Henry Sauntson, Professional Tutor, City of Peterborough Academy, UK

Schools have a duty to provide pastoral support and a strong programme of learning centred around student development and welfare. Many schools consider it their moral and ethical duty to provide quality social and emotional learning (SEL) programmes, but the pressure to ensure that these are in place can often override the investment and care that they need, particularly from a contextual standpoint. There is a need for SEL to be held in high regard within pastoral curriculum planning and overall school culture, ensuring that the programme is fit for purpose with regard to the cohort being served; it is important that these programmes are tailored and sculpted carefully, and often this support can come from well-chosen external provision. Culture is what happens when the doors are shut and no one is watching, and at the City of Peterborough Academy, we know that we cater for a demographic of largely disadvantaged students in need of not only effective teaching but also a strong programme of support outside the classroom. Relevant research and evidence can help inform our decision-making, and as Durlak et al. (2011) tell us, ‘A key challenge for 21st-century schools involves serving culturally diverse students with varied abilities and motivations for learning. Unfortunately, many students lack social-emotional competencies and become less connected to school as they progress.’ (p. 405) We want as an academy to ensure that our students remain connected and develop those social and emotional competencies often found lacking.

One way in which we have looked to overcome this challenge is to use outside agencies with specialisms to enrich our own offer; effective SEL is especially important for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and other vulnerable groups, who, on average, have weaker SEL skills at all ages than their better-off classmates (EEF, 2019) and that effective SEL can lead to learning gains of +4 months over the course of a year – further evidence, if any were needed, that developing the provision of SEL in our curriculum offer was the right thing to do. Payton et al. (2008) state that ‘Research conducted during the past few decades indicates that social and emotional learning programming for elementary- and middle-school students is a very promising approach to reducing problem behaviors, promoting positive adjustment, and enhancing academic performance.’ (p. 5) We want the best for our students, and we believe that collaboration and the sourcing of necessary expertise helps to improve our standards.


By working with external providers to help develop the social and emotional needs of our students, we wanted to allow them to realise their potential in key areas: self-awareness and management; social awareness; and relationships. According to Payton et al. (2008), ‘Social-emotional competencies involve skills that enable children to calm themselves when angry, initiate friendships and resolve conflicts respectfully, make ethical and safe choices, and contribute constructively to their community.’ (p. 6) Our community is vital to us as an academy, and we turned to the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and their ‘Parental engagement report (2018) to help us make strong choices, especially as we work with a high number of disadvantaged students and their families, and the work of the EEF and the Sutton Trust is vital in this area.

In 2018, we began work with HumanUtopia, a provider of leadership and volunteering programmes aimed at students to help them ‘make positive changes in their lives, society and the world’. Their aim is ‘empowering young people to make positive change’, and this aligned perfectly with our vision for the development of the Academy as, in the words of Principal Ben Pearce, ‘school of choice for our community’. HumanUtopia’s work has been recognised nationally as hugely impactful and has helped to transform the lives of many students in difficult and disadvantaged community circumstances. They run a programme that creates ‘Heroes’ out of students, who then work as a force for good in developing their own competencies (outlined above), as well as mentoring those in lower school years as they navigate difficult transitions – the ‘big jump’ from Year 6 to 7 and the move from Key Stage 3 to 4, for example.

They also develop themselves as strong role models and forces for good, using their developed confidence and communication to become themselves a mandate for positive change and opportunity in their communities, reaching out to parents and carers. The engagement of parents and carers – and the wider community of a school – is essential to its success, and indeed part of its purpose. The EEF (2018, p. 4) tell us that parents play a ‘crucial ‘role in supporting their children’s learning, and ‘levels of parental engagement are consistently associated with better academic outcomes. Evidence suggests that effective parental engagement can lead to learning gains of +3 months over the course of a year (EEF, 2020). The HumanUtopia approach is to coach students into acknowledging themselves as individuals and then to harness that as a force for positive change, both through whole-cohort, full-day experiences and also in smaller, more focused groups. The strength is in the iterative and responsive nature of the delivery and instruction; these are not simply ‘one-off’ inputs with no follow-up – they are essentially a curriculum in their own right.

The success of the programme lies in connecting students’ smaller microcosmic experiences to the wider world of the community that they inhabit, and in encouraging them, through coaching and support, to harness their own potential and see how they can have an impact – there is also a natural enrichment of cultural capital through concrete examples and association. We committed to HumanUtopia as an iterative programme of development for students so as to have a more far-reaching and sustained impact. According to Principal Ben Pearce, We didn’t want the programmes to be one-off drop-down days in Year 1, never to be seen of or heard of again. We were able to work with the [HumanUtopia] team in designing a programme that suited us, our students, and our community and context. This was really powerful.’ We cannot deny or refute the qualitative impact that the programme has had, and will continue to have – this iterative and sustained approach is so important. In their synthesis of research in 2015, Goodman et al. found a ‘very significant body of work demonstrating the association of self-control, self-regulation (and similar concepts) in childhood with many domains of adult life, including mental health, life satisfaction and wellbeing, qualifications, income and labour market outcomes, measures of physical health, obesity, smoking, crime and mortality’ (p. 8) – all key contextual concerns for our demographic. They also found that ‘belief that one’s own actions can make a difference – captured by concepts such as locus of control, self-efficacy –are […] related to a number of adult outcomes, including mental distress, self-rated health, obesity and unemployment. The literature also shows that self-esteem in childhood is associated with both mental and physical health in adult life’ (p. 8). By aligning these findings with our core values, our moral and ethical duty as educators, and our desire to impact positively on the wider community, we feel that the use of this programme has enhanced the lives of our students.


Lead ‘Heroes’ Abigail and Aariz (names used are pseudonyms) were appointed in 2018 and had an immediate impact, not only through the acknowledgment of their own selves but also through their impact on others as they led their team. Their first project was International Volunteering Day in December 2018, when they organised the collection and donation of food to the local homeless shelter – something that continues to this day – as well as a collection of toys for the children’s ward at the local City Hospital. There was a ‘Family Day’ in March, which raised money for the Children of Adam project, which provides fresh water for poor countries. Added to this is the desire to bring the wider school community together and raise levels of parental engagement in student projects. Lots of local companies are now involved in sponsorship, meaning that pupils are communicating with multiple local stakeholders. We can already see and taste the fruits of the students’ work and they can testify to their own improved self- and social awareness – they identified a need in their community and used the work done within our SEL programme to help realise the solutions. Abigail and Aariz may be the figureheads, but they are only part of the overall team of Heroes that does vital and valuable work around the Academy on a daily basis, be it mentoring younger students, supporting with the transition from Year 6 to Year 7 or working with students from other schools within our MAT and beyond.

The coordinator of the programme, science teacher Laura, cites the following impacts:

Laura states that the ‘impact on involved students is huge in terms of developing their own awareness of self, their self-belief and self-efficacy, confidence, ability to communicate with a range of providers’ –what more could we ask from an external provider in line with our own values and aims?

Both Abigail and Aariz are ambassadors for the school now and have ambitions of going further afield with their own concerns, but they acknowledge that they couldn’t do this without the continued support of HumanUtopia and the school itself; this support helps them to find the right doors to knock at! They want to promote change of perceptions of youth across the country, alter generational bias, build life skills, and further enhance those core competencies – in Aariz’s own words, they are ‘reaching for the stars’! Aariz thinks that altruism has become like a drug – he’s hooked and he wants more! He was initially cynical – it ‘looked good’ on his sixth-form application – but the programme has grown on him. It’s given him space to improve as person, and links in the community that never seemed possible; it’s propelled him onto a platform to do something even better.

Abigail agrees. She didn’t want to be like every other student; she wanted to be something more, something memorable – she wanted a greater impact on her, to help her in turn help her community. Both acknowledge that they have seen an impact on students in school – attendance has improved as students don’t want to miss out on opportunities, and those characteristics of grit and resilience are developed in the face of more ‘real world’ challenges and necessities.

The future?

The ultimate celebration of the work done by HumanUtopia and the students in school is that in 2019 our group of Heroes were recognised as the best group of Heroes ‘across the country’ – testament to their commitment and drive. The programme remains an integral part of our ever-developing SEL offer – our pastoral staff work astonishingly hard in procuring and providing the best possible support for our students and the community, and we hope to see more and more students benefiting from the opportunity to understand themselves and harness their own potential.

To give Ben Pearce the last word: ‘The [HumanUtopia] programme is massively pivotal to our students becoming well-rounded, polite and resilient young citizens.’ That’s all we want; thank you to those that help us realise it.


Durlak JA, Weissberg RP, Dymnicki AB et al. (2011) The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development 82: 405–432.

Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) (2018) Working with parents to support children’s learning. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Publications/ParentalEngagement/EEF_Parental_Engagement_Guidance_Report.pdf (accessed 14 April 2020).

Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) (2019) Social and emotional learning. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/pdf/generate/?u=https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/pdf/toolkit/?id=146&t=Teaching%20and%20Learning%20Toolkit&e=146&s= (accessed 10 November 2020).

Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) (2020) Parental Engagement. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/pdf/generate/?u=https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/pdf/toolkit/?id=139&t=Teaching%20and%20Learning%20Toolkit&e=139&s=  (accessed 10 November 2020).

Goodman A, Joshi H, Nasim B et al (2015) Social and emotional skills in childhood and their long-term effects on adult life. A review for the Early Intervention Foundation. Available at: www.basw.co.uk/resources/social-and-emotional-skills-childhood-and-their-long-term-effects-adult-life (accessed 14 April 2020).

Humanutopia (nd) Our Programmes. Available at: https://www.humanutopia.com/ (accessed 10 November 2020).

Payton J, Weissberg RP, Durlak JA et al. (2008) The positive impact of social and emotional learning for kindergarten to eighth-grade students: Findings from three scientific reviews. Chicago, IL: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Available at: www.casel.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/PDF-4-the-positive-impact-of-social-and-emotional-learning-for-kindergarten-to-eighth-grade-students-executive-summary.pdf (accessed 14 April 2020).

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