By Mari Ramsawakh  

When 11-year-old Harry enters middle school, he is unable to read or write. So he enrols at Reach Academy Feltham in London, an alternative school that tries to transform the lives of local children from low-income families by giving them the skills, attitudes and academic support they need to be successful. His story is the subject of the documentary H is for Harry, debuting on The Passionate Eye.

The link between the socio-economic status of families and children’s academic achievement has been well documented around the world, as have the challenges low-income students can face. According to the filmmakers, 75 per cent of white, working-class boys in the U.K., like Harry, aren’t meeting basic government education standards by the age of 16.

This intergenerational pattern of illiteracy is also caused by larger structural issues, says Jon McGoh, producer of H is for Harry. “Different political parties have come and gone, different initiatives have come and gone over that period of time and yet we’re still having the same outcomes, so you have to ask why that is.”

Aspiration in low-income families

For McGoh, differing aspirations among low-income children and their families can be traced back to systemic factors.

“Some people might consider ‘aspirational’ to be university or ending up being CEO of a huge company,” he says. But Harry and his family don’t have role models in their life that come from those backgrounds. “The system around them has created a situation where the choices and opportunities available to them are limited.”

McGoh continues: “I think what has been interesting to us is that Grant, who is [Harry’s father], is actually incredibly aspirational for his child. He wants him to do the thing he never managed to do himself, which is to read and write.”

Harry does aspire to live a better life than his father and his grandfather, who lacked the same skills. And for him, that also starts with the basics — learning to read and write at his educational level.

At Reach Academy Feltham, students are encouraged to dream big and are given plenty of support to achieve their goals. “We are all on a path to university,” says a teacher to her class in the film, “the important thing is that we’re always thinking about where we’re going and where we’re heading and how we get there. We’re gonna help our teammates to pursue their dreams and then, they will help us to pursue ours.”

Getting parents involved in their child’s education

In order to combat some of the systemic barriers that limit the social mobility of lower-income students, schools like Reach Academy Feltham are fostering stronger relationships between the family and the school. This starts with a home visit.

McGoh calls the school’s approach a “two-generational model,” since it brings a student’s parents into their child’s education process and ensures families have access to all the options available to them.

“That could be anything from [offering] direct things like parenting classes and parent support and mental health support, networks to sort of strengthen that family that supports the child, to simply bringing them on board with the kind of vision that the school has, or the class has, or the teacher has for that child’s education and their future,” he says.

“Getting parents involved and invested in their child’s education is the single thing that, I think, can make the most difference.”

Adding a family atmosphere at school is also important. “[When they] have lunch, they have a family service lunch ... they sit around a table and they talk and they converse with their teachers and with the other children in their class,” says McGoh. “[They do so] in a way that one might expect in a family setting, but in a way that maybe they don’t have that opportunity at home for whatever reason."

Invest in children from low-income families earlier, says filmmaker

In the U.K., one in eight disadvantaged children do not own a book of their own. A National Literacy Trust study found that children in the U.K. who did own books were up to 15 times more likely to read above their age level. So without books to read at home and a parent who can read to them, students like Harry are already at a disadvantage before they even reach school age.

“The number of words that a disadvantaged child has heard by the age of two or five compared to a middle-class child is huge — millions and millions of words fewer that they’ve heard, let alone read yet,” says McGoh.

As the film documents Harry’s struggle to catch up, it becomes clear that more needs to be done earlier on in a student’s career. “I think that’s definitely a strong message from the film,” says McGoh. “As a society, [we] should be starting earlier and investing far more on those earlier years.”

Watch H is for Harry on The Passionate Eye.