Witton Park High School is an average sized secondary school in outer Blackburn. The proportions of Pupil Premium students, students from minority ethnic backgrounds and those who speak English as an additional language are well above the national averages. The proportion of disabled students and those who have SEN is also above the national average. Needless to say, the school faces its challenges, but works hard to ensure it provides the best environment for all of its students to achieve.
The challenge: how to raise pupil progress
In 2010, I was appointed head of English when GCSE results were 57 per cent A* to C. The data from the last two years suggested that our White British students were not performing at the same rate as other groups within English. I wanted to know why, address the issues and then, with my team, make a difference.
The sub-groups I was interested in were: White British students, those in receipt of free school meals (FSM) and those at risk of becoming NEET (not in education, employment or training).
What were the barriers preventing all our students from achieving the best possible grades in English? Why were pupils from these groups under-achieving, and what strategies did we need to employ to narrow these gaps, while not disadvantaging our young people who already did well? I was interested in the link between deprivation and life chances. Some of the statistics I unearthed were shocking and upsetting.
Getting buy-in from the team
I shared these statistics with my department and together we created our vision which was underpinned by our determination to make a difference to all students, especially our underperforming groups.
As a department we discussed this and quickly came up with some clear actions, milestones and outcomes. We needed to identify ways and means to target and engage these students. We all agreed that we needed to raise the aspirations of students, parents and even some staff. It was great to see that the faculty was open to change and it was also encouraging that we all recognised parental engagement as a crucial factor in pupil progress. Work needed to be done outside the classroom to get the best out of pupils in class.
Breaking down barriers
The first step was to canvass the opinions of our parents and our White British students. Over a six-week period my colleague and I patrolled the streets with local youth workers and community support officers. The first week we were met with suspicion and some resistance. “What are they doing on our territory?” was a question we overheard several times. Once the period of suspicion was over and we became a regular fixture on Thursday evenings, we began to find some answers.
Changing perceptions of pupil and parent
Parental experience of school was extremely negative; not only from their own experience when they were young but also from the summons they regularly received when their own children were “in trouble”.
Parents had low levels of literacy and numeracy and extremely low aspirations. All of this was transferred to their children. This perception of school had to be altered if we were ever going to make any progress.
In addition, many of the students we met said that they had had enough of school by the time it got to 3:10pm. It wasn’t “cool” to stay behind after school and the incentives that we offered, such as book vouchers, were certainly not having the desired effect.
I needed to think more creatively around how to best engage pupils. New incentives included vouchers for phone top-ups, iTunes and Amazon. We also introduced a loyalty card so attendance at five sessions automatically secured a £5 voucher.
The revision sessions in the local White British community were supported by the Youth and Community Service. Consecutive attendance at five sessions resulted in pupils participating in an activity of their choice that they ordinarily would not be able to do, such as Go Karting. We also sent a postcard home and invited parents into school to share and celebrate pupil progress. Pupils were given a direct input into our reward scheme to encourage them to buy into it.
Constructing a programme for parents
To help engage parents we put together a clear schedule of activities – a structured programme of opportunities ranging from basic literacy and numeracy sessions to specifically organised workshops such as “Keeping your children safe on the internet” and arts and crafts lessons.
This had the desired effect; some of our hard-to-reach parents began to see that school was not the enemy. Parents began to attend our parental information evenings for English and generally were much more positive. They started to take an interest in how their child was performing at school. This was assisted by the department’s new policy of making positive phone calls home each week, so engaging parents in every aspect of their child’s progress in English. Building regular communication with parents proved critical in developing a trusting relationship.
Don’t forget the pupils
Working with pupils proved to be just as challenging. We addressed the quality of teaching and learning in some classes by putting in place bespoke coaching and support mechanisms. We altered schemes of work and programmes of study to meet the needs of our students, revision classes were started in the community so students didn’t have to stay behind after school and an exciting programme of enrichment and aspirational activities was organised to raise the confidence, self-esteem and aspirations of our students.
The sessions were very well-received, not only by our students but by the local media. This year the English faculty built on this success by hosting a week of even more exciting activities, guest speakers and trips.
The whole team shared the vision, which was to improve the outcomes and life chances for all young people, especially those at risk of becoming NEET. Students visited universities, listened to professional, local, inspirational role-models and began to consider the opportunities that were on offer.
Over the last four years our results have increased despite the government’s national agenda and changes to the GCSE English syllabus. This year we are on target to secure our best ever results – 85 per cent grade C or better. Without the motivation, commitment and drive of the team these results would never have been achievable.
Top tips for other middle leaders
Teaching LeadersTeaching Leaders is an education charity whose mission is to address educational disadvantage by developing middle leaders working in schools in the most challenging contexts. Visit www.teachingleaders.org.uk
Know your data – only then will you be able to identify who to target and how.
Ensure you have buy-in from all of your team – make sure they feel supported and have the tools they need as they will be implementing any changes.
Be prepared for some initial resistance from both parents and pupils. Persistence will be key!
Put together a clear programme of opportunities that are relevant and interesting to best engage parents.
Regular communication with both parent and pupil is vital in building an atmosphere of trust.
Continue to engage the pupils – never lose sight that they are what it’s all about.
Shanaz Hussain is now assistant headteacher at Witton Park High School in Blackburn.