Case study: Achieving tough but aspirational targets in English


Charged with transforming her school’s English GCSE outcomes, Anna Martin was given a range of tough but aspirational targets. She explains some of the wider strategies and specific interventions they used

Carlton Community College is an 11 to 16 school in a deprived area of Barnsley, formed as an amalgamation of two local schools in 2009. 

When I joined in September 2013, 46 per cent of students were eligible for free school meals. The school was designated special measures in January 2012 and between then and October 2013 there had been four headteachers and several new members of the leadership team. 

There had been a big restructure in the summer term of 2013 which resulted in 27 staff leaving and 17 new staff joining the school. Staff morale was very low and in addition to all this, the number of students joining the school was falling year-on-year, which was having a negative impact on the budget.

I joined the school as an assistant vice-principal with responsibility for student outcomes, progress of learners, timetable and curriculum. In the previous year English significantly under-performed, with whole-school results being just below the floor target of 40 per cent five A* to C grades including English and maths (at 39 per cent).

The school needed to show rapid and sustained progress in all areas in order to move out of special measures and the head felt that more input and intervention was needed to support English in achieving this. My three targets for my first year at the school, set in consultation with the head, were:

  • To raise A* to C in English by 15 percentage points to 60 per cent for the academic year 2013/14.

  • To raise the percentage of the cohort making expected progress in English by 20 percentage points from 44 to 64 per cent.

  • To raise the percentage of the free school meals (FSM) cohort making expected progress by 20 percentage points from 33 to 53 per cent.

The strategy

I was initially daunted by these aspirational targets, and realised I had to hit the ground running as we had a Section 8 inspection imminent and a year 11 cohort whose year 10 English data was looking very poor. 

However, other teachers in the Future Leaders network working in similar schools had demonstrated similar gains, so I knew it was possible and that I had people I could ask for help.

Build your team

I realised that I would not be able to achieve my targets on my own. It is easy as a leader to feel that you have to do everything, but I was not going to be able to that here – I am not an English specialist and also I had no teaching load. So I had to build my team.

I quickly built a positive working relationship with the head of English and engaged her in all discussions. I spent time finding out about her and her team’s journey so far. I felt it was important to empower and mentor her, and to help increase her expectations for what our students could achieve.

I supported her to present monthly reports to the interim executive board and included her in all aspects of inspection and monitoring visits from both Ofsted and the local authority. She became part of the extended leadership team to enable her to understand the whole-school picture and the role English has to play.

Her support was vital in getting the rest of the English team on board. It is easy to assume that when a school is in special measures everything needs to be changed, but through the head of English I was able to identify some real strengths in the English department – most of all that they wanted to improve. 

I empowered the head of English to develop half-termly improvement plans so that she could incorporate the ideas of her team in the changes introduced. It was vital that they saw that I was interested in their opinions as they had seen so much change, most of which was forced on them without any consultation. This was a big win with regards to gaining the support of the English team.

Build the vision

Once I had built my team, identified my key influential staff and gained trust, I built the vision. 

I chose to build the vision rather than share the vision, because I felt that it was important to give the English department a degree of ownership, while not compromising on the end goal. I began by sharing the aspirational targets that had been set and getting them to tell me how we could make this happen with the current year 11 in the time we had left. Almost universally the answer was that it was not possible. To overcome this I made contact with a Future Leader in a similar school who had achieved what I was suggesting. I set up a link between our head of English and the head of English there.

Building on the back of the growing belief that we could do it, I challenged the team’s misconceptions about our students, and accepted no excuses, only solutions.

Finally, I gathered as much evidence as I could regarding what works and what doesn’t, using resources such as the Education and Endowment Foundation’s Pupil Premium Toolkit. This allowed me to use data to underpin every suggestion or decision I made.

Get strategic

Finally, I got to work with the head of English to strategically plan how we would make the vision into a reality. The English department was a very hard-working team but had seen little reward for their efforts. The general response to any intervention suggestion was that “we’ve tried that, it didn’t work” – and in all honesty they had tried most of what I was suggesting. The real difference came when we started to use the interventions strategically.

The department had previously focused on the C/D borderline students, with high and low-achievers largely overlooked. Now we set progress targets for each achievement group. We identified the students in each group who needed interventions in order to achieve these targets and set up bespoke intervention plans.

Interventions were formalised, with non-attendance followed up and successes celebrated. Classroom teachers identified target students and monitored their progress closely every lesson.

Following each half-termly data collection, we carried out a detailed review of the progress of all year 11 students in English to evaluate the impact of teaching and learning, any interventions that had been put in place, and to update the half-termly plans.

Our most successful intervention strategies included the following.

After-school sessions

Targeted after-school sessions for different abilities were implemented. Each session was staffed by the member of the department who was most effective at working with this ability range. Students were expected to attend, registers were taken, non-attendance was followed up and rewards were given through the school merits system for every session that was attended.

Saturday school

We ran a six-week Saturday school for our lower achieving students. The primary aim was to build their confidence by building on what they could do, rather than focusing on what they still needed to learn. 

We rewarded them with free prom tickets if they attended all six sessions and had a big celebration at the end of the programme involving parents and a presentation ceremony.

One of the obstacles I had to overcome was how to staff this programme within a tight budget. We managed to get two learning mentors and two English teachers to run the sessions by giving them time off in lieu.

Exam arrangements

We tested the reading ages of all students in year 11 and ensured all students had the correct access arrangements for the final exams. We trained support staff, including office staff, in how to be an exam reader and were able to allocate a reader to each student entitled to one. 

We had repeated mock exams to build the relationship between each reader and the student. For those students who found the exam hall too stressful we put them in smaller rooms around the school to minimise their anxiety.


I found as many ways as possible to reward both staff and students. These ranged from a senior leadership team merit stamp for students to cake and chocolates for the staff. 

I tried to visit lessons as often as I could to catch them all doing something good and made of point of telling them when I saw it. I thanked staff and students publicly in assembly as well as privately in appraisals and parental meetings. I learned that rewards do not have to be big to be meaningful.


I gave the English team whatever time they needed to make change happen. When they needed the students off-timetable for a day to prepare for the speaking and listening exam, I gave it to them. This involved negotiating with other subjects and allowing them to take back the time from English once the exam had taken place. I gave them time to work with other departments in schools across the country, to attend training events, and to mark and moderate coursework together.

Our outcomes

A* to C grades in English increased by nine percentage points from 45 to 54 per cent. Although below my original target this is still a pleasing increase for the school and represents the best English results the school has ever achieved.

The percentage of the cohort making expected progress in English increased by 22 percentage points from 44 to 66 per cent. This was above my target of a rise of 20 percentage points and represents the best results the school has ever achieved.

Children on FSM making three or more levels of progress increased by 10 percentage points from 33 to 43 per cent. Although below my target it is still a pleasing result and represents a step-change for the school.

  • Anna Martin is now vice-principal at Trinity Academy in Doncaster.

Future Leaders 
The Future Leaders Trust works to eradicate educational disadvantage by running leadership development programmes for and developing a network of exceptional school leaders. We are currently recruiting for the Talented Leaders programme, which gives experienced school leaders the opportunity and support to take up a headship in an area that needs excellent leadership.



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