Corporate responsibility

All aboard the Homework Club

When Eurostar learned local students needed a place to study, it opened a Homework Club in its offices after-hours

It is a rainy Thursday evening, and the staff at Eurostar’s King’s Cross headquarters are readying to leave for the day. But as they say ‘good night’ to the duty security guard, a group of sixth formers from a local secondary school are fetching hot drinks from the vending machine before they start work. These A-level students are members of the Eurostar Homework Club which meets every Thursday evening during term times, and occasionally holiday periods, to study in the comfort of Eurostar’s empty offices.

The initiative started almost four years ago, when Green & Fortune, which runs the catering facilities within neighbouring Kings Place, noticed that young people were studying in the arts venue’s open spaces. The venue provided free WiFi, warmth and a quiet place for students who were finding it difficult to complete homework and other assignments after school hours, often because of cramped living conditions at home. Several shared bedrooms with brothers or sisters and, in some cases, their mothers and younger siblings, making it hard to concentrate.

Many local libraries had also closed or were operating reduced hours, making space at a premium. Eurostar, which has been based in King’s Cross since 2007, is a member of Urban Partners, a voluntary business partnership comprising organisations based in King’s Cross, Euston and St Pancras, who are committed to benefitting the local communities inwhich they operate, but also have a particular interest in initiatives to help young people.

When Urban Partners first mentioned the issue to Eurostar, it sparked an idea. ‘Our offices start to empty from 5pm,’ explains sustainability manager Rebecca Cranshaw, who currently oversees the Homework Club. ‘We approached Maria Fidelis [a mixed-sex secondary school located close to Euston Station, which already had a connection with Eurostar] and asked would the space be helpful for their students.’

A pilot scheme involving five female students, all members of a friendship group who were doing French A-levels, was launched. The school liaised with parents, seeking their agreement, and the students agreed to Eurostar’s terms: they would turn up on time and be respectful of those members of staff who had given up their personal time to supervise the two-hour sessions. DBS checks on all staff involved with the scheme were also undertaken. These are ongoing.

The pilot, which ran for two months, also allowed Eurostar to gauge demand from both students and staff. Its success led to a formal partnership agreement between Maria Fidelis and Eurostar, and the Homework Club, comprising boys and girls, was born. Students apply to join the Club, and the school ultimately decides on its members. ‘They usually have good behaviour records,’ says Cranshaw. ‘We don’t vet them.’

It is all voluntary, and the students are pretty diligent about working

Shortly after its launch, staff supervising the sessions noticed some students were struggling with their oral French assignments. ‘A request went around Would anybody be prepared to help with French conversation?’ recalls Cranshaw. As a company with many bilingual staff, the request prompted a new raft of volunteers. Conversation sessions offered by native French speakers were introduced. ‘These are full one-on-one sessions,’ she adds, in which students not only practice their French but also learn appropriate vernacular to impress their examiners.

The range soon grew in response to the students’ curricula. Today, Eurostar offers tutorials in seven humanities subjects, including geography, Spanish and history. Even director of communications Mary Walsh dusted down her old English literature degree textbooks to offer a one-off session on Of Mice and Men. In the past, Latin was even on the agenda, but has been temporarily shelved due to lack of demand. ‘Nobody’s studying it for A-level at the moment,’ observes Cranshaw.

Where Eurostar staff lacked the appropriate knowledge, colleagues from other local companies stepped into the breach. Staff from publishers Springer Nature, for example, initially offered sessions in several science subjects, but more recently launched their own science-focused Homework Club. A volunteer from media group Havas currently teaches politics, helping students to broaden their views on current affairs and finesse their debating skills.

Twelve staff, including three graduates and five acting as supervisors, volunteer for the Homework Club, which is spread across four rooms – two dedicated to quiet study. ‘We have about 30 students at the start of a school year, but that settles down to around 20,’ explains Cranshaw. ‘Today [a wet Thursday in December], we have a dedicated history session for some students while about four or five are studying The Great Gatsby.’ While French is taught every week by five Eurostar volunteers, other subjects are taught on a rota basis.

Cranshaw and her colleagues do not act as teachers, insisting homework is completed, although she adds: ‘Occasionally, we might tell them to be a bit quieter, but they don’t need prompting from us. It is all voluntary, and the students are pretty diligent about working. They get started pretty quickly after sitting down.’

The students have also benefitted in other ways. Recent graduates at Eurostar have offered advice on degree subjects and courses, and run personal statement sessions to help students prepare their university applications. Many of the students are the first in their families to go to university, so such insight has proved invaluable. ‘The graduates help to demystify misconceptions. They answer questions such as What is UCAS? It is about confidence building, and mentoring the students.’

Cranshaw explains that another, unexpected, by-product of the Homework Club is that it has introduced students to a work environment. ‘They can experience how an office feels and see people at work,’ says Cranshaw. ‘When they first arrive, they are petrified and on the edge of their seats, but by the end of the second year they’re asking questions. They’re asking their supervisor what their job is like. They’re learning about different roles, such as public affairs or engineering.’

Some students have even shadowed Eurostar employees while a handful have completed internships with the company, within the public relations and engineering departments. Each member of the first Homework Club achieved places at universities, while teachers at Maria Fidelis believe that it has led to students achieving at least one grade higher than previously expected in their A-levels, and, in some subjects, two grades. Indeed, every student from subsequent Homework Clubs who applied to university has attained a place.

The Eurostar Homework Club has also encouraged other local companies to launch similar schemes. Train operating company LNER launched a Wednesday scheme 18 months ago while Springer Nature started its Thursday Homework Club last September, meaning 50 students from Maria Fidelis now benefit from the wider scheme. And more recently FTSE 100 property group Landsec, which is headquartered in Victoria, launched its own Homework Club. ‘The scheme is easy to replicate. They came and had a look at our Club last year, and asked lots of questions,’ says Cranshaw. ‘Landsec now runs one in association with a local school.’

This year sees the first class of the Eurostar Homework Club graduate from university. ‘We are on the look out for those who are graduating, to see how we can help,’ says Cranshaw. This is a partnership that will endure.