What’s the secret to running a successful secondary school? How is it possible to welcome in a truly comprehensive intake of Y7s, and wave farewell to them five years later, knowing that almost all of them have achieved well beyond what might have been expected of them, and are as ready as they can be for the next stage of their life? It’s the question that hangs heavily over everyone involved in the shaping of our education system; each of them searching for the magic bullet that could be replicated and provided to every SLT, guaranteeing above average results in every school (regardless of the paradox that presents).
Some reckon the answer lies in technology; providing a truly 21st century learning environment for a new generation of digital natives. Others are firmly convinced that what’s needed is a clear return to a traditional curriculum, taught traditionally – Toby Young’s ‘grammar education for all’ approach. Independent learning; a strong focus on pastoral care; smaller class sizes; daily sessions of mental maths; prizes for attendance… it’s all supposed to have an impact on student achievement and, in schools across the country, it does. Just – as John Hattie points out – not very much.
When Paul Ward took on the headship at Redden Court School in Harold Wood, Essex, six years ago, it was in an Ofsted category – not special measures, but notice to improve. One of the main reasons for this was that the number of students leaving school with five A* to C grade GCSEs, including English and maths, was down in the low thirties. In 2013, the number shot up to 75%, an increase of 22 percentage points since 2012, with a staggering 90% attaining A* to C in English.
Paul no more has a magic bullet than anyone else does – but his response when I ask him to reveal just how this impressive improvement was achieved as he, deputy head Frank Gilgan and I grab a cuppa and a chat before a tour of the classrooms, gets right to the heart of what must surely be the closest thing there is.
“When I arrived, although I found some excellent practitioners, much of the teaching and learning was… mundane,” he begins, choosing his words carefully (something he continues to do throughout our conversation). “Walking around the school you could see that, whilst the children weren’t out of control – no one was rampaging through the corridors – they were too often experiencing very compliant teaching. There wasn’t nearly enough interaction and dialogue going on. And the students simply weren’t making the progress they should have been making. We have three main feeder primaries and for a lot of parents at that time, Redden Court wasn’t seen as an option for their children; they felt they wouldn’t achieve here, and there were plenty of alternatives within the authority, including a number that were Ofsted outstanding. Most reasonable people looking at the school concluded that behaviour wasn’t a problem, but results were. To be fair, going back further, its reputation would have been considerably rougher, but the previous administration had certainly worked hard to bring order to chaos. There was more to do, but the foundations were there. It was the lack of academic rigour that was the problem.”
“There has been a real enquiry into teaching and learning here over the past six years,” states Frank Gilgan. “A definite sense of pedagogical development. We’ve been academic about it – looking at research and bringing in what works – and I think our own staff training is second to none. Dylan Wiliam’s TLC approach was fantastically successful for us; a two-year investigation into teaching and learning, as it happened, in the school – with everybody buying into it and supporting each other. We have Thinking School status from the University of Exeter, and are doing a lot of interesting work on cognitive learning. And although we’re moving away from attaching numbers to lessons, in our school at the moment around 90% of them are good or outstanding.”
“Investors in People came in recently and upgraded us from Bronze to Silver,” Paul points out with a wry smile. “They actually said we should have gone for Gold – but as Ofsted only has Silver, we’ll take that for now. We expect a lot from our staff, but we give them every support to meet those expectations. And yes, they’re under pressure – you can’t achieve as a high performing organisation without pressure – but it’s because they have real pride in what they’re doing, and what they are able to achieve with students.”
“It hasn’t been paper driven, we must say that,” adds Frank. “There are numerical targets, but we haven’t just come up with policies for the sake of having them. Everyone’s got a really clear view about what we expect with regard to teaching and learning in the school and had a part to play in identifying and describing it. But what’s good is that it’s not stymying anyone. It’s an umbrella, under which everyone can comfortably nestle without us being too prescriptive about what they do. So long as we know progress is happening, then we’re satisfied – and staff have responded really well to that. When you walk around the school you’ll see kids happy in their learning and really clear about what they’re doing. And if you stay for another few minutes, you’ll see some progress. In fact, in May Ofsted spent two days inspecting our English faculty, and concluded that students’ progress was ‘stellar’ – including that of those with SEN, who make up a third of our intake.”
It all sounds exciting; it sounds creative, and ambitious, and incredibly hard work – but enjoyable and rewarding too. And as I walk through the corridors of Redden Court, and in and out of classrooms, I see evidence of this being the case everywhere I look; from the bright, dynamic wall displays, celebrating achievement in all its forms, to the happy, relaxed students and staff, focused on their teaching and learning, and clearly relishing the experience. In a maths lesson, I ask one of the class members what he’s doing.
“Looking back over what we learnt last week,” he tells me. “It’s ratios.”
“So, are you confident about it?” I enquire. “I understand it, but I’m going to look at it again in two weeks and check I can still do it.”
“And what are your targets?” interjects his teacher lightly from a few desks away; I hadn’t realised she was aware of our conversation.
“C1; to C3 at the end of the year.” They’re on the front of his book; but he doesn’t need to look. Data is king at Redden Court, and students, staff and parents all know exactly where they are with it. It’s not about being driven by computer-generated targets, but of understanding the needs and potential of every single individual in the school in the most detailed and fluid way possible, then analysing those needs and adjusting expectations, teaching and, if necessary, targeted interventions in order to ensure that potential is fully realised. It’s personalised learning, facilitated by consistently excellent teaching.
And that, in short, is what reallyworks in schools.
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Over the Rainbow
Rainbow Nation is a project that was started by a Redden Court teacher, Meg, before Paul’s arrival. “It began as an anti-racism drive in response to attitudes displayed by some students at the time,“he explains. “It’s developed now, and although that element is still important, it’s more focused on student aspiration generally. The demographic we serve is traditionally working class; many of our parents are supportive on issues like behaviour, uniform and attendance, but very limited in aspiration. I remember early on in my role here talking to the father of a Y11 boy who was very, very bright – he was going to get A*s and As – and being told in no uncertain terms that the lad was going to train to be a gas fitter. And of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a gas fitter – but all I could think was, how is it possible for you to be so specifically low in your aspirations?
“Rainbow Nation is one way we try and address this – inviting speakers and arranging for students to go on visits. We make our assemblies aspirational, and our careers programme has a strong focus on sixth form and university. We know our students. We know our families. And they know we care.”