Case study: Driving whole-school literacy


With so many pupils not speaking English at home, literacy was proving a key barrier to achievement at Lorna Owen’s school. She discusses the action taken to tackle this problem.


Holyhead School has its challenges. The school is situated in an area with a high crime rate and a below average number of our students’ family members have a higher education qualification. Our current school census data indicates that 66.4 per cent of students are entitled to free school meals.

Attainment on entry is low, with students in all years having a significantly lower than national average key stage 2 results. The mean CATs score is 93 in the current year 7 and this has remained constant over the last five years. More than 15 per cent of our students are on the SEN register.

We have a culturally diverse intake of students, with at least 38 heritage groups represented and no dominant ethnic group; 74 per cent of our students do not speak English at home. This has an effect on many of our students’ reading and writing abilities.

Students’ exam success and, more importantly, their on-going life chances, will always be limited if they cannot read. So when I joined the school’s senior leadership team in 2012, through the Future Leaders leadership development programme, I decided to focus on creating a structured, thorough and effective literacy programme that would make a real difference to our students.


I worked with the Future Leaders’ network, a group of more than 350 school leaders who are part of the programme, to identify areas of good practice around literacy.

I was particularly keen to find an accelerated reading programme that had had an impact in other Future Leaders’ schools. 

In 2012, we introduced the Lexia reading programme to support our students with reading ages below their chronological age. With Lexia, students work through varying levels of phonics, identifying areas of weakness that are then targeted for improvement through worksheets and homework that both teachers and parents can use.

The results were positive: students who used the programme regularly were showing improvements in their reading and confidence. But we were relying on spare time in English lessons or tutor time to deliver the programme, and students just weren’t getting the intensive support many of them needed. 

So, armed with the success of the small Lexia pilot, I approached the rest of the leadership team with a proposal for a much wider literacy programme.

An intensive literacy programme

The objective was to develop a programme where students received highly intensive support for a potentially short period of time, during which they would be withdrawn from mainstream lessons. 

Some subject teachers had valid concerns about students missing so many of their lessons, as did some parents. But we wanted to break away from the traditional model where students are withdrawn from only one or two lessons but over a longer period of time, eventually missing so much of content that they are at a disadvantage. 

The key to addressing concerns was to explain why we felt that the literacy programme was so important, and to re-iterate our pledge to return students to their subjects as soon as possible. 

The leadership team approved the proposal and we were ready to go – but how would the programme actually work?

We rolled-out the programme across year 7, targeting the students who needed the most support. Literacy lessons were taught by a specialist SEN teacher and a higher level teaching assistant, and resembled a primary school model.

Literacy was taught via our schemes of learning so that, although withdrawn from history, geography or RE, students kept up with their peers in mainstream lessons. We encouraged students to use Lexia at home too, and provided practical sessions for parents to help them support their children. 

Initial uptake was mixed – around half of children began using the programme at home. One family did not want their daughter to receive the extra lessons at all. Our goal was always to show impact as quickly as possible and return students to timetabled lessons and once we were able to share early results with parents, their support improved.

Literacy-focused CPD

The next thing to consider was what would happen once our students returned to subject lessons. Some of my colleagues were understandably nervous that the students would find it hard to readjust. And while our year 7s had made huge improvements in reading, they were still vulnerable. We needed to provide support for staff to ensure that they understood and supported the literacy programme, and were equipped to support all students – not just year 7s – of varying literacy abilities.

We introduced literacy-focused CPD for our staff. Sessions were led by our own literacy specialist teachers, and included CPD on a number of topics – for example how to adapt resources for different reading ages, sessions specifically for A level teachers on improving access to texts, and whole-school literacy projects such as Drop Everything And Read.

The first session for all staff was focused on illustrating the need for the literacy curriculum. Most people, teachers included, do not understand what a reading age of seven actually looks like, and why it is such an obstacle to learning. 

So I recorded my seven-year-old son reading from GCSE text books and played it back to staff. He is a strong reader and could tackle most of the words, but read in a mechanical way and it was clear that it was a struggle. 

I then asked him questions about what he had read. His answers were either completely detached from the content or were answered with a simple “don’t know”.

As a group, we discussed the implications of a student with this reading ability sitting in a GCSE class, and introduced real examples of students further up the school in a similar position. 

As none of our students looked like seven-year-olds, the result was powerful. The programme gained the support of all staff, who began to welcome the literacy CPD as an opportunity for structured improvement across the school.

The results

Rather than beginning a new initiative in September 2013, we decided to stick with improving literacy to build on the success we had achieved. 

Sixty-two per cent of year 6 students about to join us were not reading at their chronological age. The average reading age of the group was eight years and four months and 98 per cent of students were working at Level 3 or below.

By March 2014, the average reading age had increased to nine years and three months with 42 per cent of students making between 12 and 36 months of progress – 95 per cent had gained a Level 3 or greater, and this increased to 100 per cent by the end of the summer term. By this point, 50 per cent of students had gained a Level 4.

The work done by staff as a result of the literacy awareness training yielded great results for our students. In English, 69 per cent of our students on the SEN register made expected progress against a national average of 43.9 per cent and 23 per cent exceeded it. In mathematics, 69 per cent made expected progress against a national average of 53 per cent, with 37 per cent exceeding it.

It has been wonderful to see the effect of students’ progress on their self-esteem. Teachers have reported higher levels of confidence in students returning to mainstream lessons after intensive literacy support. 

Three of our students represented the school in a competition, which involved a presentation to governors and community leaders. They wrote and prepared it themselves and were confident in addressing a group of adults, making it through to the final round. 

Going forward

As a result of the success of the literacy programme, we have restructured the whole Inclusion Department, to allow the work of the literacy team to expand further. We continue to offer support in year 8 to our most vulnerable students and I am working with our Raising Standards Leaders to ensure that support continues again in year 9. We have also secured more suitable classrooms with computer access, and have reworked our year 7 English schemes of learning to provide more literacy support. 

All students now complete regular reading assessments, and results are shared with all staff, parents and governors. We use these results to write an impact report, which identifies students with literacy challenges to allow for interventions across departments. 

We want students to be supported from all angles – through the intensive support programme, but also through all of their subject teachers. 

Ideally support should begin even before students join the school, so we have built in testing and support sessions for our incoming students during year 6 transition days. 

Next summer we will provide dedicated literacy support through our summer school.

Elsewhere, we are currently launching a paired reading programme, using our 6th-formers as peer mentors. We have recently integrated the Premier Reading Stars – a reading intervention that uses the motivational power of football – into the English curriculum too.

The most important thing that I have learnt during the last two years is that you cannot “do literacy” and think that the issue has gone away. I firmly believe that as the number of students with English as an additional language increases and schools see the effects of the changes to exams, literacy will become the prime challenge for every school.

  • Lorna Owen is vice-principal for teaching and learning at Holyhead School in Birmingham.

Future Leaders
Future Leaders is a development programme for aspiring headteachers of challenging schools. To apply or nominate, visit Future Leaders is also recruiting for Talented Leaders, a programme to place exceptional leaders into headship in the areas that need them most. Visit
Photo: iStock


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