A journey to outstanding

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Heartlands Academy has gone from special measures to two consecutive Ofsted outstandings ― the last one under the January 2012 framework. David Smith explains some of their secrets to inspection success.


The year 2012 has been another exceptional one for Heartlands Academy. The best examination results in its history for five A* to C including English and mathematics, the highest number of A* and A grades (20 per cent), 80 per cent plus-3 levels of progress in all core subjects, and – last but not least – an “outstanding” Ofsted judgement.

It seems a long way from the days of being a school in special measures with a temporary headteacher seconded from another Birmingham school. In March 2003, that is where the school was.

Back then, Glynis Jones, a well-respected deputy headteacher, was asked to prevent the school from failing its students. Within 14 months, Heartlands High School was removed from category and only two years later was described as “good and improving”. Luckily, this meteoric improvement meant that the permanent appointment of this aspirational headteacher was impossible to overlook.

Under her leadership, Heartlands has constantly looked for new challenges to continue its improvement. Having attained specialist sports college status in September 2006, we almost immediately began the academy process. This was achieved with our sponsor, E-ACT, in September, following an outstanding Ofsted in February 2009 .

We introduced our own 6th form in 2010. Another outstanding inspection in January this year was followed by the opening of a new building in earlier this month. Our next challenge is now that of becoming a Teaching School.

Back in 2003, our first response to being placed in category was to address the action points identified in the Ofsted inspection and, as time has passed, these have become our standard practices, evolving with national policy and local need. As you can imagine, they addressed the basic needs of any school: teaching and learning, achievement, behaviour, attendance and leadership.

Improving the quality of teaching and learning was fundamental. The school supported a number of staff to achieve qualified teacher status or transfer overseas qualifications to the UK. Standard expectations were clearly established and new staff were inducted thoroughly into whole-school procedures. One example of this was the marking policy. It began with the minimum expectation that books were marked, then basic targets were set. The regularity and depth of marking has been increased and now Assessment for Learning is integral to academy improvement.

As the academy has developed, the “home-grown” staff have been bolstered by appointments from outside – of staff who once may have not considered Heartlands at all.

This new blood brought fresh and exciting ideas that have been incorporated into the improvement plan and, in turn, have become standard practices in teaching and learning.

Advanced skills teachers (ASTs) and those aspiring to the roles have been attracted to the supportive environment Heartlands offered. More recently we have been able to participate with Teach First candidates as they enter the profession. 

Teaching and learning remain at the forefront of our CPD programme. New staff are given an induction programme, with NQTs given additional support. 

This programme covers the expectations of lesson planning and assessment, as well as pastoral development and child protection procedures. It culminates with an overnight residential experience for staff to share and reflect on their own practice.

For more experienced staff, the school offers an “Outstanding Teacher Programme”, identifying key components to outstanding lessons. Devised by an AST and delivered by a range of highly experienced and talented staff, this programme supported the numerous grade 1 lessons during January’s inspection.

In true Heartlands style, we have now embarked on a support programme for middle leaders and those aspiring to senior leadership.

As teaching and learning have developed, so has achievement. This year 55 per cent of students received five A* to C including English and maths; 96 per cent got five A* to C. If we consider GCSEs alone, then five A* to C including English and maths is at 47.4 per cent, demonstrating the academy’s commitment to a robust GCSE programme. 

This has to be put into the context of the examinations challenges this year and the impact of a new build programme on the current cramped site. Heartlands has aimed to make steady progress without resorting to quick fixes to satisfy a league table position. 

Another focus from the original improvement plan was to develop the personal and social development of students. Working in a socially and economically deprived area has never been an excuse and the academy has exceptionally high expectations. This ethos has developed slowly with students and their families to the point that 70 per cent of them now wish to study beyond GCSE and go on to university. 

Heartlands prides itself on its relentless focus on the individual. Our mantra – “Heartlands students can...” – epitomises this core belief and, with this in mind, we appreciate that all students may require additional support at some point, which may be delivered in numerous ways. 

Our intervention programme is the way in which we assess the on-going needs of our students and establish a support programme for them. This programme may last from a week to the rest of their school career, but has led to consistently high value-added (1062 to 2011) and for the first time, no permanent exclusions (in 2011/12).

The sports specialism has provided additional stimulus in embedding the team ethos of Heartlands. From a school that rarely won a fixture, we now compete at the highest levels. We can boast of a World Championship medallist, county and district footballers and an athlete on the verge of GB selection who led the Olympic torch relay from Birmingham. 

In the spirit of the Olympics, all E-ACT academies competed in the E-ACT games, five single event competitions spread over a year with each event symbolising one of the rings. Participation from all the academies was inspirational for staff and students alike, with Heartlands claiming the overall crown.

This intervention programme is monitored and adapted on a weekly basis to suit the needs of the individual and is able to respond quickly and effectively to any change of situation. The programme comes at a cost and, although qualified teachers, learning managers have a reduced timetable in order to maximise the impact of change within their year groups. This includes being readily available for our often-demanding parents.

In education, we always appreciate that the need to move forward is essential, while using the experience of the past. Our new priorities are the development of our internal monitoring systems and our ability to share our practice with others. The realisation of our aim to become a Teaching School would be the ideal outcome and impact upon the teachers of the next generation. 

Leadership at all levels has shown just as much improvement as other areas. Many leaders have been in the academy for a number of years and have grown within it. Senior and middle leaders have had the opportunity to link with colleagues in other E-ACT academies through network meetings. 

These “best practice” sharing events have developed groups of influence outside traditional local authority boundaries. More recently, in depth CPD interviews were conducted with the previous School Improvement Partner to explore development strategies for the senior team. 

Members of the leadership team do not have traditional line management responsibilities of subject areas, instead we have key areas of performance to monitor and review. 

In this process, all members of the team develop an understanding of staff performance and share this termly to establish a clear view of both teacher and subject performance. This is linked to our improvement plan and we hope to adapt and develop this on a termly basis, moving away from the rather dated subject self-evaluation forms which can be slower to respond to.

Another marked development has been the expansion of our community and business links. Our dedicated community director has worked to strengthen relationships with partners near and far. As the only secondary in our Education Action Zone, Heartlands has established itself as a supportive partner, with one of its feeder primaries joining the E-ACT family this September. 

Year 7 is over-subscribed for the first time in its history this year. Our sponsor’s influence has also provided access to many businesses, including to international links for student internships in the USA during the summer.

The real advantage of our continued success has been the ability to share our experiences with other schools. We have discovered a real ambition within our team to develop practice wherever we can, while accepting the unique nature of many schools. We have trodden a particular path to reach our goals which may not work for everyone but, if there is anything you would like to adopt or adapt, we would welcome that.

  • David Smith is vice-principal of Heartlands Academy in Birmingham.

Heartlands road to success

What worked for us…

  • Concentrate on the basics – would it be good enough for your child?
  • Build slowly – make sure the basics are happening before you make the basics harder.
  • Treat students as individuals and then the groups look after themselves –“Heartlands students can...”
  • Build your team ethos – from students and their parents to staff, everyone has to feel supported. 

What Ofsted said...

  • “Students make rapid and sustained progress.”
  • “Led and managed exceptionally well.”
  • “Procedures for monitoring performance are exemplary.”
  • “Teaching is of consistently high quality with much that is outstanding.”
  • “Parental responses convey overwhelming support.”
  • “Students’ behaviour is typically outstanding both in lessons and around the site.”


CAPTION: Fostering success: Heartlands students got the chance to volunteer at the Paralympic Games in London


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