Important to recognise the pivotal role that teachers play in supporting disadvantaged children in the North - Dr Helen Rafferty

Whatever our experiences at school, nearly all of us have a teacher we remember, someone who left an indelible mark on our lives. Whether it was their contagious passion for their subject, their belief in the potential of all their students, their ability to provide a safe and nurturing space away from turmoil, or just their inimitable sense of humour, amazing teachers possess a remarkable ability to engage young minds and create an impact that echoes throughout future years.

Yesterday, on National Thank a Teacher Day, teachers were rightly thanked for everything they do. But on any day of the year, it is important to recognise teachers' pivotal role in supporting and uplifting disadvantaged children in the North, students who may be accessing education without some of the privileges that benefit others.

From my own background, I am familiar with issues around poverty, attainment and social mobility. I was blessed by access to an education system that believed in my potential and I was supported by brilliant, inspirational, compassionate teachers, determined that I should achieve more than many people in my hometown thought that any of us deserved. I feel privileged that I am able to write here now because of that support.

I know, however, that not all children are so lucky.

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'Whatever our experiences at school, nearly all of us have a teacher we remember, someone who left an indelible mark on our lives.' PIC: Tony Johnson'Whatever our experiences at school, nearly all of us have a teacher we remember, someone who left an indelible mark on our lives.' PIC: Tony Johnson
'Whatever our experiences at school, nearly all of us have a teacher we remember, someone who left an indelible mark on our lives.' PIC: Tony Johnson

The North of England is a place of incredible communities, and talented young people. However, the North also contains a high proportion of some of the most deprived communities in the country. The impacts of long-term, generational disadvantage are often especially profound, and many schools here are working to achieve outcomes against this backdrop.

Teachers see, every day, the impact of this long-term deprivation on the lives of children and young people. They know the children whose clothes are never quite clean, whose families are always tired, who never quite seem to have enough to eat. They work every day with children who can’t quite seem to concentrate or get ahead in class, or children who always seem to be in trouble. They remember the adorable four-year-olds who just needed some consistent, vibrant play and interaction to develop their communication skills. They fought for the 10-year-old boy with a passion for all things truck-related, but who needed breakfast, and careful attention and structure before he could really thrive. Teachers in our secondary schools work every day with bright, witty, creative teenagers, brimming with potential, but hamstrung by troubled lives, by responsibilities that should never have been theirs, or by a system that isn’t set up to understand and meet their needs.

We at SHINE work with teachers who see the potential in every child, every day. Teachers who believe that working with children from the most challenging backgrounds is a privilege, and a commitment they are proud to carry throughout their professional lives.

But these teachers need our support. They, too, can be hamstrung by a system that does not back them or meet their needs.

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Good schools are an integral part of the community. But teacher recruitment and retention are at an all-time low, and many believe a looming teacher shortage is a catastrophe waiting to happen: one that will profoundly affect our children and their futures.

Too often, the school system demands relentless adherence to pre-planned outcomes and tests that have been decided in a centralised way, far from the teachers who work every day on the ground.

To unlock their full potential, teachers must be empowered to exercise their professional judgement. They need to be trusted, and involved in decision-making processes. Valuing teachers as professionals means recognising that they are the ones who know their children and contexts the best.

Teachers need the capacity to innovate, and to respond to the needs of the children they teach in the ways they know best.

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The very best teachers are brimming with ideas to support disadvantaged children, to engage them in learning and excite and inspire them in their future lives.

At SHINE we work with a teacher who has created an exciting online learning platform which uses root words to help build vocabulary; with another teacher working across a collaboration of primary and secondary schools to build science learning .

These are just a few outstanding ideas that can flourish across the North when teachers are supported to develop their practice and collaborate. When teachers are treated as innovative, creative professionals, then magic can happen.

The problems we are seeking to address in the North are complex, and the solutions are likely to be more so. No one has all the answers, and no one can fix this alone. But investing in the professional development of teachers is a direct investment in the success of disadvantaged children.

Dr Helen Rafferty is Interim CEO of North of England education charity SHINE.