Case study: A focus on literacy and reading

Written by: Alun Ebeneezer | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Alun Ebeneezer explains how his school put boys’ literacy at the centre of teaching and learning...

Mention boys and literacy in the same sentence and the word challenging will invariably find its way in there as well.

Boys literacy was at the forefront of my mind when I was given the chance of a lifetime to become the first headteacher of a brand new school.

Fulham Boys School, an 11 to 18 secondary free school, opened its doors in September 2014 to satisfy demand for new secondary school places in the area.

Our school prides itself on its comprehensive intake: 15 per cent of the boys come from private schools and 40 per cent are eligible for free school meals. It is truly mixed in terms of social background, ethnicity and ability. We have pockets of real wealth here but also pockets of real deprivation. Our hope is that you don’t see the difference when they’re in school.

The raising of literacy skills is at the very centre of our approach to learning and forms a key part of the school development plan. It is such an important thing because it affects every subject.

We have a literacy briefing for the whole staff once a week because it is so key. My approach has been strongly influenced by my experiences over the years. A common theme has been that literacy skills can hold boys back.

If they don’t like reading and writing then they can become switched off from school. In class, boys always want to talk but when it comes to writing things down it can sometimes be easier to get a man on the moon!

They can lack confidence and struggle to express themselves. So there has been a whole school emphasis on this because it is helping to improve their attainment as well as their wellbeing. We took a number of key approaches.

Put literacy at the centre of learning

The focus on literacy was there at the off, helped by Martin Jeeps, a former colleague who I recruited as our head of English. Martin, who is a member of the senior leadership team and has responsibility for staff review and development, helped me set up the curriculum and recruit teachers who would help us deliver that learning vision.

In every subject, every half-term, the boys must do a piece of extended writing and every teacher has a literacy whiteboard in class so there is always a focus on building literacy skills.

We have seen huge improvement in low ability boys in their reading. We have set stretching targets for the high ability boys by appealing to their competitive nature, such as who can read the most classics before they leave the school.

There is a literacy element in subjects where you would least expect it. Boys will be expected to write up a sports report after participating in a rugby match, for example. Reading and writing is what we all do, not just the English department.

Build a library that excites boys

Martin’s first move was to set up a library built specifically to meet the needs of boys. Rather than create a library with thousands of different books we bought multiple copies of a smaller selection of books chosen to encourage boys into reading. They weren’t the most highbrow but we wanted to get them into books. As the school evolved more classic texts were introduced. The library is now very different because the boys have a thirst for reading.

Have a consistent message

The message that literacy matters is emphasised at every turn at Fulham Boys School. Improving literacy skills and attainment forms a central element in the school development plan and there is a weekly whole-school literacy briefing. Every teacher is encouraged to engage with the boys about reading – for example, we have a poster on the door of every classroom with details of what book the teacher is currently reading.

There were challenges in getting everyone on board with the literacy strategy at first. When you say that you want every pupil to do an extended piece of writing every half-term you can imagine that some departments would say that it wasn’t their top priority but over the past few years colleagues see that this isn’t an add-on.

And the feedback we get is that has made a difference and that it is valuable. In science and maths the boys have shown real strides in their comprehension and can now answer the questions more clearly and fully. That’s a result of the literacy focus.

Monitoring the quality of teaching and learning

In recent years we have changed how we monitor the quality of teaching and learning. For the first three years the team did termly whole-school reviews, checking against the school development plan. The process became unwieldy so we’ve taken a new approach.

In the first term of each academic year departments pair up and review each other. They look at books, talk to pupils and do lesson observations. At the end of that term departments then write a report detailing the strengths and areas of development for the partner department.

In the second term the senior leadership team does department reviews. If any areas for development identified in term one haven’t been tackled properly then the senior leadership will support them to improve during the third term. Departments identified as outstanding during this process are then expected to share their successful approaches with other departments.

  • Alun Ebeneezer is headteacher of Fulham Boys School in west London. His insights form part of the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) - part of the suite of NPQs developed and delivered by Outstanding Leaders Partnership in partnership with Best Practice Network. For details, visit and


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