Escuela Nueva in the UK
Over the course of three years Maslaha worked in partnership with Fundación Escuela Nueva (FEN) in Colombia and four UK primary schools to explore how the internationally acclaimed FEN model could be adapted to tackle educational inequalities in the UK.
We were excited to be recruited as FEN’s first European and UK partner and were particularly interested in the scope for the model to offer strategies for schools to better engage with local communities and support marginalised pupils and their families.
We believe there will be rich benefits for society as a whole if schools are more community engaged and culturally relevant to the lives of children and their families. The FEN model offers interesting potential for this as it aims to structure schools around the needs and realities of their communities, improving the quality, relevance and efficiency of education.
An immersive year of action research in 2017 with two of our pilot schools, Sandringham P.S. (London) and The Beeches P.S. (Peterborough), allowed us to understand what aspects of the model could be most useful in a UK context. Following this we opted to focus on the following selected strategies of the model:
Cooperative learning – creating a shift in the classroom where teachers redefine their role as facilitators and pupil voice is amplified.
Student participation – students have the opportunity to develop agency, voice and leadership roles in school and the local community.
Community engagement – acknowledging the skills and expertise of local communities as a valuable resource to enhance learning.
Escuela Nueva has transformed the lives of millions of children all over the world. The model’s transformative impact on both educational attainment as well as life skills has been acknowledged by bodies such as the World Bank, UN, Skoll Foundation, Ashoka, WISE as well as numerous academic institutions and governments.
There is a fundamental problem with our education system which leads to the educational inequalities we see today. The ways schools operate and are designed does not meet the needs of all students and particularly the most marginalised.
Assessment orientated learning and high stakes-testing mean that teachers are more likely to orientate towards direct instruction at the expense of dialogic teaching where classroom discussion and debate is valued , or more pupil-focused learning where a range of instructional and learning arrangements are used, often improving pupil engagement.
Unconsciously or consciously teachers can have low expectations of pupils based on their cultural or class backgrounds, and students have been shown to have a high awareness of teacher expectations . Research has shown this has a hugely detrimental effect on pupils and their ability to have the opportunity to flourish and achieve well at school .
Education research shows that children learn best when their culture, local context and language are reflected in school curriculum. This has been shown to considerably raise aspirations and engagement . Today’s predominantly Eurocentric curriculum in the UK often doesn’t connect with the lived, cultural and historical experiences of a lot of pupils. Culturally responsive classrooms can allow for the deconstruction of harmful stereotypes and open space for positive self and cultural affirmations to be portrayed , this is more important than ever in the UK today.
Educational inequality in the UK leads to children from lower income backgrounds performing less well in schools than their more affluent counterparts. This inequality also correlates with other factors such as socio-economic background, gender, geography, race and ethnicity. For example:
Gypsy and traveller groups have lower levels of achievements than other ethnic groups at all key stages 
Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Black Caribbean and Black African groups consistently perform below the national average 
What We Did
Over three years of this project, Maslaha worked closely with our four pilot schools to strengthen their relationship with local communities and explore child-centred learning. The four schools that participated in the pilot are:
The Beeches Primary School, Peterborough
Sandringham Primary School, East London
Poplars Farm Primary School, Bradford
Marshfield Primary School, Bradford
The strategies we used to adapt the FEN model to the UK included:
We delivered teacher training over two years and provided ongoing support for school staff to understand and use FEN strategies for cooperative learning, student governance and community engagement. These include ‘Learning Guides’, which are texts that encourage dialogue and interaction, allowing pupils to develop logical and critical thinking and build knowledge based on their own experiences and follow their own pace of learning. Read more about our teacher training here.
We supported community projects and events that enabled the schools to better understand and value the needs and skills of their families. For example, as part of a community mapping exercise with Sandringham Primary School, Maslaha worked with a group of mothers to produce the zine “Our Forest Gate Stories” about their journeys to the local area, Forest Gate, Newham. To read the stories and find out more about the zine, click here.
We facilitated and developed mechanisms for teachers to collaborate with families and local communities in ways that complement and enhance learning. One of the FEN tools we used for this was the ‘Travelling Notebook’. The notebook is sent home to pupils with a prompt, for example “who is my hero” which families respond to. These prompts can link to particular topics or they can be wider themes that relate to particular occasions e.g. anti-bullying day.
We explored the potential for FEN tools such as their student government model to support student leadership, voice and active engagement across the school – spanning from each individual classroom, to the student government, and beyond in the wider community.
The impact and outcomes of the project over three years are:
Improvement in pupil aspirations and a greater sense of belonging.
“I like having my mum here because she supports me and challenges me to do better.” (Year 5 pupil)
Stronger and richer relationships between schools, parents and local communities.
“There were some parents that I didn’t know very well before, but as they got involved through the project I got to know them a lot better. These parents started to engage with school more and started to volunteer to go on trips.” (Year 5 teacher)
“I’ve learned a lot more about the families’ back stories, I’ve learnt a lot more about the kids through their parents, the kids have learnt a lot about their families too! It’s made everyone feel closer and like they belong.” (Year 5 teacher)
Families are better equipped to support their child’s learning at home.
“I’m so happy, I feel like I’ve seen a new curiosity and enthusiasm from my son in this project. It’s great to be involved at different stages in the topic as well – I feel like I’ve been able to be on a journey with my son.” (Year 5 parent)
Increased pupil engagement and attendance.
“The children who are usually reluctant to contribute new ideas or share personal stories have been more forthcoming and confident to contribute to the classroom.” (Year 5 teacher)
Going forward we will be focusing on developing the tools that teachers, pupils and parents in our pilot schools have found most useful. We are distilling the learning from this process to create tools that can be used to respond directly to some of the very specific barriers that communities and families in the UK can experience when engaging with school. The experience has been a continuous learning process for both organisations. We are delighted to be able to continue our relationship with FEN in a valuable knowledge exchange that will allow both organisations to share practice and experiences and grapple with challenges in our respective contexts.
 Tim Jay et al, EEF Dialogic Teaching evaluation report, 2017
 Rubie-Davies, C. (2010) “Teacher expectation and perceptions of student attributes: Is There a relationship?” British Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 121-135.
 Tina Craig, Factors That Influence Teacher Expectations of Hispanic, African American and Low-Income Students (2011)
 Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice (2000)
 NYU Steinhardt, Culturally responsive differentiated instructional strategies (2008)
 Wilkin, A et al “Improving the Outcomes for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils: Final Report”, DFE Research Report (2010)
 Strand, S, “Minority Ethnic Pupils in the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England: Extension Report on Performance in Public Examinations at Age 16”, (2008)
Images below: Parents at Sandringham school in East London designed tomato seed packets and gave away over 500 packets as part of a big seed giveaway during our action research.