Key Learnings from the Winston Churchill Fellowship

About 21,500 bright eyed, excitedly nervous five year olds head off each year for their first day at Auckland schools.  Healthy, confident ones with support from home and with strong oral language skills and a few pre-literacy skills will do well.

But for many, starting school is hard.  Some don’t have the language skills they need because there wasn’t much talking or much reading at home.  Others may be new to learning English.  Children whose parents have low literacy are much more likely to struggle to learn to read – and it’s learning to read easily and early that is a key to education success later. 

With this on-going intergenerational literacy challenge in mind, I embarked on my month-long Winston Churchill Fellowship. I visited towns where early learning, schools, community groups, employers and local councils are coming together to raise literacy levels.  I was lucky enough to visit nine different organisations and programmes in eight towns and cities.

Three key themes stood out for me

  • Improving reading is being positioned as an important way out of poverty: Across England and the USA, improving children’s literacy by the time they start high school is being seen as an economic imperative as well as important for wellbeing throughout life.

Save the Children UK  has just launched Read On. Get On in England, a national campaign to improve the number of eleven year olds reading well.  New research on How Reading can help children out of poverty investigated the likely trajectory of children who don’t read well when starting high school shows the future is bleak and the economic cost high for working class white boys and poor Anglo-Caribbean boys with low reading ability

A similar analysis has been done by the Annie Casey Foundation in the USA, which has led to the national Grade Level Reading Campaign.

  • Raising literacy takes more than schools: all the initiatives I saw included some focus on improving teacher quality and education leadership, some of which was government funded. In towns like Leicester, Baltimore and Austin, communities were playing a big role in getting children to school ready to learn and keeping them there.

In Leicester there was a major focus on building reading for pleasure and supported city-wide reading and story-telling festivals. They also had ‘Pens Down’ days where the focus was on oral language and talking.

Many programmes sought to get an intentional focus on literacy into after school & holiday programme. Others put on fun summer reading clinics.  There were many variations of in-school reading support from volunteers. Leicester was also about to experiment with a targeted programme for 300 low literacy boys over the summer when they moved to high school, linking them with high-school mentors, providing summer enrichment and family visits as well as providing specific specialised reading help. Most cities were encouraging family-facing social services to promote the importance of early oral language and literacy-rich environments in families and in community settings.

  • Health is a major driver for improving literacy: people need literacy to receive and understand public health messages, people need literacy. And they need oral language and literacy to manage personal and family health issues and be active and consumers of health services.    The public health net was cast wide across some of these cities and programmes.

The Grade Level Reading Campaign is backing Growing Healthy Readers – linking pre-natal care to get normal birthweight babies, asthma management, warm houses and pre-school screening.

Austin was supporting community public health messages about asthma and keeping sick children away from school – while also publicising data on the link between regular attendance and achievement.

In Baltimore, public health specialists were at the table with educators, bringing antenatal and early parenting programmes into early learning centres, where the mobile library also called in.

Taking a different approach, Middlesbrough was about to trial providing books and messages about talking, storytelling and reading to the parents of premature babies, to promote family bonding

Action in Auckland

I came back more convinced than ever of the need to join up across Auckland if we are serious about making a difference to literacy across generations.  What do we need to do?

  • Grow a broader understanding of the importance of literacy across the lifespan- so more people get that reading matters
  • Get family and health services and early learning to share expertise and promote common messages to families
  • Promote and scale some of the great community learning initiatives we already have here
  • Strengthen the pathways between programmes
  • Connect up adult literacy, English language and intergenerational family learning programmes to create more coherent pathways for our families.

 My thanks to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship for providing me with this opportunity.    Applications are now open for Fellowships in 2016.   

If you would like to know more about literacy across Auckland or want to be part of a new collaboration contact me or tweet me @AlisonJSutton


E3 Alliance – Education Equals Economics

My last site visit was to E3 Alliance on two hot days in vibrant and fast-growing Austin in Central Texas –  with a couple of cowboys, Elvis look alikes, lots of country music, wild flowers, guns, and BBQ. Central Texas has a rapidly growing population (about 1.8 million, with rapidly increasing diversity) where, like Auckland, there is a mismatch between the skills of local people and industry demands.

E3 Alliance is a specially created backbone organisation, driving collaboration around the Blueprint for Education, to build the best skills pipeline in the country. Their four goals: school readiness; eliminate achievement gaps; high school, college and career readiness; community accountability.

Making the economics of education (and the cost of failure) visible in their organisationE3Alliance Theory of Change strapline is strategic – it helps bring business to the table and keeps return on investment front of mind when planning what actions to take up. The small Board of Directors is always chaired by a business person. To maintain neutrality, their organisation bylaws preclude any elected politicians.

E3Alliance does not see itself as a grassroots organisation.  ‘Engaging with community’ in their case means powerful and on-going collaboration with stakeholders with the power and influence to change the system.

The change process is iterative, with data central to everything they do. They actively work to grow the capacity of stakeholders to understand and use data and hold quarterly data shows that draw in large crowds! The organisation promotes a graph a month, so over time stakeholders become exposed to a wide range of issues.  A common question ‘What 2 things could you/your organisation do now to make progress toward shifting that data?

The community accountability workstream is one  aspect of their work that is different to Strive Together’s cradle to career model and has proved to be one of the most powerful. It enables conversations about success being everyone’s business. An example – attendance comes under community accountability because families, health services and employers have roles to play in keeping young people at school.  For example, fast food outlets have been challenged about employing school aged students during school hours.

E3Alliance sTEx mex Lunch E3taff were very generous with their time and expertise. Seeing the depth and progress here after nearly a decade was inspiring. I came away loaded up with good ideas, new understanding of collective impact in action – and having had wonderful Tex-Mex food.

Raise DC – brings people, resources, and data together to improve cradle to career outcomes for every young person in DC.

Raise DC was a terrific choice as my last Washington collective impact visit because they are  operating in a city roughly comparable in size to Auckland and have only formed over the last three years.

A small group of ‘thoughtful people’ seeded the idea, initial sponsorship came from the Mayor’s office and a forum of 150 stakeholders endorsed the concept. Now the local community foundation hosts the backbone staff.  A large leadership table of key stakeholders meets quarterly, a smaller executive committee meet regularly and importantly, Raise DC is actively connected to a local research institution. The establishment process has been iterative and their leadership table has changed twice in three years (in a process similar to changes in Learning Auckland).

It’s reassuring to hear staff still struggle to find a straightforward and compelling elevator pitch to describe collective impact and use something like ‘we provide a city-wide infrastructure to support education and skills alignment’ (which doesn’t exactly flow off the tongue).  To explain the intent of collective impact, the Raise DC  director says many partnerships and collaborations are like incandescent light bulbs – for all the heat they generate, only 10% ends up as light. The aim of  new collective impact is to work like an  LED light – get 90% of light for only a 10% expenditure of energy.

Raise DC has five goals, each with an action network. Each network has co-chairs who collectively make up the executive table that meets every two months.  The aspiration is to have co-chairs who have sufficient reach and authority to bring about change in their respective areas- but the lived experience is that you have to work with who is in your circle to start with – it wasn’t always possible to get the ‘A list’ of CE level business people or senior officials. Not all goals can be high priorities at the same time – because of resources and staff capacity, and also the readiness of the workstream for collective impact.

The first three goals are similar to Strive Together: school readiness, high school graduation and post-school qualifications. Although school readiness seemed  a logical starting point for collaborative action, it has proved to be challenging. After an initial project (setting up a common screening tool for developmental delays), the network is still deciding how best to add value to a landscape crowded with stakeholders and projects.

The school success workstream has started with a stocktake.  The post-school graduation network are focusing  data sharing protocols to get  accurate data on post-school results and destinations.

In addition to the Strive-type goals, Raise has two different networks: disconnected youth (our NEETS – not in education, employment or training);  and helping young people find work experience and employment (somewhat like Auckland Council’s Youth Connections project). More energy appears to be going into these areas. RaiseDCInfoGraphicRoad7

Raise DC is endeavouring to use the Strive Together data triangulation approach – national data, local data and community ‘voice’; the action point is where those three points intersect. A ‘quick win’ for the Disconnected Youth project was Connecting Youth to Opportunity, an action research survey of 500 disengaged young people, the data from which was concrete (and new) to put in front of key stakeholders. As a result, a Re-engagement Centre is being developed, rather like the Youth Hub piloted over the summer in Puketepapa which had education providers and social services available in one place.

The Strive Together model advocates for bringing in business voices, but the Raise DC experience is that this is challenging and problematic, particularly initially.  A lot of the work is process, building trust and getting organisations (education and social sector) to share data. This is not compelling to business people. Yet ‘collaboration can only move at the speed of trust’.

Raise DC is certainly worth following because their challenges and scale are similar to Learning Auckland.

Champions for Change 2015 – the work of collective impact backbone organisations

I spent an eventful three days at the Champions for Change 2015  conference in Washington. 

Funders and  backbone organisations of collective impact projects from hundreds  of communities attended, concerned about dozens of issues:  Strive Together (cradle to career education action) and Grade Level Reading (Reading success by age 8) were education focused; there were obesity initiatives alongside food poverty collaborations (places where people are so poor there is not fresh food, where children have never consciously eaten a vegetable): homelessness;  environmental action;  a global coffee coalition; a woman from Tauranga working globally on island developments  (Cuba, Mauritius, Solomon Islands); reducing violence; health coalitions of many kinds; and two other organisations from home (Water Safe NZ and a whanau  well-being collaboration). 

Many of the groups who attended were still forming, wanting to draw on the insights from the Collective Impact Forum (an alliance of FSG and the Aspen Institute’s Forum for Community Solutions). This is a new field and FSG and Aspen have been charged with developing capacity. They want ‘escape velocity’ – hopefully we will know it when we feel it!  The Tamarak Institute from Canada were major players, which was useful because key staff have both been to NZ several times.  

 The first challenge was thinking how to tell our collective impact story without jargon in three minutes including me/you/us – I am not even sure the presenter passed that task. Almost everyone found their collective impact story hard to describe.  The mantra – work smarter, work faster, work together.

Some quick observations:

  • The Backbone makes collective impact happen, but often without being seen (shining the light on cradle to the work of others, supporting everyone to get the credit). Of course this makes it challenging to raise funds for backbones
  • Maybe collective impact isn’t new, its just a new label for collaboration. But some of the speakers had been in other sorts of collaborations for years and say it is fundamentally different;  it puts outcome and data and systems change at the centre.  And it starts out expecting a long haul.
  • The backbone has to be conscious that it will be measured on whether there is any policy and/or systems change. Its not about ‘projects’ or initiatives with short term funding. Much easier said than done because everyone keeps going on about quick wins.  Idea: To keep the mission at the front, read out the core purpose statement at every meeting
  • Backbone organisations are cat-herding jugglers!
  • Groups want Backbones to tell them what to do.  But the essential shift is when stakeholders say ‘What are we doing to contribute to the issue? How are we going to contribute to the solution?
  • Backbones have to take both the helicopter and worm’s eye view – know the political scene and know how to work at a small, local scale as well.
  • Collective impact is ‘bricolage’ – something new made up of bits of other things

One big event – during the lunch-break between the conference and a leadership workshop, all my stuff was thrown away – my  notebook for this whole trip, conference papers and business cards I collected. Talk about stressed! I couldn’t hear anything during introductions at the start of the workshop because I was so preoccupied. Eventually, with the help of one sympathetic kitchen staff member prepared to bend the rules, I was allowed into the garbage bay to search for the right bag. To everyone’s chagrin, I buried my arms in the huge sacks of stuff  and emerged triumphant, papers in hand.  Nothing that  a bit of a wipe wouldn’t fix. 

There was a metaphor there for working in  collaborative projects I commented back at the workshop:  being unable to think because of pressure, finding a mentor who was prepared to help, hunting through rubbish, looking for treasures. According to the South African standing near by, hardly anyone understood  what I said. But everyone could see my relief.

Much to mull over.

Baltimore Grade Level Reading

My first US meeting was in Baltimore, a 45 min train ride from DC.  Waiting to be picked up at the station I had my shoes shined by a man who read his King James version of the Bible between jobs. He loved the stories in it and how he had to study and look up the meaning of words.  He thought I was an aristocratic, a really nice lady from England – and then wondered if NZ was anywhere near Switzerland.  The Bible wasn’t going to help his geography.

 The scale of the challenge to raise education achievements in many US towns and cities is daunting.  An influential report from the Annie Casey Foundation  in 2010 highlighted the link with low socio-economic  status and low literacy, which led to the development of a nation wide  Grade Level Reading Campaign.  Currently 140+ cities have signed up to collective impact-type partnerships. 

In Baltimore two previous local reading initiatives hadn’t changed the statistics. 80% of poor kids in Baltimore don’t achieve the national reading standard by third grade (about age 9);  25% of students are chronically absent.  Poverty is so prevelent, targeting any services is not really an issue – any initiative will impact on kids from a low SES background. 

City  assets for a new campaign- 134 primary schools and 40 high schools, the Casey Foundation that is willing to experiment and prototype approaches locally; and the John Hopkins Hospital, a major employer.  A local schooling improvement-focused trust acts as the local backbone organisation with a coalition  of 70 organisations meeting quarterly to review progress. 

The Grade Level Reading approach is to have action groups working on school readiness, attendance and summer reading programme.  In Baltimore they were able to build on existing relationships and networks to set up those work streams. Each work programmes  start with a  research overview – a literature review and population analysis. The ideal network has a mix of content (researchers, providers, ‘experts’) and context specialists (community leaders, family members, people with lived experience of an issue). One of the biggest challenges is to get the voice of  families and communities represented at the table.

This GLR campaign  school readiness network has a strong focus on infant mortality and child wellbeing. They had health data which shows higher literacy  has a positive impact across the  life course and  an existing Maternal and Child Health Network.   The questions they asked themselves resonated with those we are asking in Learning Auckland:  Do all families know what resources are available and  do services connect up so families can transition from one to another? Early actions: providing literacy rich environments in social welfare centres; getting a mobile library to visit all mother and baby centres; training up staff from Head Start (centres that provide early learning for the most vulnerable families) in smoking cessation. 

It has taken the multiple stakeholders a couple of years to realise that adult literacy needs to be at the table because of the link between mothers’ literacy and poor birth outcomes.  Although they have included ‘family literacy’ in their Maternal and Child Health network, what they were doing to intentionally grow the skills of parents wasn’t obvious to me.

Supporting city school leadership of reading is a second strand, which is particularly challenging given the churn of staff in school leadership. Therefore, GLR staff started with things that could be influenced in the community – getting books into homes and increasing local literacy tutoring and community action on attendance. Staff observed that they have learned to be unapologetic about choosing a focus, that it’s a combination of rigour about the issue and being opportunistic. 

Keeping in touch is key – the programme leads for each network meet fortnightly. Baltimore is smaller than Auckland physically and population wise, and apparently meeting that often is not an issue  – neither is parking!    

 What stood out – the link with health, just as I saw in the UK. And the reinforcement of what COMET Auckland has been advocating for years- thinking intergenerationally. 

My UK experience

In two fast-moving  weeks I went up England twice – London to Glasgow return and back up to  Leicester, then Barnsley in Yorkshire. I also crossed the country – up to Middlesbrough and  Teeside port on the east coast and across to the west, to Liverpool and the Mersey, on the  west. So much lovely countryside and so much history.

What had I hoped to learn? What’s the experience of UK towns and cities to join up literacy action, across families, early learning, schools and adults.  What stands out from these two weeks:

  • the powerful link between health and literacy that in NZ we have hardly begun to make. The National Literacy Trust, NIACE, the Middlesbrough Literacy Hub and The Reader Organisation are making that connection  and funding from health is enabling and driving a significant amount of literacy action.
  • the time it takes to build a shared language and programme of work; every organisation has to make some progress toward their own objectives while also working to the common goal. Getting to the common goal is hard, not helped by competitive systems that mean institutions want to hang onto their own learners.
  • The importance of planning for sustainability.  Partnerships are fragile when funding shifts. The most sustainable initiative seemed to be  ORIM, the framework for working with parents, because the framework has become embedded in teaching and learning practice by a whole raft of organisations. A major factor in that take up was adoption of the Aorim framework by a key national partner. 
  • The  research evidence on the importance of reading for pleasure that underpins work at the National Literacy Trust,  the Hubs, Whatever it takes and the Reader Organisation. Reading for Pleasure has  moved up my agenda
  • the need for strategic champions who understand and resource the coordination required to join things up and who stay around long enough to see results; this is not quick work. It’s taken nearly 20 years from the first project in one school to get substantial take up and policy change for ORIM.
    • how the adult and family learning landscape has changed and shrunk in recent years as a result of the skills agenda.  Its a harsher environment with on-going funding cuts. On the other hand, there is still space for innovations – The Literacy Hubs and the Reader Organisation are new models. 
    • How public transport makes literacy visible! There was so much time on buses and trains. House plans, health and safety training manuals, newspapers, books, e-readers, homework assignments, bill paying, newspapers.

Who did I see?  I’ve gained  strategic and operational level insights from the people who have been generous enough to meet with me:

    • Project  leads from  Leicester’s Whatever it takes and the Middlesbrough Literacy Hub, two organisations focusing on city-wide action that involves both early learning and schooling improvement
    • The service manager and family learning coordinator from Learn Barnsley, a local authority endevouring to operationalise family learning in a wider remit of adult education and skills
    • Senior staff and project development leads from NIACE (the National  Voice for Adult Learners) and the  National Literacy Trust,  national organisations supporting place-based literacy  and family learning
    • An academic at the University of Sheffield who has lead the development of a parent-focused framework for raising literacy  Sheffield REAL (raising early achievement)
    •  The development manager the Reader Organisation from a relatively new  and rapidly growing reading programme that is community focused, 
    • draws heavily on volunteers and is promoting reading for social inclusion and wellbeing.

Words to remember -2

The stunning (and ironically very white statue of Martin Luther King – the Stone of Hope,  next to FDR’s memorial.   The long curved wall depicts only a few of his aspirations – but one in particular spoke to me.  There are millions of US born citizens who can’t read this.

Humble aspirations  –  3 meals a day, education, dignity and respect   – so hard to achieve.     

Learn Barnsley! Organising family learning at the local level

Visits to the National Literacy Trust and NIACE (the National Voice for Lifelong Learning) gave me an quick picture of how place-based literacy action is being organised nationally and some of the current opportunities and challenges. Visits to Leicester’s Whatever it takes and the Middlesbrough Literacy Hub provided some insights into what happens when there is a cross-sector community focus on literacy, driven by raising achievement in early years and schools.

I also wanted to see how family learning has developed in the last couple of years, because COMET Auckland has drawn extensively on insights and research from the UK in advocating for family learning and literacy for over 15 years.  A decade ago (when I was last visited the UK to look at literacy) the family learning agenda was well funded and getting  policy attention. Family learning was seen to be a major contributor to social inclusion.

My meeting with the services manager and family learning coordinator at Learn Barnsley! revealed that organising local adult learning is more challenging now.

Family learning sits alongside a broader agenda of adult learning and skills  which is dominated by functional literacy and numeracy.

Barnsley is a community of about 250,000 – about the size of two Auckland local boards.  Local authorities employ staff to coordinate adult learning and apply for national funds for local provision. Learn Barnsley is a collaboration between tertiary providers, Council, the local job centre and other agencies with a broad interest in adult education. Learn Barnsley endeavours to get competitive tertiary providers to collaborate, to align initial assessment processes, Information, Advice and Guidance (career education functions);and to focus on ensuring provision fits local learners needs. A 25% funding cut for adult learning was announced in this year’s budget which means the job just got harder.

There were a lot of parallels to issues we have encountered in our employability and Learning Auckland work: the need for a common language between education providers from different parts of the sector as well as between education and employment or health;  the challenge of competition when providers  find it hard to promote alternative pathways and more coherence for learners if it means they lose students and therefore funding; the need for coordination, people skills and real persistence to keep bringing people around the table (and the ongoing challenge to fund those roles); the need for senior staff to publicly endorse the importance of organisations collaborating years.

Reading for wellbeing and social inclusion

IMG_5504Although I have been looking at city-wide initiatives, I wanted to look at one specific programme Shared Reading, run by the Reader Organisation. This meant Liverpool and a chance to look at the beautifully renovated Albert Docks, the Mersey (and Beatles shop, but not the Beatles experience). I did see the Fab Four’s statutes at the Hard Day’s Night Hotel, from the back of a  quick city tour bus.

IMG_5522Shared Reading is reading aloud in the community, primarily to people in small groups but occasionally 1:1. The intention is connecting people to literature and our common humanity, to improve health, well-being  and social inclusion, rather than improving literacy per se. 

The take up  appears to be very  diverse, which is part of why it could be of interest to Auckland. The Reader Organisation is a partner organisation in Liverpool’s City of Readers, promoting reading for pleasure in schools. They  are collaborating with health trusts to take Shared Reading into aged care facilities and dementia units and programmes for children in care. In a few health settings there are now full time Readers in Residence.  There are pilot projects for parents in prison and recently released inmates and a couple of companies have set up shared reading groups to improve communication across staff hierarchies.  

Readers (Reader Organisation staff, some volunteers or staff trained inside other organisations)  run  1.5-2 hour weekly sessions.  Some of the volunteers are unemployed, recruited specifically to give them confidence and skills as part of a pathway to work.

Usually,  groups have 8-12 people and these groups need the same care and nurturing as other adult learner groups – a warm and friendly environment, a tea break, sometimes cake!  The sessions are intended to be  ‘intimate and safe’. Participation is free. Readers are asked to commit to 3 days training and to running sessions for a year with a group.

The readers stop periodically to encourage listeners to talk aloud about what they are hearing, to share feelings, to discuss what the author is trying to say. Typically, when a group starts, the reader uses short stories for a couple of weeks as a way of exploring listeners’ interests.  And most sessions finish with a poem, offered as a wind-up (a bit like a chocolate fish or a biscotti at the end of lunch – a little something).

One  principle is to use fit for purpose high quality literature, material pitched to each group. What might be read to a group of  older unemployed people won’t fit children in care or a group of sole parents. Readers are trained to select material; they keep records of listeners’ progress; and keep notes on what sections of literature have an impact to the listeners.  Listeners have copies of the material in front of them and are encouraged to follow along and take turns in reading. Accessing multiple copies of books requires partnerships with libraries and book publishers.    This harks back to the  adult education ‘great books’  campaigns of the past.

A second key principle is slow reading, reading that is at a pace that enables people to connect to the ‘voice’ of author and the ideas.

The Reader organisation argues that Shared Reading has a very positive effect on listeners. The Centre for Research into Reading and Society has run some small scale case study research which found increased social interaction and confidence, reduced visits to doctors, improved relationships with care staff and general improvement in mental health and well-being. A larger scale research project starting in 2015 is needed to provide more robust impact data.

Shared Reading may not be about literacy directly, but it is sufficiently interesting to consider how it might fit in with making Auckland a more skilled and literate city. And there is already a local connection! A keen West Aucklander has just attended a three day  Read to Learn training session and is planning to set up a pilot group in the west.  I will be following this up.

Early Words Together

Early words together is a flagship programme for the National Literacy Trust, now adopted by local authorities across the country. It’s a volunteer-led peer tutoring programme where parents run short training sessions for other parents, modelling how to develop early learning and oracy, in preparation for school. It’s often delivered in Children’s Centres that focus on vulnerable families. The ideal is six sessions for groups of parents who each get 1:1 support from a volunteer while they play/work with their child. A trained teacher and EWT facilitator supervises.

???????????????????????????????????????I took part in one EWT session  and talked about EWT in many of my meetings across England. It’s clear that there is a strong evidence base and the material available for centres and for parents is high quality.  An important part of EWT is building the capacity of centre staff to  work with families and there’s a whole support structure for professional development and support.  At the session I attended, the volunteers  love talking and playing to the kids and it was easy to see how they were building in vocab enrichment and how they  encouraged children  to participate and guided their play.  Volunteers build up skills and can progress towards qualifications.

Coordination is essential.   Sustaining a peer-support programme is  a big challenge?????????????????????????????. A lot of time and energy has to go into attracting and retaining volunteers. The intention is to draw volunteers from among the vulnerable families, but regular attendance then becomes an issue- because their issues aren’t so different from other families (transport, sick kids, family responsibilities).  If volunteers don’t turn up, centre staff have to step in, which has staff and funding implications.

And just from one session I can see the challenge of getting the volunteers to be explicit about what they are modelling to the adults and why. It’s like embedded literacy. The best practice makes the intention and purpose explicit.