‘EitC’s Impact On Our School Has Been Absolutely Stunning'

by Paul McNamara

Throughout the week, evertonfc.com will be running a special series of features celebrating the award-winning early intervention work of Everton in the Community, which has led to a project the charity has led on being awarded £700,000 from the Home Office to extend its programmes. Donate to EitC by texting EITC31 £5 to 70070

"Paddy is great and funny and teaches us about self-esteem. I want to be like Paddy.”

A grin spreads across the face of Paddy Byrne when he climbs out of his car each morning. It widens with each stride that carries him closer to the front door of Knowsley Lane Primary School.

He adores his job – “It doesn’t feel like work,” says Byrne – but that’s not the reason for his smile as he clocks in.

Byrne parks up around 7.45am and is greeted by the unusual and uplifting sight of children queuing to get into school.

This phenomenon took hold when Knowsley Lane formed an alliance with Everton in the Community [EitC] in May 2016. EitC implemented what is now called the Premier League Primary Stars programme, the Premier League’s flagship initiative designed to drive the high-quality provision of physical education across England and Wales, while inspiring children to engage in maths and literacy through football-based resources.

EitC’s involvement across  aspects of the school has mushroomed in the intervening years, the rush for the gate after dawn becoming more urgent, the numbers itching to start their day growing exponentially.

Linda Lord completed her teacher training with a placement at Knowsley Lane 12 years ago. Today she is the school’s Principal.

“I have seen the journey the school and community have been on and the incredible difference EitC has made,” says Lord.

“Their impact has been absolutely stunning… amazing.

“And it is purely because EitC immerses itself in the school.

“They don’t just deliver a package. They are the school, they know the children and staff inside out, they know the school’s priorities inside out and how they can achieve those.

“The children love school, which is brilliant.

“But they love everything about EitC, so they will run to school. Run across the playground.

“Their enthusiasm for EitC is incredible.”

Byrne first stepped foot in Knowsley Lane in October 2016, his enthusiasm for a new assignment, he admits, offset by a hint of trepidation after being “warned” about countless problems he could expect to encounter.

“I was told it was going to be lively and the kids would be challenging but I was ready,” says Byrne.

“It had its challenges, like everywhere does… there was a lot to be done and new structures to implement. But working alongside Linda made those things possible.”

An EitC coach at the forefront of the charity’s partnership with Knowsley Lane, Byrne bubbles with personality and ideas in equal measure, overseeing PE and classroom lessons with a compelling blend of effervescence and quiet authority.

His active-morning breakfast clubs have proved an utter revelation, a showpiece which, as Lord puts it, “hooked the children back in”.

“The school has doubled the 35-40 children we previously had at breakfast club,” says Lord.

“It is open to all but we have targeted children with poor attendance and punctuality and it has yielded massive improvements.”

Byrne chips in: “The children blow off a bit of steam with the physical activity and we ensure they get their breakfast. It means they are ready to learn and embrace their day.”

Byrne is an advocate for the idea of “new experiences” opening pupils’ eyes to possibilities which exist beyond the gang culture that, Lord explains, “We are surrounded by”.

Indeed, Byrne had been in situ 12 months when Knowsley Lane suffered an enforced one-day closure, the result of its unwitting status as a crime scene.

Bullet casings were sprinkled across its playground following a fatal shooting on Astley Road, a street running tight to the school’s perimeter.

“The children were extremely shocked by that incident,” says Lord, “but we advertised we would have EitC in the next day. As a result, we had 96 per cent attendance, which was huge.”

In its former guise as Longview Community School – Knowsley Lane converted to an academy and assumed its new title, with an accompanying leadership shift, in 2014 – this was an establishment too often in the news for the wrong reasons.

The bold type above one article in 2012 invited readers to delve into a story about the school “writing to parents over drug deals and smoking cannabis outside [the] school gates”.

This revitalised and blossoming learning hub is generating headlines of an entirely different kind these days. During the steaming hot summer of 2018, one piece reported on a “significant improvement in reading, writing and maths”, achieved by Knowsley Lane’s pupils.

Byrne consistently reaches for two words: ‘experiences’ and ‘choices’. The former, he believes, feed into the latter.

In his two-plus years at the school, Byrne has witnessed a “massive improvement” in behaviour. At the outset, he “was constantly on at the children, asking them why they were making those choices”.

“Now, the children know the standards I expect from them,” continues Byrne.

“In return, I know what they expect from me.

“There is mutual respect and, as a result, the behavioural issues I face are few and far between.”

Byrne talks about children choosing to come to school, “making the right choice in getting out of bed and educating themselves”. This is relevant because, in certain cases, these kids are self-policing, the decision between a day at school or one spent doing as they please elsewhere, in their hands entirely.

“The foundation years are when children are at their most receptive,” says Byrne.

“We have a seven-to-eight-hour window to make as much impact and have as much influence on the kids as possible.

“If we can get the right information and experiences into them at a young age, that will hopefully plant the seed which sticks with them through to secondary school.

“And who knows where it could take them when they go into their adult lives.”

Sir John Jones knows a thing or two about education. Knighted in 2003 and a sought-after speaker the world over, Sir John is one of the profession’s most respected and inspiring voices.

His working life – including 14 years as a headteacher – was primarily spent in challenging north-west schools.

He is on the board of EitC and convinced the charity’s influence on the transformation of Knowsley Lane could spark a sea change in the educational sphere.

“This is one of the most powerful stories I’ve known,” says Sir John. “It is an incredible odyssey and exceptional journey, undertaken in a relatively short time.

“EitC is helping the school’s staff and the local community to teach these kids that you can go further than you thought, and reach higher than you dreamt, and run faster than you hoped – and become the person you need to be.

“They are preparing citizens of the future here.

"The school has solved the problem many others encounter. Children see school as different from real life, so you get a division between the community and the school.

“Here, there are no fences. School is real life and the community is what school is all about.

“When you look at the values spread across the walls, and hear the children talk about them, they are about resilience and adaptability and respect and caring.

“We see that in action.

“They don’t just talk it here, they walk the walk as well.”

EitC is getting in at the start of these children’s lives. The project is motivated by a will to show Knowsley Lane’s pupils they have… choices.

Byrne and his team’s role at the school initially extended only as far as overseeing PE lessons one day a week.

Their instant success in engaging with the children prompted Lord to strengthen Knowsley Lane’s ties with EitC. The charity is responsible for delivering a mentoring programme across an entire year group, it provides PE lessons throughout the school and introduces children to experiences which represent uncharted territory for the majority.

“EitC delivers a package tailored for our children and our needs and linked with our personal learning goals,” says Lord, whose staff’s continuing professional development has also been aided by EitC coaches.

“The teachers have fully embraced the coaches in every aspect: mentoring, PE sessions, day-to-day life,” continues Lord.

“The coaches are not coaches anymore. They are members of staff, members of the Knowsley Lane family: the children, staff and community know that, and everybody feels it.”

Those same coaches lead assemblies designed to tackle pertinent topics, anti-bullying and racism among them. A tutorial on firework safety gave one Year 5 student the tools to save the life of a three-year-old-boy in 2017.

“We are one of the most deprived schools in Knowsley based on free school meals percentages and we are surrounded by gang culture,” says Lord.

“The children are vulnerable to being exploited by crime. We need to make sure we intervene early in their academic and social skills… establish how we expect children to conduct themselves in school and in lessons and in the wider community.”

Tangible evidence of EitC’s determination to dig a prosperous path for children across Merseyside can be found in the form of a fresh £445,948 grant awarded by the Home Office’s Early Intervention Youth Fund.

This cash injection will further enable the protection of young people [aged 8-19] from exploitation and exposure to serious violence and gang culture.

“Yes, there are negative role models,” says Sir John, “but what they do here is champion everything good about a citizen in the community.

“These kids spend most of their time in the community, not in school.

“The school is developing role models, and not only in the children. There is family involvement, too. We saw great pictures of the mums racing during sports week [an event which is the brainchild of EitC].

“These kids can’t see the difference between the EitC staff and their teachers and support assistants, they are all one to them.

“The rules in school also apply on the streets in the community and in the homes in the community.

“I can see a real transformation taking place, where the community is the school and the school is the community.

“If you like, the community is one of the biggest learning resources the school has – and it is using it.”

Byrne is one of the driving forces behind an initiative which sees Knowsley Lane partner with a breadth of organisations.

Relationships with building firms allow children to explore new pursuits. There is a tie-in with tech giant Apple which reaps similar benefits.

Tesco donates groceries for the game-changing breakfast club.

After school boxing clubs are the consequence of Knowsley Lane’s EitC-led link-up with professional boxing club MTK Liverpool.

Byrne has arranged regular visits from former British champion boxers Derry Matthews and Rocky Fielding, two local boys made good; walking-talking examples for the pupils of the heights that can be reached by people from the same patch on which they are being raised.

“The boxers who come in, who live over the fence here, they are showing the kids, there is a better way and a way that is achievable for them, if they have those values the school is inculcating in them,” says Sir John.

“If they value themselves and pursue that dream, it is waiting for them.”

Byrne agrees. He is providing the springboard for Knowsley Lane’s pupils to leap onto roads paved with hope and aspiration.

“We give people an opportunity to try something they might not know they are good at,” he says.

“Through the building firms, we are introducing them to bricklaying, joinery, woodwork. It might enable them to realise, ‘I am good at that’, and they will invest their efforts into pursuing it.

“It is giving them as broad a range of experiences as we can to influence decisions they make in later life.”

Lord is passionate about her school and proud of it, too. There is a bounce in her stride as she leads a tour of its compact grounds, walking along a spotless corridor, bathed in natural light and winding past modern classrooms to a refurbished sports hall. A hall of fame on one wall depicts a gallery of former pupils thriving in adulthood.

Softly spoken and extremely welcoming, Lord’s natural warmth should not mask her absolute commitment to getting the best for Knowsley Lane at every turn.

If somebody advances a suggestion, she demands they start at the end. ‘How will this help our pupils?’

The conversation continues only if she likes the answer.

Lord trusts and embraces EitC, convinced by the charity’s ability to enhance her pupils’ lives.

“Paddy and EitC understand the journey the school has been on and the journey to come,” says Lord.

“Knowsley Lane is a community school and the staff is a family. Paddy is part of the staff along with the other coaches.

“He understands the children don’t always have the best opportunities, that he needs to make sure he provides those. And he does.

“He ensures the children are well fed and well exercised in the mornings. He glances in lessons when he walks down the corridor to catch a glimpse of what the children are doing, then talks to them about it later.”

Byrne explains why complete immersion in Knowsley Lane – “I can tell you something about every pupil from Year 1 to Year 6,” he says – was the only way EitC could lend their substantial hand to turning around the school’s fortunes and giving its children a renewed outlook on life.

“To have success, you have to be involved, to buy into what the school is about,” says Byrne.

“You have to invest your personality. You can’t dip in and out, you have to go in wholeheartedly.

“And when you put yourself into it, you drive more, you push forward to give the kids the experiences, to give them that little chance they might not have otherwise.

“When you see improved SATS results, or kids joining football teams or being successful in anything they choose to do, because you have invested your time and bought into what the school is about… you source enormous pride from it.”

Sir John draws breath to allow the details of Knowsley Lane’s “exceptional rate of change” to wash over him once more.

From his elevated vantage point in the world of education, he sees a template for others to copy.

Knowsley Lane will host intrigued visitors from high up in other Merseyside schools, all keen to have daylight shed on what Sir John calls “the magic of what is happening here”.

A conference designed to share the real-life tale of how EitC and Knowsley Lane combined to pull off this remarkable trick is in the planning.

“It is so successful here, this relationship between the Club and the school in its community, that headteachers will be queuing up saying, ‘We want this’,” says Sir John.

“So our big challenge now is, how do we replicate it and put a business model together to say, ‘We can all do this’?

“This could spiral. It could be a model for everybody.”

It is a model, insists Byrne, which remains in the early phase of its construction.

“We want it to go from strength to strength,” he says. “There is always more. You can never rest on what you have done.

“You always want to do the next thing, to look for bigger, for more impact and more experiences.

“We want to give the children a path they can control and help them make the right choices along the way.”

Alex is a Year 4 pupil at Knowsley Lane, one of those responsible for putting a smile on Byrne’s face every morning.

She wants to be a teacher “like Paddy”. Her words sit at the top of this article.

Alex has the final say, too.

“Everything we do with Everton in the Community is fun and inspires me to come to school.

“If I am ill and can’t come to school, I wish I could.

“I love coming to school. Especially Knowsley Lane” 

To find out more about the Premier League Primary Stars programme, visit www.plprimarystars.com

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