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Widened by the pandemic, how do we close the educational attainment gap for disadvantaged children?

Campus Whitehaven, home to two of the West Cumbrian schools benefitting from the WELL Project | Credit: Sellafield

Sellafield Ltd

7 min read Partner content

Dale Hill, Project Director of the WELL Project, explains how the organisation is working with Sellafield Ltd and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) to raise educational attainment across West Cumbria.

20% of the school children in Copeland and Allerdale in West Cumbria are classed as disadvantaged, rising shockingly to over 50% in some schools.

“Whilst there's an education disadvantage gap nationally, in the West of Cumbria it is even more pronounced,” explained Dale Hill, Project Director of the WELL (Western Excellence in Learning and Leadership) Project.

To address this gap, Sellafield Ltd and the NDA are funding the WELL Project, a £1.7m programme which aims to raise educational attainment at both primary and secondary levels across West Cumbria.

The project seeks to utilise available resources to undertake proven and sustainable projects for West Cumbria’s children and young people.

“The WELL Project was born because we collectively agreed we wanted excellence in learning and leadership in this part of our county,” Dale explained.

After spending many years as both a teacher, headteacher, and in roles within the remit of school improvement, Dale is clearly passionate about education.

In 2007, he became an advisor on school improvement in Cumbria. He is now Senior Manager for School Improvement with Cumbria County Council who are supportive that he directs WELL for three days per week for a fixed period.  He is supported by Vicki Clarke, an experienced project officer. After spending the last few years working with headteachers, education professionals, Sellafield Ltd and the NDA to identify the challenges and priorities for the region, the WELL Project was formed.

The fact that these children have missed so much education, that gap will have widened

As Dale explained, a key fundamental to the WELL approach is its use of written evidence and proven interventions to raise educational attainment in the region.

“It's a best bet for success for these children. We want our teachers to be equipped with the pedagogy, the skills and the approaches that can run year on year,” he said.

Because of the pandemic, the challenges disadvantaged pupils face are likely to have been exacerbated, reinforcing the importance of the project to the region.

“The fact that these children have missed so much education, that gap will have widened,” Dale explained passionately.

Using qualitative data, the WELL Project has developed three strands to implement the programme. These objectives aim to raise standards, address the achievement gap for disadvantaged pupils, and support the emotional resilience and wellbeing of children in West Cumbria.

Raising standards and closing the gap

Dale and the team are driven to raise standards in the region and close the achievement gap for disadvantaged pupils.

“We want to disproportionately impact on disadvantaged performance,” he explained.

Fundamentally, the programmes from WELL will be specifically tailored to the unique geographic context of West Cumbria.

“We're balancing the professional expertise and judgement of our school leaders and teachers and a context of Allerdale and Copeland,” he explained.

Using proven interventions, Dale and the team are confident of success.

“These are interventions that we know will make a difference,” he said.

For example, with the speech and language skills of children at reception age in the region on average 4% below the national average, the WELL Project has launched a programme called Talkboost, to address this disparity and close the gap.

Speaking of one school that has utilised the programme for three students from disadvantaged backgrounds, Dale said: “Their exit data has shown that all three pupils have improved by at least 20 points after the intervention.”

Another key element is a sustained professional development programme focussed specifically on making a difference to disadvantaged students. Over 90 schools are engaged and are in the process of reviewing their Pupil Premium strategies.

We want the teachers in West Cumbria to not only stay in the West, but to be excited and learn as much as the children

The recently launched WELL Compelling Offer Menu (WELLCOM) provides schools with funds and access to a range of promising projects and sustained professional development programmes, proven to impact on pupil achievement.  For example, Accelerated Reader for Secondary schools, shown to accelerate progress of Y7 pupils in reading by 3 months for all pupils and by 5 months for those eligible for free school meals.

To deliver these interventions and fundamentally to raise standards and reduce disparity with other parts of the country, attracting and retaining highly skilled teachers is imperative.

“We've got clear data that recruitment and retention of teachers in West Cumbria has been a significant challenge,” said Dale.

“We want the teachers in West Cumbria to not only stay in the West, but to be excited and learn as much as the children,” he enthused.

"Sellafield Ltd and the NDA are committed to improving the skills and education of these areas, and investments like this not only help us to succeed in the future but have a clear social and economic benefit beyond our mission" - Gary McKeating, Sellafield Ltd


The project will also upskill staff to proactively address some of the issues around behaviour and mental, physical and emotional health.

Evidence has shown tackling wellbeing issues with targeted programmes, such as addressing the reduction of pastoral care in schools can impact on pupil performance.

“Our interviews with school leaders across West Cumbria have clearly demonstrated that emotional resilience needed be a focus of our work,” said Dale.

This has something the project has already begun and having provided 20 teaching assistants with emotional literacy training.

They have also launched a youth mental health first aid ‘Train-The-Trainer’ initiative, equipping every secondary school in West Cumbria with a member of staff with the skills to train colleagues in youth mental health first aid.


At the core of the WELL project is the need to create a self-sustaining education programme.

“Excellence is not about one year, it is about getting a sustainable culture in our schools,” said Dale.

“You can only do that if you're building that capacity within the schools, approaching this project in a whole school way,” he continued.

To do so, the WELL project is training 15 qualified ‘ Evidence Leaders of Education’, that will be prioritising support for schools in West Cumbria.

“We are developing capacity in every school, so that they can subsequently collaborate with other schools to share expertise,” Dale explained.

We know that we have the talent and expertise potential in our schools. In three years time, that local expertise capacity will be here and utilised

Alongside industry partners, the WELL Project is working closely with educational organisations, including the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), to ensure that it is utilising the latest pedagogic research.

“With the support of the EEF and their network of research schools around the country, this has huge potential for the West,” said Dale.

The EEF is also helping the WELL Project by developing an Associate Research School in West Cumbria, with an aim to provide a permanent centre for evidence informed educational development in the region.

“At the moment, we're bringing in quite a lot of expertise. We know that we have the talent and expertise potential in our schools. In three years time, that local expertise capacity will be here and utilised,” he continued.

Career development

Beyond the immediate needs of students, the WELL Project is also looking at the long-term development of children into adulthood, including bringing career development initiatives into primary schools.

“We want individuals to have clear ambition for where they want to go in the future,” said Dale.

For this, industry partners will play a vital role.

“Even with the Covid crisis, 95 schools are attending a virtual WELL professional development event. This is testament to the fact that the schools are buying into what Sellafield Ltd and the NDA are committing to,” he said.

“Without them, we wouldn't be delivering the project, we wouldn't have the momentum that we have, and we wouldn't have the schools excited as they are,” he concluded.

Sellafield Ltd’s Gary McKeating said: “The WELL project is the first of its kind in Cumbria and critical to reducing educational disadvantage in the communities closest to our business.

"Sellafield Ltd and the NDA are committed to improving the skills and education of these areas, and investments like this not only help us to succeed in the future but have a clear social and economic benefit beyond our mission.”

You can find out more information here.

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