How The Oldham Academy North became one of the top 100 most improved schools in UK for pupil progress
Celebrating success following promotion of leadership team’s vision and values to improve teaching and learning throughout the school community
With its ‘good’ Ofsted rating under the tougher new inspection framework, a sparkling new £18m state of the art building and praise from by the Department for Education for being among the top 100 most improved schools in the UK for pupil progress, The Oldham Academy North is riding high.
Yet just three years ago the picture was far less rosy and the turnaround has been fast and dramatic. The Oldham Academy North (TOAN) replaced The Grange School, which found itself at the bottom of the league tables once the ranking was adjusted to include percentages of pupils gaining five A-C grades at GCSE to include the key subjects of English and maths. This was a particular issue because almost all the students are from minority ethnic groups without English as their first language. Around 95% of the 750 or so students at TOAN are British Bangladeshi. The rest come from a mixture of ethnic backgrounds – primarily Somali and Kenyan, with a small number of Pakistani and White European pupils. The vast majority of children speak Bangla at home – it’s not even pure Bangladeshi, so their understanding of the grammatical rules of their own language is not necessarily strong and 90 per cent have a low reading age. Oldham is also an area of significant social disadvantage – ranking in the top five per cent in the UK for deprivation - and the percentage of pupils eligible for school meals is four times the national average.
The decision to convert the school to an Academy came as part of the Greater Manchester Challenge - a three year programme, aiming to crack the cycle of disadvantage and educational underachievement with a key emphasis on improvements to English and maths results. Colette Burgess was appointed as its new Principal in January 2010 to research and prepare for the opening of the new Academy in September.
Focussing on the leadership and management strand of the Challenge, led by the National College for School Leadership, Colette’s first action was to strengthen her senior management team, a key appointment being vice principal Martin Knowles. Together they began by tackling the basics, establishing systems to improve attendance, punctuality, uniform, discipline and pastoral issues.
Colette also appointed a school improvement partner to help craft her plans. “I was keen to improve teachers’ skills and selected school improvement specialists EdisonLearning ( www.edisonlearning.net ) because when they sat down with me the first thing they said was; ‘Tell us about your school and how you like to work’. That was a good start for me as other companies I spoke to had a less collaborative approach, more along the lines of; ‘This is what we have done for others and we could do the same for you’. I wanted a bespoke service to help project manage the conversion to sponsored academy status and provide an on-going improvement and development service, supporting teaching and learning, leadership and data analysis.”
Targeted support has included help with using and presenting data to raise attainment, including the provision of data dashboards enabling accurate data analysis throughout the academy. A key strand of recent work has been supporting faculty leaders to develop their capacity to lead improvements to teaching quality and student achievement.
The Academy’s 60-strong teaching team were provided with a really simple and sturdy structure (it takes up a single side of A4 page) to enable them to think about their lessons more carefully – increasing consistency, improving standards, and enabling real, constructive monitoring of progress. At the same time a ‘Times and Teams’ review structure was established to provide a clear cycle of assessment and improvement, with everyone across all faculties understanding what needs to happen, and by when, rather than random meetings with no joined-up thinking.
“Lesson observations were also important, scheduled every half term and followed up with quality feedback from senior colleagues – it’s essential in helping them to improve their practice,” said Colette. “I also do learning walks every week – it’s a big investment of time, but essential.”
Other initiatives included establishing a ‘high expectations/no excuses’ culture, adjustments to the curriculum, promotion of a ‘future leaders’ programme, establishment of a strong collaborative network and some key governor appointments. “Our improvement didn’t come through one single thing, but lots of things coming together, including increasing the amount of time spent on English and maths – we had to get the basics right,” said Colette.
“I am open minded to new ideas so have constantly reviewed and evaluated the impact of our various initiatives. It all adds up to a real investment in promoting advanced skills for our teachers,” said Colette. “I think it’s a national scandal that parental income at birth is the biggest influence on pupil performance. It’s absolutely shocking and I was determined to address it.”
The hard work paid off when the 2012 GCSE results came through showing the number of pupils gaining five GCSEs A*-C including English and maths had risen 10 per cent in the academy’s first two years from 37% in the predecessor school to 47% in 2012. Expected progress in English and maths rose sharply to above the national average with English up 4% at 71% in 2012, compared to a national decrease of 4% that year. In his letter congratulating TOAN on its results, Schools Minister David Laws MP, commended Principal Colette Burgess on her leadership and continuing drive towards high standards of educational achievement. Similarly Ofsted noted that ‘effective and determined leadership has been pivotal in moving the Academy forward’.
The DfE assessed school performance on the basis of the progress of pupils between Key Stage 2 and their GCSEs, looking at numbers achieving five GCSEs, including English and maths and the pupils’ three other best GCSEs.
“I am delighted that our work has been so publicly recognised,” said Ms Burgess. “Leadership and governance are important in delivering school improvement, but it is the quality of classroom teaching that makes the real difference to pupils’ results. We are well on our way to our goal of becoming an outstanding school delivering world class education and ensuring our pupils have as many future routes to work as possible.”
Now relocated from Oldham town centre into new state of the art premises in nearby Royton the Academy is going from strength to strength with this year’s exam results predicted to be high 50s to 50 per cent of pupils achieving five A-C passes at GCSE including English and maths.
“The new Academy comprised 99 per cent of the old staff and all the same children – so what made the difference? I’d have to say it’s about having the rights skills, ideas and determination to fulfill the mission. It’s not rocket science - be clear about what you want, put the necessary systems in place and share that vision with everybody – staff and parents alike.“
For further information about EdisonLearning, visit www.edisonlearning.net or call 01376 562953.