I joined Samworth Enterprise Academy as part of Future Leaders, a leadership development programme, in August 2013, taking up a role as assistant principal with a focus on building a team in the humanities department.
Samworth is an all-through academy with students aged three to 16. We are a relatively new academy, founded in 2007, and our students tend to be from families with several generations of social disengagement. RAISE Online data from 2013 put the school in the highest percentile for deprivation, 64 per cent of students are eligible for free school meals, and we have twice the national average with SEN.
Unfortunately, the expectations of pupils tend to be low and this is reflected in the lack of aspiration and progression onto Level 3 programmes at college and the very small number taking subjects that qualified them for the English Baccalaureate (EBacc).
In the past two inspections, the school's teaching has been judged to require improvement, with inspectors stating that marking needed to improve. It was my responsibility to take all this into account and establish a new humanities team which could make a credible contribution to students' achievement.
How to build a teaching team?
My first task was to establish what was happening in humanities. The curriculum consisted of history, geography, religious studies, and Spanish but these subjects were undersubscribed and from the 112 pupils in year 11, only six of them had the necessary combination of GCSEs to qualify for the EBacc in 2013/14.
In addition, the humanities curriculum was being delivered by a team of trainee teachers or teaching assistants. Although I am a qualified teacher, I am not a humanities subject specialist. I needed the team to develop teaching and learning skills but I first needed to establish trusting relationships with the staff and learn from their subject expertise.
The school was due for only its third set of full-course GCSE results and this would be the first time that the humanities department made a significant contribution. The team knew what was expected, but recognised the depth of challenge in being responsible for securing year 11 outcomes and also developing their teaching.
Creating a joint focus
Lesson observation data revealed that all the teaching in the humanities department was judged either requires improvement or inadequate. The team was also fragmented after the three previous departmental leaders had left the school after only one year. I recognised that building a team would be essential to making an impact. I had learnt through my Future Leaders training that a “hook" is often required to help focus teachers on what changes need to happen and why they are necessary.
As my hook to develop teaching skills I asked my team to focus on improving students' ability to produce extended writing. We discussed how all humanities subjects are literacy-based and that this focus would play a big part in raising attainment. Extended writing therefore became the focus of planning, lesson observations and marking.
Supporting individuals' development
With the aim of building a credible humanities team I conducted a SWOT analysis of each member of staff based on lesson observations and work scrutiny. I used this to establish the appropriate mode of management for each of them, and the appropriate type of conversation to have with individuals, for example deciding whether to use a directive or motivational mode.
I also arranged to meet each member of the team weekly following an informal coaching support plan. The ultimate aim of these meetings was to unpick some of the reasons for teaching being at a lower standard and how I could help each member of the team to move forward.
The main challenge was setting aside the time to deliver this intensive coaching strategy effectively. However, I decided that since I needed the team to develop quickly, the regular meetings had to take priority over other work.
This made me realise how much leaders need to prioritise building trusting relationships within their teams, as it enables the leaders to gain a clearer picture of people as they share their vulnerabilities and take the risk of letting their strengths come to the fore.
Tailoring the teaching
Of course, it wasn't just about building relationships with the team. I also needed to develop the quality of the lessons that students were receiving. To secure successful outcomes we needed lessons to be engaging and to motivate students to learn within and beyond the classroom.
First, I reviewed the content and level of challenge in the year 8 teaching material. Pupils would make their GCSE choices in this year and I wanted to increase the appeal of the humanities subjects. I implemented a focus on active learning methods to make history and geography more fun and exciting, because I realised the low student participation in humanities was more an issue of their motivation rather than our teaching.
In addition, each subject teacher conducted a student voice questionnaire to establish the different things that would attract pupils to humanities and make learning more engaging. As a result I insisted that trips became a part of learning outside of the classroom.
Creating consistent assessment/marking
Ensuring quality marking and assessment within the department was the final target. Staff had used different systems within subject areas and across the departments. This resulted in a lack of consistency and quality in the feedback students would receive about their work.
I researched the different methods of marking and found a simple way that meant we were all giving consistent feedback. This used a pro forma sticker which included feedback to the student about their current GCSE grade, what they had done well, and how the work could be improved.
I set the expectation that all teachers would use these stickers to mark student assessments and extended pieces of writing. In addition, I implemented a regular cycle of marking, whereby all books were to be marked once every three weeks, and work scrutiny was conducted once every half-term.
The team are largely receptive to the introduction of this method of marking, as it provided clarity around expectations of marking and assessment feedback. While not all teachers were immediately able to work with the three-week marking cycle, especially when teaching a group for one lesson a week or when groups are shared, we are moving forward to find a solution.
The August 2014 results showed that the humanities team managed to secure a solid first set of full course A* to C GCSE results, especially in geography at 46 per cent.
Results also improved in religious studies from 35 per cent short course to 40 per cent full course. In other subjects, our percentage A* to Cs fell slightly but the number of students actually taking exams increased substantially – for example history increased from six in 2013 to 26 in 2014.
There is now an established humanities team. The trainee teachers have since qualified, and are working towards becoming subject leaders. The quality of most teaching has also improved to good, with one teacher producing consistently outstanding lessons on observation.
Other staff have commented on how much the department has changed. Teachers seem more professional and the pupils are more committed. It was very rewarding to see the team grow in confidence and ability, and also for each member to deliver results comparable with experienced teachers.
However, we have quite a way to go, as the results are solid, but not in line with national averages. The next steps will be to refine the pedagogical skills of teachers and ensure robust standards are being used to track and monitor progress and attainment. I know that the team I have supported is now confident and keen to continue moving teaching and learning forward for students.
Future Leaders TrustFuture Leaders works to eradicate educational disadvantage by running leadership development programmes for exceptional school leaders. It is currently recruiting for the Talented Leaders programme (http://bit.ly/SecEdTLP), which gives experienced school leaders support to take up a headship in an area that needs excellent leadership. Visit www.future-leaders.org.uk
Natasha Boyce is an assistant principal at Samworth Enterprise Academy in Leicester.