Getting to good: How one school turned itself around


Malcolm Arnold Academy’s predecessor school was failing in every Ofsted category. Two years later, the school has been rated good with outstanding features. Principal Philip Cantwell looks at how this turnaround has been achieved.

As part of the previous Ofsted framework, our predecessor school Unity College was failing in every category. Attainment was low – just 19 per cent A* to C including maths and English – and aspiration for success even lower.

When the Malcolm Arnold Academy opened as part of the David Ross Education Trust, there was only one direction to go – we had to improve quickly. We took swift and decisive action to overhaul any weak areas, while building on the strong ones.

After an intensive start aimed at instant improvement, we took a consistent and simple approach to raising standards across each of the Ofsted categories. Our mission was simple, as a school we were “going for good” in every Ofsted category by 2012. 

Achievement of pupils

From opening, student progress became our only raison d’être. In our first year, we immediately put in place intervention strategies for our year 11 students. We removed traditional study leave, and encouraged students to be here as much as possible by using holiday teaching, weekend teaching and evening classes to equip students thoroughly for their exams. We also created a data management system to monitor pupil progress in detail six times a year. 

By the second year, our year 11 students had already had a year’s tuition at the new school, meaning we had been able to drive progress earlier on. This led to the proportion of students achieving five A* to C grades including maths and English rising to 51 per cent in 2012.

We focus on achievement from the moment students come through our doors in year 7, seeking to avoid interventions later on. We built on Unity College’s strength in English and now champion literacy development from an early stage.

If a child comes into the academy with low literacy skills, we use a team of primary-trained teachers to teach him or her how to read and write. We redesigned the curriculum completely to speed up progress, giving our students the opportunity to complete the whole of key stage 3 in two rather than three years. 

Teaching and learning

We have introduced a steady, sustainable approach to recruitment. We sought the best new teachers through traditional routes, but kept ourselves open to innovation. 

As well as seeking out great British talent, we also looked at Canadian graduates, and have an “outstanding” teacher of English who qualified in Ireland and is thriving in Northampton.

We also worked hard to build our profile with key partners to ensure we got a good base of recruits from independent schools, and from the Future Leaders and Teach First programmes.

Retention is as vital as recruitment. We have introduced a coaching-based model of training, where everyone partners an “outstanding” teacher to encourage better practice. Two development programmes, called Challenge for Good and Challenge for Outstanding, were also created by our assistant principal. 

These involve intensive, school-based learning one-day-a-week for six weeks for selected teachers. We have been actively involved in the delivery of these programmes across other schools in our Trust. 

In the first year we doubled the proportion of good and outstanding teaching to 60 per cent, and it was judged at more than 75 per cent by inspectors in 2012. Now, a third of our teaching is rated “outstanding” and our best lessons are truly inspiring.

Behaviour and safety

Clarity and simplicity has been the key to encouraging “outstanding” student behaviour at the academy. We built a straightforward vision of how we would “go for good” and made sure that both staff and students bought into that.

At first we introduced a clear behavioural code, and rigorously enforced a strict uniform policy. While a “zero-tolerance approach to bad behaviour” is cited by many schools as a key part of their improvement strategy, actually getting staff to deliver on that can be more difficult. We worked closely with all staff, including all of our support staff, to ensure they knew their role in challenging inappropriate behaviour.

Later we simplified the behavioural code down to a small number of “expectations”. We moved away from restrictive school rules to our “Malcolm Arnold Academy Manners” – a list of positive ways to behave created by the students. We felt it was imperative that our students helped to build the behavioural code and fully understood it. 

The simplification of the code ensured that there could be no confusion over expectations. We display our expectations all over the school, so that they feel like a part of everyday life.

One of the most pleasing testaments to the success of this approach was a student quote featured in the Ofsted report: “This place has changed – it’s changed me. I used to be naughty but now I am learning.”

Leadership and management

After opening the academy, the David Ross Education Trust appointed a completely new governing body made up of outstanding individuals. Many of these people had had no governing experience at all, but had excelled in their own areas of work.

The chairman is a retired teacher, with nearly 40 years of teaching behind him, and extensive leadership experience. He understands how a school works, so can lead an informed decision-making process about how the academy should be run.

Our senior leadership team maintains a constant presence in the school. We are visible before school and on duty in key areas every break and lunchtime. Showing that the senior leadership team has a high-profile role in dealing with operational matters all day, every day has been a strong impetus for getting the buy-in of our staff.

Ofsted praised our leadership team for the fact that they “consistently communicate high expectations”. 

We found the best way to achieve an outstanding level of leadership was to keep procedures simple. Sometimes the more people and plans you involve, the fewer actions are taken!

We had one improvement plan: a simple document on a single page, and we stuck to it. Our self-evaluation documents also fit on a single page. These are regularly updated by the senior leadership team and governors but are never complicated or lengthened. In the words of Ofsted, we pride ourselves on the “exceptional clarity of information” that is “available on a consistent basis”.

The future

As a result of the work done by governors, staff and students at Malcolm Arnold, we achieved an Ofsted grade 2 for both the achievement of pupils and teaching and learning. The inspectorate also gave us the top judgement for both behaviour and safety and leadership and management.

The watchword for us now is sustainability. We are determined not to let standards slip now we have reached the first staging post on the journey to creating a truly outstanding school for the young people of Northampton. 

We are always looking for new ways to help our students achieve and make faster progress in all ways. Now we must use our recent success to drive us towards further improvement.

  • Philip Cantwell is principal of Malcolm Arnold Academy in Northampton.


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