With transient, and in some cases, deprived populations, seaside resorts have been in the spotlight for poor educational achievement.
Last year, Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said that deprived children from such areas are particularly falling behind. Speaking after the launch of a report into underachievement in England’s school system, he called these pupils our “unseen children” (see further information).
Opportunities for young people in seaside towns are indeed few and far between. One of the main factors is the isolation of schools and communities in coastal areas, where there are low wages and high unemployment. Children are sometimes not encouraged to learn and, in some cases, are constantly being moved in and out of schools.
At South Shore Academy in Blackpool we want to be a catalyst for change. We want to lead the way in changing the face of education in the town. This quest comes against a backdrop of challenging local indicators and from seeking to ensure students have the opportunity to improve their life chances.
We understand that effective change does not happen overnight and the first challenge that we faced at South Shore was to improve attendance. Only by doing this could we start making any real difference in providing students and families with the very best opportunities, progress and overall attainment.
When evaluating what was needed to increase attendance at South Shore Academy, a focus on three key factors was emphasised and constantly reinforced at every opportunity – student involvement, parental engagement, and professional collaboration. These messages were communicated to staff, students, parents and across the school.
We first needed to look at the school and community’s perspective of attendance, to ensure that robust early intervention strategies were in place and that we were getting our basic core strategies right. At the heart of this was the principle of “keeping things simple, but making them happen”.
Part of this process was the systematic renewal of the attendance structure in order to increase the supportive climate for students and parents. We were also keen to nurture significant relationships between staff and students and create a very clear policy towards absence and the escalating of issues.
Practical examples of this process were ensuring a pro-active response was in place by increasing home visits of those students absent, key staff having a caseload of target students to monitor, and ensuring clear and concise roles for form tutors, heads of year and other key pastoral staff.
This approach is not just about expanding the attendance team, but ensuring that there is a cultural shift in raising our profile and highlighting our response to students who were absent as well as the importance of whole-school attendance.
The use of transparent and accurate data systems have also helped transform the attendance agenda and the picture across the school. Having an accessible system of tracking and monitoring a range of indicators, for individuals, groups and our cohorts, has opened up accessible knowledge. This has led to smart decision-making and a “sharp-shooter” approach to celebrating milestones but also responding very quickly to issues before they take hold.
A year 7 “Learning Base” offering a safe learning environment has been created for students to promote daily experiences that enhance positive social attitudes and effective interpersonal skills.
This is an environment that encompasses a pastoral perspective, where year 7 students have taken ownership of their base. It is supported by staff with a strong overview of their pastoral developments and academic achievements.
This is an especially important area for us as it counters any fears or dips within this crucial transition phase of their education. This area ensures that there is an attachment to the academy through a web of relationships with students, teachers and other caring adults.
Further to this is a cultural aspect through the regularly held and highly important student council. Through engaging a wide range of students, the student council has become highly effective at highlighting and discussing the need for improvements from the student perspective.
The student council also works to communicate a wide message to the student population that everyone has a responsibility to show that excellence is expected. Through these students and their high profile, they help fashion an academy where students want to attend, as opposed to having to attend.
Parental and community engagement
An on-going priority is parental engagement and making the academy the heart of the community. The focus is on involving parents as key stakeholders. A thriving Parents Teachers and Friends Association (PTFA) is in place, attendance surgeries are being offered for drop-in enquiries, and coffee mornings are also a regular feature of school life.
Communication between the academy and parents has, as a result, also dramatically increased. We have also increased access to our Pupil Welfare Officer whose role is to support families as much as possible and to ensure legal proceedings are used as a last resort.
We are very keen to gather feedback from all parents, and surveys are used to gain their perspective to ensure that our service and presentation is of the highest professional quality. These are gathered on a wide range of issues, not just attendance.
Since January, we have been a member of the Bright Futures Educational Trust and as a result have expanded our access to other schools and services within the Trust. Our levels of collaboration have increased significantly and we are working with colleagues to strengthen ways in which we can improve outcomes for our students.
Our active primary liaison programme, the South Shore Alliance, involves embedding links and securing foundations built on common purposes and strong relationships across Blackpool primary schools. Through the alliance, governors, headteachers, parents and students of primary schools are working together to develop resources, working shoulder-to-shoulder to raise standards and to also bring a sense of our high expectations. This has enabled us to share our own staff’s extensive expertise but to draw on the knowledge of primary school colleagues, especially in the fields of literacy and numeracy strategies.
We also value very highly the extended opportunities we can offer, not just to students but also to parents and the wider community. We offer a multitude of extended services, including breakfast clubs, literacy clubs, extra-curricular activities, an extensive programme of adult literacy and ICT courses and amateur dramatics.
South Shore Academy has, since joining the Trust and with input from the senior leadership team, shown the highest attendance that has ever been known in Blackpool. It also has the smallest number of students recorded as persistently absent. We are seeing the gap rapidly being narrowed between South Shore Academy’s attendance rates and national expectations.
Improvements in attendance haven’t come from just one leader, one office or one team, but from the whole body of staff who have committed themselves to hard work. High attendance is very much a by-product of a high-performing school and is the key indicator in showing how the academy is operating.
We are still very early on in our journey, but our main focus now is on ensuring our students make real progress in their achievements and creating a learning environment that students embrace and enjoy.
Further informationOfsted’s 2013 report into the achievement of the country’s poorest children, including a focus on coastal towns, is at www.ofsted.gov.uk/accessandachievement
Jane Bailey is the principal of South Shore Academy in Blackpool, which has been part of Bright Futures Educational Trust since January of this year. Visit www.southshoreacademy.co.uk