers report back regularly to parents and the school’s senior leadership team.

When I visit Phoenix on a hot summer day, Missi and her fellow link worker, Sasha Jones, introduce me to some of the students. Hajar A and Hajar C are both 15-year-old girls who have been receiving one-to-one tuition at the Clement James Centre, a local educational charity, and leapt from set four to the top set in their core subjects. Both were shy but gave presentations in school assembly after attending Fearless Futures, an equality and leadership programme for girls. “I didn’t want to embarrass myself or say something stupid,” Hajar C admits.

When Missi started working with the girls they weren’t able to answer a question about their life goals. Now Hajar C goes for one-to-one tuition, even in holidays, and says she would like to become a lawyer. Hajar A, meanwhile, is considering a career in computer science – but also considers herself “more sporty” after sessions with the London Sports Trust. Another year 10 student, Jamal, has been through a period of poor attendance, but is back on track and, thanks to one of the WLZ interventions, and has developed a passion for kickboxing.

For a school such as Phoenix, the extra support is invaluable. Knight has seen a difference in behaviour and performance in the children on the programme. “A big barrier for us is the issues that the children bring to school that stop them making the progress they should make, or engage with or trust the school. WLZ has worked at a level it’s impossible for teachers to work at.”

At the end of the first cohort’s first year, 80% of the 132 participants improved in attainment, attendance or wellbeing. A more detailed breakdown shows that after a term of literacy interventions, 54% of the WLZ cohort lifted themselves out of bottom 20% nationally in reading.

For the hardworking link workers, the reward comes in seeing the difference they’ve made to children’s lives. Missi tells me about a student who was playing truant and on the verge of dealing drugs. Talking to him and encouraging him to reflect “helped him to have a different perspective and see things differently and not get into the wrong crowd”, she says.

This article originally appeared in the Guardian’s Education section.