Turning around the performance of the third worst performing primary school in the country is a task for which few would surely volunteer. Under the St Bart’s Multi-Academy Trust’s wing, however, this is exactly what has been achieved at St Nathaniel’s Academy.
In recent years, multi-academy trusts (MATs) such as St Bart’s, working with teams of talented headteachers have made a significant effort to turn around many failing schools. With a commitment to providing the best possible education for all children, we are well-placed to continue doing so – and quick turnarounds are what we are aiming for; clearly the children cannot afford for their learning to suffer for any length of time.
As a MAT, we will offer to ‘parent’ a failing school, by setting bold boundaries, and offering guidance and the helping hands needed to support these academies as they develop. The responsibility on MATs to ensure that pupils achieve excellent results is very much in the news at the moment.
The senior leadership team must put the spotlight on ensuring that excellent results are achievable for every child at every academy in their trust.
MATs provide the opportunity to work collaboratively, driving improvement while supported by a strong central network. The real strength in creating a core team behind school leaders is in freeing up valuable time so that they can focus more on management tasks and school improvement happens more rapidly.
The process of converting a school to an academy can itself be a catalyst for change, as it provides the opportunity for a fresh start. It makes sense to ensure that everyone involved, including teachers and parents, is on board with the new ways of working, additional goals, aspirations and future plans. As soon as a new academy joins our family, we work with it to secure buy-in to our culture and core values.
We had no idea how transformative the programme would be. The groups of pupils that we got involved with the scheme rarely engage in their lessons and can be very disruptive. But take away their ‘audience’ of pupils, remove the teacher’s pressure to achieve exam results, and these young people started to interact and become involved in sessions.
Digital Advantage enters the school as a pop-up digital agency complete with an agency boss and challenges the group to create a product, a brand and an advertising campaign. The group then reveal their commercial to three real digital agencies in Manchester. The prize is £2,000 for the winning school.
Despite their mixed ages, the group shared their ideas and became more confident. The positive discussions they had impressed me so much that I had to film them to show their subject teachers how much progress had been made. One short-term – and highly measurable – result was that the group started attending school more regularly. In one case, a pupil was attending only 60% of lessons and within two months this increased to 75%. And of course, this rise will benefit exam results, confidence and ultimately, job prospects.
This empowerment regarding the changes also comes in how we view leadership. Within our MAT, leadership is a choice, not a job title, so we consider that all our staff have the capacity to be senior leaders. This puts the responsibility of driving forward our academy improvement agenda right into the hands of every employee. The impetus to suggest a new way of working does not need to come from the men or women with the most impressive job titles.
The provision of professional development and promoting clear succession opportunities across the trust is just one way of recruiting and retaining the best personnel and this has an impact on teaching quality. Our preferred recruitment method is to ‘grow our own’, so we give each member of staff a clear career path, underpinned by high quality training and development. We are enabling a culture of high aspiration to filter down through every layer of our organisation.
Path to improvement
Another major area for our improvement programme is making better use of information at all levels. It goes without saying that to deliver the best possible results for pupils we need to measure performance and have a consistent approach as new academies join our trust; our SIMS management information system (capita-sims.co.uk) is the primary tool for this process, highlighting any issues across all our schools.
This means that we can carefully monitor student attendance, performance, attainment and behaviour issues. And we can make early interventions if needed, perhaps by working more effectively to provide support to families that need it to ensure that there are no gaps in learning for anyone and no child falls behind.
Thinking outside the classroom
St Bart’s Trust has swiftly expanded from four academies in 2013 to the nine we have today. We still have a lot of work to do but, we also feel we have a lot about which we can be pleased. Our commitment to the wellbeing and achievement of our pupils doesn’t stop at the school gates; we think outside the classroom and our expectations of pupils and teachers are explicit from the beginning.
We are proud that in all post-academisation inspections, every St Barts MAT member has been graded as a good school, with one as outstanding. When Ofsted last visited St Nathaniel’s Academy, it had changed from ‘inadequate’ to ‘good with many outstanding features’. This turnaround highlights the full and ongoing commitment of the whole staff team to raising standards across the trust; with the support of well-run MATs, the hope is that many more failing schools across the country can look forward to successful transformation – and positive outcomes.
Six steps to mat improvement
1. Set boundaries: Offer to ‘parent’ (rather than punish) a failing school - by setting bold boundaries and offering guidance and the helping hands needed to support these academies as they develop.
2. Don’t stifle leadership: Leadership is a choice not a job title. Believe all staff have the capacity to be senior leaders. Ask them to think like leaders too, so they feel they can effect change.
3. Know your path and navigate it well: Make better use of information across the trust. It helps ensure a consistent approach to improvement as new academies join.
4. Communication is key: Make sure academy leaders and teachers know what you are aiming for and have access to the same detailed information about students and progress against targets.
5. Get everyone involved: Make sure that the leadership, teaching personnel and pupils are all involved and feel a sense of empowerment towards any changes being made.
6. Think outside the school gates: What support or interventions do children and families need at home?
About the author
Chris Brislen is CEO of St Bart’s Multi-Academy Trust and a National Leader of Education (NLE).