I began working at Thornton Grammar School in Bradford in 2012, joining as assistant headteacher with responsibility for achievement. Despite its name, the school is actually a large comprehensive with 1,511 students, 30 per cent of them eligible for Pupil Premium.
Within my first week, we had an Ofsted inspection and the report identified the quality of teaching and maths achievement as particular areas for improvement.
I knew that we needed to increase our students’ progress and attainment, so I planned to target English and maths to raise results. This of course meant finding the students who were currently underachieving.
However, the existing management information system set-up made this difficult and so we set about overhauling the way that data looked in the system, developing how we used this data to set targets across all subjects, and the setting ambitious targets for all our students.
We achieved some of this in the first year, and by working with another assistant head and our data manager, we implemented changes to make it much easier to see how well students were achieving against their starting points and who was underachieving, particularly in maths.
I also looked at how the school’s RAP (Raising Achievement Panel) meetings could be refocused on improving student outcomes. These were rather unwieldy meetings, with more than 20 people attending, and while staff discussed the school’s general work there was not much sustained attention given to each individual student’s needs.
I initially used the group to research ways that we could work with students, looking at what had been done before in the school and what other schools had tried. By quite an organic process, we identified “assertive mentoring” as a main way that we could effectively work with our underachieving students.
This was partly because the school had used mentoring schemes in the past that appeared to have produced some successes. As such, I found a number of mentoring scheme models which were working effectively in other schools and adapted these.
Hurworth School’s (in County Durham) scheme used students’ data to give mentors a clear and ongoing insight into their progress, and I devised a simplified version of this so that data guided mentors and – very importantly – let them discuss the very same data with the students themselves.
I then refocused the RAP group using a model from Palatine Community Sports College in Blackpool. This meant shrinking RAP from 20 to only six key people, meeting every three weeks and focusing on individual students with information from class teachers and the management information system.
The assertive mentoring itself was an adapted version of Hurworth’s style that I worked on with our director of science. Assertive mentoring is not just a cosy chat or catch-up, but a meeting directly linked to academic goals and progress. The aim is to discuss students’ attainment in a way that is friendly but ultimately holds them to account for their work.
If a student appears to be struggling, the mentor asks them to talk about what the reasons for this might be. The point is not to judge them but neither is it to accept excuses; the aim is to get insight into how the school can help individual students.
Initially I approached staff and asked them to be mentors, including all of senior leadership team, and they then committed to regular meetings with students who were most at risk of not gaining five A* to C GCSEs including English and maths, or making expected progress. Students were invited onto the programme, and while not all engaged, many did, and we began the process of regularly analysing their grades and setting goals for the coming months.
The way that we have developed assertive mentoring relies on good data. The data helps us to identify the students who could benefit from mentoring and it is the data that guides discussion, and which is used to set goals and targets.
The key is that the data is not an end in itself but is the starting point of a conversation, and you need the student actually there in front of you to provide answers to the questions that the data raises.
Our students responded very well to the mentoring, with 71 per cent of them saying it was at least of “some use” to them and 57 per cent agreeing that mentoring helped because they knew someone cared about their achievement, something that is perhaps an issue in a large school.
Perhaps surprisingly, 40 per cent said that knowing their attainment data and their target grades was a real help, with students writing in the feedback survey that “you could see your progress” and “it helps to organise your work”.
Mentoring also has a pastoral side; one of my mentees sent me a very angry email two months before her exams, saying that studying one subject in particular was making her miserable and that she would not go to any more lessons, do any coursework, or go to her exam.
I asked her to come and talk to me and I just listened. Letting her get all her negative emotions out helped massively, and she did calm down when I explained that I did not want her to lose all the work and effort she had already put in.
She realised I was looking after her, and not the school’s rules. She did her exams and got the grades she needed, without the situation escalating. On her feedback form she wrote that mentoring helped because “it’s nice knowing somebody’s got your back”.
The results of our work can be seen in the data too. In the autumn of 2012, 30 per cent of the students being mentored were on track to get five or more A* to C GCSEs including English and maths.
By the summer, this had risen to 67 per cent, and the school’s attainment went from 46 to 57 per cent five or more A* to C GCSEs including English and maths in one year! I am certain that mentoring played a part in focusing these students’ efforts to achieve more and work harder.
Certainly, I know for myself that mentoring has played a significant part in my own development through the Future Leaders programme’s leadership development advisor who is always on hand to offer advice and feedback.
The student mentoring scheme is now in its second year and has expanded, with more teaching staff and associate staff playing a part, and some mentees asking to continue on with their mentor into the 6th form.
Furthermore, though I did not get everything as I wanted in the first year, it has meant that the scheme has grown more organically and that staff have been given more time to see it working. It is one thing to lead on a project and have high expectations, but unless people believe that it works and that you can be trusted, they are not likely to follow you.
Future LeadersThe Future Leaders programme is a leadership development programme for aspiring headteachers of challenging schools. It offers a residency year in a challenging school, personalised coaching and peer-support through a network of more than 300 Future Leaders. You can apply now for the Future Leaders programme. You can also nominate a colleague who you think would make an inspiring headteacher. Visit www.future-leaders.org.uk
Deb Allen is assistant headteacher (achievement) at Thornton Grammar School in Bradford and is a graduate of the Future Leaders programme.