How schools and communities are working together to fight poverty and change lives - RSA

How schools and communities are working together to fight poverty and change lives


  • Education
  • Curriculum
  • Schools

A good education isn’t just about students’ exam results. It’s about the people students have become by the time they pick up those results.

We want a school system that produces good citizens equipped to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives. But no teacher or school leader, however brilliant and passionate they are, can achieve this alone.

Schools need opportunities to collaborate with businesses, professional bodies, arts and cultural organisations, charities and voluntary organisations, colleges and universities. All of these organisations and groups can offer young people ways to find meaning and create value in the world.

The new RSA-ECIS report Schools Without Walls explores the schools that extend their educational mission beyond the school gates, and how this helps both students and the community. We visited 11 schools in the UK, USA, Italy, and Israel that are committed to community partnerships.


Fighting poverty by working with families

Surrey Square Primary School (London, UK) does extensive work with the families of pupils, led by a dedicated family worker. As she puts it “if something in your home life is affecting your ability to learn, then we need to do something about it.”

Her work includes supporting families who have been forced into temporary accommodation or who can’t access public services owing to their immigration status to get back on their feet.

Like Surrey Square, The Island School (New York, USA) faces the challenge of families in temporary accommodation and employs a full-time family worker. Families have access to a whole range of support from on-site medical care to workshops on everything from supporting their child with mathematics homework to cooking a great family meal together.

A partnership with a local college also helps parents who have missed out on educational opportunities earlier in their lives to gain formal qualifications.

One parent, Nina, burst into tears telling us of the difference that the school had made to her life.

“When you come here, you feel welcomed. It’s not just the child. The family also needs that pat on the back to say: ‘you’re doing ok...your life is not over…your dreams can still come true’.”

Nina attended workshops run by the school, secured her college diploma and is now president of the school’s Parent-Teacher Association.  

At Reach Academy Feltham (Greater London, UK) support for families starts before the child is born. Through their new children’s hub, they are working in partnership with local services and charities to provide ‘cradle to career’ support for all families in the local area. As executive principal Ed Vainker explains:

“A school alone cannot provide a transformation in life chances for all young people and families that come through its doors, we must be open to working with others.”

Senior leaders at the school believe that having people who were born and bred in the local area in their outreach roles is crucial to the success of that work.

Read Schools Without Walls

Building community pride with a curriculum that links to the local area

We also found examples of schools breaking down walls by developing curricula that immerse students in local history and culture. 

In these schools, ‘crews’ of students and staff work collaboratively with local experts as part of cross-curricular projects.

For example, 11 to 12 year-old students at XP School (Doncaster, UK) explored the question ‘what does the community of Doncaster owe to the miners?’ for a term from a range of perspectives: historical, scientific, geographical, sociological and mathematical.  

It resulted in the production of a book that went on to be the best-selling local history book. Researching the book improved students’ confidence (talking to new people) and also gave them a critical perspective on local history and the story of the town.

The Plymouth School of Creative Arts (Plymouth, UK) has a similar, but not identical, project-based learning model with community connections at its heart.

One project sparked an idea for a whole new enterprise. As part of a project about the sea, students had the opportunity to build a boat. It became apparent that despite living so close to the sea many students had never been in a boat. In some cases, this was because they and their parents couldn’t swim.

The school set up its own charitable arm, Red 22, through which it secures grant funding and brokers partnerships that enable local families – whether they attend the school or not – to learn to swim, surf and sail (among other things!).

The school is also home to many local start-ups. Companies benefit from affordable workspace and advice. In return, they give back to students e.g. by becoming reading partners or mentors.

Read Schools Without Walls

Enabling students to take part in social action and campaigning

Recent RSA research shows that young people are much more likely than adults to take part in ‘social action’ – a broad term that encompasses a range of volunteering and campaigning activities. We found that the encouragement of schools was the most important factor motivating them.

Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School (New York, USA) is a vibrant example of a school helping students take social action. Named after a civil right activist, the school encourages students to research social issues as part of the curriculum and, wherever possible, to take action.

This approach is enabled by a long-standing partnership with the NGO, Children’s Aid Society, which provides a range of additional learning and volunteering opportunities to students. In addition, the Bronx Office for Student Start-Ups (BOSS), located on an upper floor of the school, enables students to lead their own change, for example one student wanted to raise awareness of local gun crime and so made jewellery out of bullets.

This is one of many examples in the report of schools that provide a home to charities and services that benefit the children and families they serve.

The Blue School (New York, USA) also works to encourage student initiative, even with its youngest students.  

For example, during regular visits to a local playground, pupils aged 5 and 6 noticed a lot of cigarette butts and wanted to clean them up. The teacher spotted an opportunity for a study and encouraged the pupils to ask what could be done to solve the problem.

Through their research students discovered that it was illegal to drop cigarettes there. They wrote to the council and worked with local offices to introduce new signs and markings to make their playground better. In doing so, they discovered the power of their voices.

Developing global citizens and leaders

UWC Adriatic (Duino, Italy) takes the ‘schools without walls’ concept quite literally. On our visit, we couldn’t tell the school buildings from the rest of the village.

The college is home to around 200 students aged 16 to 19 from over 80 different countries, who board in residences throughout the village. Students and locals mix as students walk between classes, or from class to their rooms.

Time for ‘service’ is integrated into the school timetable as part of the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme they follow, but students go above and beyond the course requirements. They have created a number of voluntary initiatives. Some meet local needs that they have identified in the village; others respond to global challenges. For example, the humanitarian aid council have travelled to volunteer in refugee camps and currently support new refugees arriving to Italy to settle in and find work.

Creating global citizens is at the heart of the Eastern Mediterranean International School (Tel Aviv, Israel) which admits 20% Israeli, 20% Palestinian/Arab, and 60% international students each year.

Students are explicitly taught conflict resolution and they participate in a peace simulation where they are assigned different roles in the peace process and asked to negotiate an agreement – usually asking students to ‘switch’ from their typical perspectives. Teachers and students from around the world are invited to an annual conference to learn about the school’s approach.

Read Schools Without Walls

Partnering with employers and universities to prepare students for the future

The University of Birmingham School (UK) is a stone’s throw from the buildings of the university that founded it. The school admits pupils from the city’s four most deprived areas. The close partnership with the university offers a wealth of opportunity for students to be exposed to the possibility of higher education.

This includes activities on Thursday afternoons, which are set aside for work with external partners.

The relationship also benefits school staff. University lecturers provide regular presentations on educational research to school staff and sometimes work more closely with a specific subject teacher to develop their pedagogical practice. This school-university partnership does much to bridge the gap between research and practice in education.

The Cristo Rey Network of 35 high schools across the USA take a very distinctive approach to preparing young people for the future. From 9th Grade (age 14 to 15), students spend a day per week doing a work placement. The placement is part of the Corporate Work Study Program (CWSP), which aims to improve the access of students from low income communities to college and jobs. As Catalina Gutierrez, head of the Corporate Work Study Programme at Cristo Rey New York School, puts it:

“If you read about social mobility, a lot of advantage comes down to networks. Our students don’t have the chance to intern at their parents’ businesses, but with the Corporate Work Study Program they go on placement with top corporate employers and they become so polished.”


Schools Without Walls is intended to be a source of inspiration and guidance for:

  • People working in schools
  • Charities and employers who could work with schools
  • Parents and carers of pupils
  • Policymakers and funders

Everyone has a part to play in giving children an education that develops their curiosity, creativity, and kindness – and produces young people ready to change the world.

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