Making an impact in your department

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After his inner city English department achieved above average results, including excellent pupil progress, we asked Russell Harris to reflect on what strategies made the difference.

At the Teaching Leaders graduation in November last year, I was lucky enough to be awarded the Pearson Prize for Pupil Impact after successfully completing the two-year Fellows programme as curriculum leader for key stage 4 English at Westminster Academy (I have since become assistant senior leader for English).

Our school has a very diverse student body, in which the majority of students have low primary school attainment and English as a second language. 

Nevertheless, the English results of our year 11 cohort were considerably above the national average: for example, 77 per cent achieved A* to C in English language, with 70 per cent of the cohort making three levels of progress from primary school, and 48 per cent making four levels.

The truth is, of course, that this was achieved through a sustained and directed effort by the teachers in my department and their pupils. 

The purpose of the reflections in this article is to record the aspects of this journey that I feel were crucial to its success. Below are some lessons I learnt along the way, which colleagues in similar roles may find useful.

Know your pupils

As a curriculum leader I feel there is no substitute for a detailed knowledge of the pupils in your cohort:

  • Which groups of pupils are going to struggle to achieve a C? Why?

  • What are the specific development areas of individual pupils and how can you counter these through directed teaching? 

  • Which pupils are going to respond best to which teacher? 

  • How will you ensure that your pupils achieve the maximum number of A*s of which they are capable? 

In October, I met each of my year 11 teachers and discussed with them the individual weaknesses of their pupils, recording these so that I could then plan specific interventions for targeted groups. 

Similarly, I made myself very visible to the cohort by dropping into lessons on a regular basis and making a show of checking their books with them. 

Each visit would only be five minutes but pupils found it motivating to know that, along with their teacher, I was also keeping a close eye on their progress. 

By the mid-point of the year I knew every pupil in the cohort by name and had a good idea of the grade each was aiming for.

Finally, I found it important to be ambitious for my pupils and to embrace challenging targets. When making predictions and setting targets, for example, I asked myself the following: if I were this pupil, would I think it fair for my teacher and their line manager to expect me to achieve this grade?

Know the exam requirements

It may sound glib, but I found that the key to success in exams is to have a precise knowledge of the requirements of the exams your pupils will be taking. I insisted that every lesson my team taught should be based upon responding to the assessment criteria. 

Similarly, in early morning workshops we worked together to mark and annotate both examples of our own pupils’ work and those provided by the exam board. Finally, they may not sound like a riveting read, but the examiners’ reports are in fact treasure troves of useful tips and advice, which can be shared with pupils, and I regularly read extracts from these with my team.

A crucial step, I discovered, in this process of getting to know the exam requirements – and communicating these effectively to the pupils – is to have your teachers write example exam answers for pupils or produce innovative revision materials. 

One of the best ideas came from my line manager. She suggested each of us produce a 10-minute oral commentary accompanied by annotations on a poem or extract likely to appear in the exam. We then played these recordings to our pupils in the final few weeks before the exams while they made notes.

Know your teachers

I was very lucky with my team of year 11 teachers – they were motivated, dedicated and creative. I tried to respond exactly to what I thought they needed to help them teach excellent lessons. 

Above all, I tried to be supportive: I undertook learning walks and observations, of course, but I aimed to make these as developmental and helpful as possible, rather than anxiety-inducing. 

Finally, I found it essential to know the individual strengths of my teachers and to share and learn from these. For example, one teacher in your team may be an excellent marker, while another could be very strong in modelling the process of writing to students, and a third may be an outstanding teacher with nurture groups. I gave careful thought to pairings when moderating pupils’ work because I knew that these different strengths would filter across during their discussions.

Know your SLT

As a curriculum leader you aim to be the dynamo at the heart of the operation, providing the front-line drive and direction, but my experience suggests that success is only achieved if this is combined with the strong support of the principal and the senior leadership team.

As daunting as it felt, I learnt to welcome their learning walks, lesson observations and challenging questions: this sense of accountability became an excellent way of sharing the responsibility for those all-important final results.

At Westminster Academy this support is also manifested through school-wide drives to improve literacy levels and the high status accorded to English generally. There is no doubt that teachers across the curriculum at our school also have responsibility for teaching English. The fact that they embrace this challenge is due not only to their energy and commitment, but also to the knowledge that this is what the principal and senior leadership expect.

Know yourself

I was lucky enough to benefit greatly from regular coaching sessions as part of the Teaching Leaders Fellows programme. My coach was a source of inspiration, reassurance and expertise. 

She came to know me, my school and my pupils in depth, while also retaining a critical distance which helped me to analyse and reflect upon the challenges I faced over the two years. 

Finally, as experienced teachers would expect, I found that resilience, determination and self-reflection are crucial.

  • Russell Harris is assistant senior leader for English at Westminster Academy, London. He graduated from the Teaching Leaders Fellows programme in November 2014, at which he won the Pearson Prize for Pupil Impact for the most significant impact on the progress and achievement of pupils.

Teaching Leaders
Teaching Leaders is an education charity whose mission is to address educational disadvantage by developing middle leaders working in schools in the most challenging contexts. Applications for the 2015 cohort are open now. Visit www.teachingleaders.org.uk/our-programmes/tl-fellows/how-to-apply/
 
Photo: iStock


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