Paul McMenamin is assistant head teacher at Bellerive FCJ Catholic College, a popular and successful school in Liverpool. In 2012, a new head of maths had recently arrived and was looking to find ways of moving student achievement up a notch so that the girls were making good, rather than just satisfactory, progress.
Paul had heard about PET-Xi and dropped in on an English session in another Liverpool school: “Immediately I was aware that there was a palpable sense of energy and engagement in the room and it struck me this offered a different perspective,” he recalls. He decided to give PET-Xi a try in his own setting.
At the time, the aim at Bellerive was to focus on the C/D borderline and improve the number of pupils getting five GCSEs. Between 2012 and 2014, those getting an A*-C in maths has shot up from 59% to 82%. Students making expected progress have gone from 64% to 77% in the same period, and the gap between those on free school meals and others is closing. “It is impossible to say exactly why our results have improved so much but the services provided by the PET-Xi were definitely part of the solution,” Paul insists.
One possible reason for the success of this particular intervention is is the staff/ pupil ratio. Bellerive had one maths group of 21 and another of about 15, but PET-Xi will work with a group of 30 students and scale up their own staffing accordingly. There is a subject specialist to lead the session but there may be three other members of staff in with a group. This maintains energy levels and concentration, and the team pick up quickly on any misconceptions which they can feed back to the subject leader.
“We have tried various models but what is clear is that part of the success comes from the fact that it is an immersion course,” explains Paul. “It might be a one-day session or three or four days. You have to find the students who are going to benefit from it and it has to be bespoke.”
While Bellerive FCJ Catholic College is a successful school with a 160 year old history, Top Valley Academy in Nottingham became an academy in 2012 and has had to address many challenges. OFSTED’s rating ‘requires improvement’ has been a spur to the staff and they have been looking at ways of improving achievement across the board. They had heard that a number of local schools had used PET-Xi as an intervention to raise grades so they had a meeting with the company and analysed the results. They were impressed and decided to go for a pilot group of year 11 maths to see what PET-Xi could do for their school.
“We liked the fact that they have significant experience with exams and some of the staff are examiners,” says Neville Silcock, strategy manager of Acceler8. “They also have people who are really good at developing suitable behaviour management strategies.”
PET-Xi trainers worked with 18 pupils on the C/D borderline for maths. The school was very impressed with what they did and started to look at ways to use their expertise in other areas. They quickly settled on the Acceler8 group, a fast-track programme for pupils who were at level three Maths and English when they arrived at the school. They took 31 pupils for literacy and 25 pupils for numeracy. They were divided into two groups; each course lasted a week so some pupils had two weeks off timetable.
At first the teachers were concerned about whether the children would cope with the long days focusing on just one subject. Some lacked confidence, some were very vulnerable and others had special needs but the group quickly gelled and all reached the expected level. Silcock believed that it worked because of the range of interactive activities, the personalisation and the friendliness of the trainers. “Everybody enjoyed it and made progress; attendance proved to be excellent.”
The company provides additional capacity, so year 11 pupils now attend various Saturday schools in geography, history and science as well as English and maths. It’s not just for those who are struggling or who are on a C/ D boundary, either. Top Valley also uses PET-Xi for pupils who could get an A or A* so it spreads right across the ability range. “PET-Xi has made a real difference,” confirms Silcock, “and it is not expensive compared to what it would cost to bring teachers in on a Saturday.”
The driving force behind the company is founder and joint managing director, Fleur Sexton. She taught French at Exhall Grange, a special school for children with visual impairments and other disabilities. Here she learnt how to use kinaesthetic and audio approaches to engage children and help them to overcome different barriers to learning. With her husband Chris she set up a vocational training business and in 2004 the business became PET-Xi. The Xi stands for ‘explosive intervention’ and describes the dramatic impact Fleur expects her courses to have on the motivation and achievement of young people.
Schools are generally very positive about the use of PET-Xi. There is detailed preparation and increasingly the company is being invited back to train teachers and learning support assistants in their methods. PET-Xi staff undergo rigorous training, are subject to on the spot observations and are graded bronze, silver or gold. All staff are smartly dressed in black suits with the distinctive pink tie or scarf and are relentlessly upbeat and cheerful from the moment they arrive in school reception. The pace is very fast - pupils are constantly engaged and involved in kinaesthetic activities, filling in their workbook or using the app which goes with their course. They get raffle tickets if they ask a question, find the right answer or write on the board. The more tickets they accrue, the better their chance of winning the raffle prize at the end of the week. It’s probability in practice.
The different functions normally undertaken by a single teacher are allocated to different members of the team so there is a subject specialist, a lead trainer and support staff in most groups. The lead trainer is not necessarily a qualified teacher but is someone who is charismatic, a good role model who will appeal to young people and an expert in behavioural management. The support staff ensure that all the pupils are on target and focused, and there are also markers and writers back at head office in Coventry so materials can be adapted on the day to meet pupil needs.
It is a very successful model. PET-Xi delivers what it promises, gets a lot of repeat business and acquires new customers largely by word of mouth. “Teachers take us with them,” Fleur tells me. “A deputy head we’ve worked with might move to a new school, for example, and bring us in to improve results.” The key to the company’s success, I’d suggest, is that it breaks the cycle of negativity - getting each child to believe that success is possible and that it is worth making that extra little bit of effort to achieve it.
About the Author
Sal McKeown is a freelance special needs journalist and author of the award-winning Brilliant Ideas for Using ICT in the Inclusive Classroom (Routledge) and a book for parents, How to help your Dyslexic and Dyspraxic Child (Crimson Publishing).