Helping the supplementary schools of England achieve excellence: Meet the NRCSE
Interview with Pascale Vassie of the National Resource Center for Supplementary Education (NRCSE) in England. Executive Director of the NRCSE 2012-2021, Ms. Vassie has years of experience working to empower migrant communities and is committed to raising the standards of supplementary schools in England.
October 05, 2021
Here in the Netherlands, heritage language programs are usually established and managed by community members, generally on a voluntary basis, outside of the school system. In England, the situation is no different. Schools that do not qualify as mainstream education, including community-led language programs, are called “supplementary” or “complementary” schools and fall outside of the scope of the Department of Education in England.
In order to support the supplementary schools in England, an agency has been set up that provides support and training to encourage good management and safe practices: the National Resource Center for Supplementary Education (NRCSE). The NRCSE is a national strategic organization that campaigns throughout England on behalf of supplementary schools and their students, teachers, and leaders. It aims to help raise the profile of supplementary schools, to raise awareness about the importance of community-led education, and to support programs in the development of their standards of teaching, learning, and management through a 360-degree quality assurance process.
Who is behind the NRCSE? We reached out to the Executive Director of the NRCSE 2012 - 2021, Ms. Pascale Vassie, to find out what place heritage language education has in England and what types of activities and services are organized by the NRCSE. Involved in sector since 2009, and having established NRCSE as an independent charity in 2012, Ms. Vassie has years of experience working to empower migrant communities. She speaks passionately about the importance of ensuring that all children are able to access safe and effective out of school activities, and she is committed to helping supplementary schools achieve excellence.
What does the term “supplementary school” refer to in England?
“Supplementary schools” provide part-time educational opportunities for children and young people, primarily from minority communities. Supplementary schools commonly offer mother tongue (heritage language) classes and faith and cultural studies, which could be accompanied by activities such as sport, music, dance and drama. Supplementary schools could also provide support for the regular English National Curriculum subjects, such as English and Math.
Supplementary schools are established and managed by community members, often on a voluntary basis, and operate from community centers, youth clubs, religious institutions, and mainstream schools. Many supplementary schools are small local groups run by parents, though some are part of larger organizations that provide a range of services.
(I should note that universities call those teaching home/heritage languages “complementary schools” because they “complement” the national core curriculum. So, if you want to find research, then you should look for “complementary schools”.)
Which types of educational programs does the NRCSE support?
The NRCSE supports supplementary schools, including faith and culture organizations. Programs that fall outside of our scope are those that focus primarily on sports and the so-called uniform groups, such as Scouts.
How many supplementary schools are there in England?
There are an estimated 3,000 – 5,000 supplementary schools in England. This estimate is based on our work over 25 years, looking at various networks. It could actually be a lot more!
How many of the supplementary schools in England would be considered a heritage language (HL) program?
When we surveyed 1500 schools, about 68% of them were teaching a language. This includes religious and faith organizations that teach a language.
Regarding the fact that HL education is provided via supplementary education: Scandinavia has somehow managed to achieve the integration of HL into the mainstream schools, and I have certainly tried to lobby for that here. But the consensus here (from research) is that it is not possible for mainstream / state schools to provide this type of language support to students – and that it is also not possible or reasonable to expect it.
One example of why England does not seem ready for the integration of HL education into the mainstream is that HL learners have faced negative media coverage for taking the national modern foreign language exam in their HL. For instance, it has been claimed that a child who has a Polish speaking mother might perform better on a national Polish language exam than a child with two English-speaking parents, which could unfairly skew the grading curve. There have even been claims that having HL students in a Modern Language class is demoralizing for the monolingual children! To me this is a shame and the NRCSE has taken measures to help ensure that HL students can achieve qualifications for their knowledge.
So, the expectation is that HL programs will continue to make up a large part of the supplementary education sector, as they have for decades.
Is the NRCSE a government agency?
No, the NRCSE is independent of, but works with, local and central government.
How did the NRCSE get started?
In the 1990s, a group was started by HL schools that was called “Resource Unit for Mother Tongue and Supplementary Education.” It included both HL and any other kind of provision that was supplementing a deficiency in the state system. It became the “NRCSE” in 2012.
Back then, there was some government funding made available to fund/support a quality assurance scheme through NRCSE. There was recognition that there was a real variety in the quality of provision. Local and central government agencies and charitable trust funders were working together because they saw that the local government was being asked to fund supplementary education (including HL education) and they realized that (a) that there were a lot out there! and (b) it was different from the general voluntary sector. Compared to the general voluntary sector, there was a bigger variety in the way the programs were set up. Most of the people setting up supplementary education programs were not originally from England, and they did not know what policies they needed to put in place to satisfy British bureaucracy.
What we wanted to do was to develop sympathetic and developmental support. We wanted to make sure that the programs were safe and effective, that they were not wasting the children’s time and that they would be respected by the statutory sector.
Around the same time, there was also a national program for extending the school day outside of school hours using the buildings. There was a big push around the year 2000 for the recognition that these school buildings were state premises. The buildings would be closed at 16:00 and not used in the weekends, but the push was for them to be used more as community hubs, to open them for use by supplementary schools.
How did you get involved with the NRCSE? What is your background?
I got involved for two main reasons. First, I am bilingual myself with a mixed heritage background. Second, my background is in community empowerment. I believe deeply and profoundly that minoritized communities already know what is necessary to support their children and young people. People within communities know that it is beneficial for students to have a really solid knowledge and understanding of their culture and languages and they want to pass it on – and they know how to do it. They do not need the state to tell them how to do it. These supplementary schools for the most part have low membership fees, and in many cases, particularly outside of London, everyone is a volunteer. They do not need to have things imposed on them, rather they need respect, they need to be recognized, and they need support.
I saw that if we could help these communities understand the policies and procedures of a quality assurance procedure, they could achieve the NRCSE Quality Mark, have an easier job getting space at state schools to give the classes and, hopefully, stand a better chance of obtaining funds. The host locations want to see that the organization that wants to bring 250 students on a Saturday has basic policies and procedures in place that they can recognize. That is why I got involved with NRCSE does, is to support the communities with these basics.
How does the NRCSE fund its own activities?
We are a non-profit organization, and we work with many local authorities and funders across England, including the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and, more recently, John Lyon’s Charity and the British and Foreign School Society. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for us to get state funding because we are a membership organization representing the sector, and we do not to push a certain political angle. We have not had funding from the central government since 2012 and our team is quite small at the moment which certainly is limiting our work.
What is required for supplementary schools?
In England supplementary schools do not need to be a legal entity and it is not legally required for them to have insurance. It is technically the duty of local authorities (outlined in the Children Act of 2004, Section 11) to safeguard children. What we do is outline for supplementary schools how they can voluntarily engage in practices that safeguard children based on these guidelines – practices that strengthen their organization and also help them grow.
What does NRCSE do to support supplementary schools?
We provide a broad range of support services:
We maintain an online directory of quality assured supplementary schools according to region, with about 155 listed at the moment.
We are a membership organization. We offer a subscription for 50 Euro that gives access to online support, templates, and advice, access to exclusive webinars and e-learing, regular e-bulletins, and access to the nationally recognized NRCSE Quality Mark.
We facilitate the only nationally-recognized quality assurance scheme targeted specifically at providers of supplementary education: the “NRCSE Quality Mark.” There are 180 schools that have completed the Quality Mark. For 64 of these, there is a comprehensive Quality Mark Report (example) made public that details findings about the school. In the report, for each of the individual standards, we mark whether a supplementary school “Meets” the standard or “Advances Beyond” the standard.
We also offer an online course that helps schools prepare the documents necessary to apply for the NRCSE Quality Mark.
We offer safeguarding and good management training. Since 2012, 520 organizations have completed this training.
We offer a self-led modular e-course that takes communities through the steps of planning, establishing and running a safe and effective supplementary school.
We help organizations check their compliance with safeguarding standards and best practice for supplementary education via a self-check.
We provide a “Route to quality assurance for supplementary schools” to explain in what cases quality assurance can be provided by a local authority and in what cases it can/should be provided directly by NRCSE.
We work to improve the funding available to support community-led supplementary schools. We do this by working with the community organizations themselves, with the professionals who support supplementary education within local authorities, and with mainstream schools wanting to collaborate with providers of supplementary education.
We help child safeguarding boards of local authorities to ensure that out-of-school education in their area is being run safely and with regard to the law.
We offer vocational training, now adapted for remote delivery. The modules can be combined to obtain two new national vocational qualifications: “Level 2 Award in Teaching in Supplementary Schools and other Out of School Settings” and “Level 3 Certificate in Teaching in the Supplementary Education Sector.” The modules address topics such as teaching skills, practical teaching, maintaining a safe learning environment, language teaching, and supporting students with special educational needs.
Does the NRCSE inspect supplementary schools?
No, we are not tasked with inspecting the supplementary education sector. No agency is. We believe that if these communities set something up, that they are doing it with the best of intentions. They need to be encouraged in what they want to do. It is not an inspection; it is about supporting community programs to do their best.
You can look at an example of an NRCSE Quality Mark report for a school to see how we explain to them where they can improve. We make sure to let them know what they are doing well and that their work is important. If we see poor practice, we usually work with a school to help them improve it and we only report issues where a child/children are at risk of harm.
What kinds of good practices are recommended?
For instance, lesson locations should have fire exits and ventilation; there should be regular staff training and background checks should be run on teachers. In England it is free to run background checks on volunteers. Also, a school should maintain basic records to ensure that children are safe, create an effective learning environment, and create financial rules that include rules for the handling of cash.
We have created a list of what basic policies are expected to be in place, and we worked very hard to make sure that it fits on one sheet of paper! We understand that community members have jobs and commitments outside of their community work.
What have you found after reviewing the practices of so many supplementary schools?
What we find is that there are excellent practices across all types of communities and bad practices across all types of communities. That is, you cannot assume that certain communities, cultures, or faiths will have good practices or bad practices.
It is also important to note that just because practice is not written down does not mean that it is bad. Many organizations have excellent procedures in place but they are communicated verbally. We support them to write down this good practice so that agencies outside their community can see it and be reassured.
Over the years we’ve found that most schools are good at teaching and learning, but many pay less attention to policies and procedures. Some might believe that all it takes is to be passionate. But actually, to make sure that children are safe, you need to have a registration form, a registration of attendance, sound financial practices, etc.
What do basic practices have to do with child safety?
For example, the obvious example is that if there were a fire, the teacher would pick up the signing-in sheet to make sure that all students are out of the building – and that is good for that purpose. But an attendance list can tell you much more. You can see which students always come late, which ones have stopped coming, which ones used to come on time but are now coming late. A sudden change can be a red flag.
Even financial stability can be linked to child safety. If a supplementary school must suddenly close due to poor financing, this can mean that a child can be put at risk because the parents have relied on that school so they can work during that time and suddenly there is no supervision for the child.
For the NRCSE, the child is clearly central!
For me, everything is ultimately about the children being safe and happy. Children should be having fun and should be happy. Children have a right to be confident in their identity and heritage and to be happy. This is extra school for them! Children learn better if they are having fun.
These are the things that we are really working on at the moment. We started a program around creative teaching to help teachers develop engaging teaching practices (NRCSE Creative Teaching and Learning). Your readers can check out a short video about this program.
There is also a new program that we are starting in the fall about children’s rights. UNICEF has a program about rights-respecting schools and we are working with them to develop it so that it includes supplementary schools. All types of schools should know what children’s rights are and should enable the child’s voice to be heard.
Interested in knowing more about the NRCSE?