Social purpose

The school that UBS built

In 2003, UBS agreed to fund and support the creation of a secondary school in Hackney, a London borough just minutes from its European headquarters

Apart from its unusual architecture, The Bridge Academy could be mistaken for any other secondary school in Hackney, a London borough on the fringes of the City. But it has one important difference – it was built by global banking group UBS.

More than 15 years later, and 12 years after the first intake of pupils at The Bridge Academy, the partnership has ‘proved far more fertile than either of us ever imagined going into the project’, explains Nick Wright, head of community affairs at UBS, while conceding: ‘It has taken us quite a long time to get here, and we’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way.’

Today, The Bridge Academy is in the top ten per cent of schools nationally for progress at both A and GCSE level and also with disadvantaged pupils, while 84 per cent of students go onto university. And last year, its students were both the East London regional champions and national winners of the prestigious Debate Mate Cup while the Bridge received a ISM/ISM Trust Gold Certificate in music, placing it in the top 58 schools across England and Wales.

Wright explains: ‘Before Bridge was even a twinkle in anybody’s eye, we already had a long and established community programme which had overwhelmingly been concentrated in Hackney. It was on our doorstep, but it also was one of the most deprived areas in the country. It was at the top or bottom of every list of deprivation indicators and, in educational terms, it was the worst local education authority in the country.’

Indeed, fewer than one in three secondary students in Hackney achieved five or more GCSE grades of A* to C in 2002, while more than half of all primary school pupils had to leave the borough to obtain a secondary school place. Most school buildings in Hackney at the time were judged not fit and proper to support learning, while simply recruiting and retaining high quality teachers was a major problem.

This was a way to go deep into the Hackney community and educational world – rather than spread ourselves too thinly.

This startling truth resonated at UBS, located a few miles away in its gleaming Broadgate headquarters, at a time when the bank was rethinking its community affairs programme. ‘We knew it was going to have two things: we were going to concentrate on education and also on social entrepreneurship, which we then called community regeneration, which was about helping the community in economic terms. In other words, helping businesses develop, start up, get going, employ people… but concentrating on local businesses first and foremost,’ says Wright.

The bank already worked with local schools in Hackney, and so was known to the borough, and had also created the UK’s first adult-to-pupil mentoring scheme at Deptford Green School in Lewisham. ‘Volunteering is such a central component to what we feel we can do, but is also actually of interest to our own staff,’ he adds.

So when the opportunity to sponsor an academy first arose, UBS was interested.

Initially, the bank considered joining a consortium of other City firms but one by one they dropped away. We then looked at ourselves internally and said This seems to do all the things we say we want to do and are about, why don’t we put together a proposal? We took it through all the approval processes within the firm, and actually, to my surprise, it was agreed on very quickly without any objections,’ explains Wright.

‘We were driven by where we thought we could make the greatest difference to our community. This was a way to go deep into the Hackney community and educational world – rather than spread ourselves too thinly.  This was partly a consequence of being a mono-site, with 6,000 people based in Broadgate – we don’t have a high street presence – and also because we consistently want to act for the long-term, which is partly a UBS philosophy and partly the wealth management stewardship viewpoint.

‘But it was also a recognition that we were trying to address social mobility. If you want to make a difference, then you need to do it for the long-term; there is no quick fix that you can do for a year, and then say Okay, what’s the next issue?

After discussions lasting 12 months, UBS signed an agreement with the Government in 2003 to help deliver the academy , requiring £2 million for the capital build. The bank put up £1 million with the balance provided by an anonymous client of its private wealth management business.

Wright explains: ‘I think their reason for doing so was that, because UBS was going to have an ongoing relationship with the school at every imaginable level, from the governing body through to staff volunteers, and lots of activities, they would get more ‘bang for their buck’ than if they had just made a donation.’

When The Bridge Academy celebrated its tenth anniversary, the client took time to consider ‘where we are and where we’re going, and we are now embarking with them on a project to develop working more closely with primary schools that surround Bridge’.

While The Bridge Academy is a state school, it is independent of the local education authority. The Department of Education funds its ongoing expenses and running costs. However, as the key sponsor of the academy, UBS had some choice over its characteristics, and determined it should be mixed sex, non-denominational with a sixth form. It would also have particular specialisms in numeracy, literacy and music.

From the very outset, however, UBS was determined that The Bridge Academy would be a project in which staff could be both involved and proud. ‘I believe they feel a tremendous affinity with the programme overall. It appeals increasingly to the millennial, and subsequent generations, who are very savvy and see though PR exercises quickly. They put it through a degree of scrutiny that determines whether it is done with integrity, whether it is really having an impact and is using what UBS can put into it, not just money,’ says Wright.

‘And on the other side, and we have the data to prove this, there is also a correlation between those staff who are involved in the programme as volunteers and their performance, how quickly they get promoted and how long they stay with the firm.’

On average, every year between 800 and 1,000 of the bank’s London staff get involved with the volunteer programme. Last year, a record 1,225 volunteers performed 1,501 volunteer opportunities across 83 projects. When Bridge opened in 2007, just 187 volunteers were involved – although the school then had only a single year intake as it has filled up a year at a time.

Sponsorship of The Bridge Academy saves UBS’s London operations as much as SFr700,000 (around £540,000) every year due to lower staff turnover, according to the bank’s own analysis.

Each volunteer receives a handbook and training from two of Bridge’s staff on the appropriate way to interact with students, and also advice on how to cope with situations or, in the case of mentors, deal with somebody confiding about personal issues. ‘It’s about What do I do with that information? Where do I go? Who do I tell?’, adds Wright.

Good administration is also key. ‘If somebody has volunteered, and it is in addition to what they do on a daily basis, and they turn up to find the reading club has been cancelled or the child they’re routinely paired up with is absent, then it can quickly undermine the credibility of the programme,’ he says. ‘They could say Okay, I’ll just do something at my own child’s school. All the operational details, but also the pedagogical and pastoral components, must be thought through and work properly.’

The programme is multi-faceted, but volunteers host careers assemblies, particularly encouraging female students to get involved in STEM subjects and parents evenings when they offer insight into a range of degree courses and career opportunities. Trading skills are deployed to help students with advanced maths, using virtual trading and risky business programmes, and the bank has even hosted dinners at Bridge where a pupil sits beside a volunteer to learn conversational skills and, at its most basic, which knife or fork to use for each course. Sixth form students also have work experience placements at UBS.

While involving staff was a priority, Wright was also keen to engage some of the bank’s partners with the programme at the outset. ‘We probably tried to do too much too soon,’ he admits. ‘If we made any mistakes along the way, that was one of them. But now we’ve got a much more robust process.’

The first question asked about any potential activity is now Does it meet the needs of the pupil? Does it meet the priorities of [headteacher] Chris Brown?

Brown has the ultimate say. ‘There are a number of people from UBS who are on the governing body, and we work closely with what is essentially a relationship management group. But our philosophies and values are so closely aligned, that there would never be an instance where UBS said We need this to happen, make this happen. I’m in my fourth year as head, and it has never happened.’

UBS’ vision has always been that this is a school for the local community

‘One of the roles of the sponsor is to set the ethos and the vision, and then to hold Chris [the head] to account in delivering them, but that can’t happen if there is a difference between their view and yours,’ adds Wright. ‘One of the attractions of this project from the outset was the ability to mould what the school is about and trying to achieve. For example, its inclusive nature – it is not selective in any way, shape or form – is a challenge that we lay down to the principal. We want you to achieve the highest possible academic results, and all the cultural capital stuff that we can talk about later if it becomes relevant, but we are not, in any way, in sixth form or otherwise, going to be selective. You will work with the students that surround the school.’

Brown adds: ‘UBS’ vision has always been that this is a school for the local community. That’s the point of it. Our mission statement starts with For every student…, and that’s what we mean. The kids who come in, those are our kids. That’s Bridge. If I were to try to increase my performance standing by being less inclusive, there would be hell to pay – and that’s brilliant. There are so many pressures on the head, that it is great I have a governing body who are so totally unwavering in their vision.’

It is here that Wright believes UBS has a vital role to play. ‘We try to find volunteers that can help not just the gifted and talented end of the spectrum, but also those students who need support, who may be at the most vulnerable level,’ he explains.

On occasion, however, additional resource is required. ‘Can we find the resource either from activities that UBS might fund over and above [our existing commitments] or take something like the annexe [an offsite provision to help with students at risk of exclusion], we fundraised for that. We held a dinner at Bridge two years ago that effectively raised the funds to keep that facility open for three to four years.’

(The Bridge has enjoyed the lowest permanent exclusion figures in Hackney for the past two years, including a zero rate in 2017.) It also funded the building of a separate sixth form centre. Ultimately though The Bridge Academy still operates in one of the country’s disadvantaged districts. More than a third – 36 per cent – of its residents live in poverty, against a London average of 27 per cent. Indeed, the average income of Bridge feeder estate is £11,000 and 55 per cent of its pupils receive free school meals.

‘We are in the top five per cent of all schools nationally for the level of disadvantage,’ says Brown. ‘But there is no reason why our students cannot do the proper, academic GCSEs, although for a small number a vocational course may be more appropriate. They should be doing the same exams as children who grew up in Hertfordshire, for example. By sixth form, our students have a good academic and skills/behavioural grounding in what they will need to be successful.’

Last year, 84 per cent of Bridge’s sixth form students went to university and for 71 per cent of these, they were the first member of their family to do so. Three students went to Cambridge and one is now studying in America on a prestigious Fulbright scholarship.

Brown concedes that, especially with the sixth form, where there may be challenging family situations but also pupils with mixed abilities, it can be quite difficult to find the resource to provide the level of pastoral care needed for some and the extra attention to stretch those at the top of the group.

‘One of the volunteer schemes that UBS offers is mentors for students. If you’re a student whose parents, and parents’ parents haven’t been to university and you’re nervous about it, then being able to talk it through with a 24-year-old who has just graduated and has a real understanding of what it entails is amazing,’ he says.

‘There were lots of students who, through the mentor system, made the decision to apply for university. With the three students who went to Cambridge, we were able to offer them a volunteer who five years ago took the STEP papers [the entrance exam] which was enormously helpful.

‘UBS has also fundraised so that we have a dedicated, full time careers adviser on site. It helps students think outside the box: they sit down with Diana, who they know really knows her stuff, and she says You can go to this uni or You could do that apprenticeship. These things are an option for you. It’s where schools have fallen down in the past.’

Indeed, since the first cohort of Year 13 leavers, there have been no known NEETs (not in education, employment, training) in the year after leaving – which is a key performance indicator for the partnership.

Today, three Bridge students are employed as apprentices at UBS while the school’s former head girl has joined as a graduate trainee after being recruited on the milk round at Bath University. Indeed, the bank’s association with The Bridge Academy prompted the creation of an apprenticeship pathway.

‘My primary role is to run the community management programme but it is also to make sure that we are joined up in what we do with our development practices,’ explains Wright. ‘But to be clear, we did not invest in Bridge to help the school become a pipeline for employees at UBS. We have extremely high standards of recruitment. But do we have that as an aspiration? Absolutely, and now we are seeing the proof in the pudding. It’s fantastic.’