Assessing School Impact on Vulnerability
By | June 30, 2020

Not just for the pandemic

My career history has been in the charity and community sector delivering approaches to build capacity in communities considered 'vulnerable'. Vulnerability - and often associated terms such as disadvantage and resilience - have their challenges as both words and concepts. But the principle that some groups and individuals have less assets to draw upon - personal or public assets - is one that is generally accepted.

Much of my work - through Red Cross, Dfuse, National Youth Agency and with many other through consultancy - has included close relationships with schools and over the pandemic I have heard a lot from schools about how they want to apply some of the learning from charity sector models of building capacity into their longer term planning. This short blog builds on previous work to start to explore some concepts that might be helpful for schools and their community engagement.

Many schools focused on their most vulnerable children and families during their response to Coronavirus: those who receive free school meals, those at risk of abuse, those who need additional support and those who are outside of statutory services. This made visible the support role many schools play in their local communities on a day-to-day basis and this being explored more widely. Including this webinar and report from Teach First and Whole Education and the Bridges to the Future event from the RSA today. Schools are sharing how they have brokered partnerships in their communities, gathered and distributed essential items to families and how they are meeting the needs of vulnerable children.

Additional resources during the pandemic such as laptops; mobile connections; and online learning are welcome, but these are tactics many have been advocating – or providing through other means – for a long time. Home learning has benefitted children who struggle to attend school due to disability, long term illness or school refusing. Parents who have been asking for a mixed model of school/home learning now have the resources available to help their child’s education flourish. Ideally the new resources and approaches will remain in place beyond the pandemic to support schools address the vulnerability the see on a daily basis. For example, Surrey Square Primary has a systemic approach to vulnerability. The Pastoral Team meets weekly to discuss the needs of the most vulnerable children and families. They record their interventions and report on impact to the School Governors. The issues addressed include hunger, housing, health and well-being and enrichment.

A dynamic model of vulnerability assessment

Previously I shared a framework to help schools plan and evaluate the impact of their Covid-19 response. This blog builds on this to offer a dynamic model for the identification of vulnerability on a daily basis and during extraordinary circumstances. The indicators of vulnerability that inform the model are similar to those within the Local Vulnerability Profiles from the Children's Commissioner which provides data by Local Authority for assessing children who may be at risk under lockdown. The model is designed to trigger interventions for individual children and to identify the impact of a school's action.

This blog does not go into why schools should address vulnerability or whether it is the role of schools to do so. For now, we are assuming that a child is better able to learn and thrive if their basic needs are met and that we can learn from the schools who are already pioneering the way.

The model is work in progress and up for debate. Based on what teachers have noted as important during the lockdown, the model looks at a child’s (or family’s) capacity to achieve eight priority outcomes and their resilience to withstand changing circumstances. The regular assessment of capacity provides an indication of vulnerability and highlights progress (impact of interventions) or new and emerging needs (new vulnerabilities).

These outcomes categories are in no particular order and to be more useful each requires definitions and indicators:

The child:

  • Can access the programme of education provided by the school,
  • Has sufficient food and nutrition,
  • Is safe from harm and abuse,
  • Maintains personal hygiene and physical health,
  • Can access a diverse range of enrichment activities,
  • Maintains positive mental health and wellbeing,
  • Has their individual care and support needs met,
  • Has agency.

For some children and families achieving these outcomes is easy. Others have less capacity to achieve these outcomes alone. Capacity changes as circumstances and support structures change. Capacity can be assessed using an amended model that is often used by mental health and homelessness organisations - and one which I have used during my career in the charity sector.  The scale has been adjusted to view a family's or child's capacity, but from the perspective of the school. It has four degrees of capacity of the family and child - from no capacity to achieve an outcome, through accessing support and building capacity to a sustained ability to achieve the outcome.

Flow diagram showing progression of reduced vulnerability in schools

The aim would be to help children and families to progress from the left to the right of the scale, i.e. to increase capacity to achieve the outcome and in doing so reduce vulnerability. Whilst the right suggests self-reliance it does not necessarily mean the outcomes are achieved by the child and family entirely alone. Other services or organisations may be required, but the school is no longer needed to achieve the outcome. Referrals may mean that children and families move from the left hand to the right hand box without going through the two middle stages. Issues that are systemically difficult to solve will soon be identified – however, if co-ordinated, may lead to strong advocacy and evidence for policy change.


Resilience is tested when something unexpected changes and capacity to achieve the outcomes may be reduced. Resilience was defined in a previous blog as:

  • An ability to cope - when an ‘event’ occurs the child is able to withstand potentially negative effects.
  • Bouncebackability - when an ‘event’ leads to negative effects the child is able to recover to their normal (or a new normal) state.

Through regularly reviewing a child’s circumstances and their ongoing capacity to achieve the outcomes it should be possible to identify new needs. Theoretically, a pupil from a middle-income household who does not qualify for additional support would be most likely be able to achieve the outcome without school support for has sufficient food and nutrition. Fast forward six-months and the household’s income has vastly reduced. The child is no longer eating school dinners and does not bring a packed lunch. The pupil is now not achieving the outcome. The school response might be to provide food (i.e. school is providing direct support to achieve the outcome) and support the parents to apply for free school meals and help them to access a local food bank (i.e. school is supporting capacity building to achieve the outcome) and once support has kicked in the family is once again able to achieve the outcome without school support.

Other issues may be more complex and the response may not be so easily identified, but the principles of capacity, progression, resilience and recovery remain the same. Some events are likely to affect people in similar situations in similar ways and this is where we might expect central and local government planning to support. Where there are known issues that exist at scale e.g. digital inequity etc. it would be reasonable to expect these to have been planned for in the event of a major event or indeed, even a local one. So not just in pandemic but let's say localised flooding.

Using the model

The model aims to help: identify needs of children and families; construct programmes in response; track progress of individuals; and measure the school impact in a way that could be aggregated.

The model is not a tick-box exercise and assessments of capacity to achieve the outcomes will not be effective if they are based on generalisations and assumptions. We need to look to the schools that are already responding well to vulnerability and, for example, the tips provided at the Schools in the Community webinar which could be summarised as:

  • Know the children. This is not the preserve of small schools as many large schools take the time to get to know their pupil’s individual needs and have systems and structures to manage this information.
  • Take a holistic view to needs to provide a full and rounded education and start to life for children – this is a proactive approach for tackling vulnerability.
  • Trust. Reducing vulnerability at the family level requires the family to trust the intentions of the school. Form partnerships with the family around the issue that is being addressed.

The detailed indicators behind the outcome categories need consideration and would benefit from more school involvement. Good practice in tackling vulnerabilities could also be shared more widely. One final lesson from the Schools in the Community webinar: look at what is around your school. Map your community, identify networks, partnerships and collaborations to improve outcomes for vulnerable children and families on a day-to-day basis and in response to national or local emergencies.


I welcome responses to this model of assessing vulnerability and would really like to see what you are already doing in this area. Email me: