Case study: Driving progress in MFL

Written by: Anna Pethybridge | Published:
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Lead practitioner Anna Pethybridge discusses her school’s work to drive up progress in MFL, including a focus on teaching and learning and effective staff deployment

When I joined Biddick Academy as a lead practitioner for modern foreign languages (MFL) in 2014, I initially found it difficult to envisage my role within the department.

My interview with the headteacher and head of department provided me with a good insight into how important they saw the development of teaching and learning in MFL and across the school, but as the first lead practitioner, I think it is fair to say that I was entering into somewhat uncharted territory.

Thankfully, the senior leadership team and the head of department were incredibly supportive and allowed me free rein to identify issues within the department and begin to work towards solutions.

I was also fortunate to have secured a place on the Teaching Leaders development programme for middle leaders, for which I had to design and implement an impact initiative that focused on an area of school improvement.

Having had some preliminary conversations with the senior leadership team and the head of department, and having done some analysis of results over the last three years, I developed an action plan for how I was going to support the department in improving GCSE French results over two years.

I wanted to bring our school more in line with the national average by increasing the percentage of pupils achieving three levels of progress from 41 per cent in 2014 to 60 per cent in 2016, and the percentage of pupils achieving four levels of progress from 15 per cent in 2014 to 34 per cent in 2016.

To achieve this, I decided to focus on teaching and learning, effective staff deployment, and tracking progress more closely.

Improving teaching and learning

Teaching and learning within the department was already good, but I identified challenge and the organisation of schemes of work as areas for improvement.
Through lesson observation and follow-up CPD, we became a mutually supportive department and shared our resources frequently. I planned the extra time we had for CPD on a Wednesday afternoon more strategically to focus on a specific area of practice that needed attention, and tailored the training around this. This enabled me to maintain a focus on teaching and learning at all meetings.

I saw the value of increasing the challenge of our resources through the use of chunkier texts, which our new second in MFL had introduced as something that was successful in her previous school and, by scaffolding our activities in a better way, pupils were able to access and enjoy these texts which proved to be a great preparation for the reading and listening exams.

CPD delivered by the local authority consultant for MFL supported us in producing an hourglass sequence to learning through big texts. Where previously reading tasks had been limited to our textbooks, and therefore relatively short texts with repetitive questions, this development of bigger texts meant that pupils were more challenged and rewarded by the amount of written language that they could cope with.

I also formalised the timescale in which the scheme of work was delivered, developing and sharing a clear calendar for when units should be completed and where controlled assessments would take place. This ensured that we had finished the course, and controlled assessments, by February half-term of year 11 so that we were able to invest much needed time in helping pupils to prepare for reading and listening exams.

Deploying staff effectively

Our department began the year one staff member down, but by Easter we had appointed a second in department. This meant that we had much more flexibility in being able to use staff effectively.

There were four GCSE classes and five members of staff so I agreed with the head of department that she would pass her class onto the new member of staff, freeing her up to act as a support for year 11.

For example, some boys were underachieving and needed some structured support so we took them out of their normal French class for several weeks and they worked in a small group with the head of department. The smaller class combined with her “no excuses” approach meant that the boys made excellent progress. When they returned to their class they were back on target and they were much more focused on their success.

The level of progress tracker

The biggest impact my Teaching Leaders impact initiative had, however, was on tracking progress. Although I would not have thought it possible at the start of my teaching career, I have turned into a bit of a data geek. My previous school had been very focused on analysing data, so I had needed to up my game to the extent that I can now build a spreadsheet which calculates uniform mark scale and distance from each grade boundary!

When I implemented this at Biddick, it proved to be an excellent support for my colleagues who were able to identify precisely where improvements needed to be made with each pupil. Sharing this information with pupils was also a great incentive as they could see the correlation between the preparation they were doing for each component of the GCSE and the impact it was having on their grades.

While the spreadsheet showed us pupils’ grades, it was not as effective at informing us about levels of progress. After a really useful session with my Teaching Leaders coach, I designed a document which I imaginatively called “The level of progress tracker”.

In another school I remembered seeing a Venn diagram of pupils who had achieved a C in English, maths or both. I designed a similar diagram. It consisted of a white background, with a green circle in the middle and a yellow circle in the middle of the green one.

I added the names of all of the pupils in the cohort to the white background and, when we were certain that they had hit the three levels of progress we dragged their name into the green circle. Once they had hit four levels of progress they were dragged into the yellow inner circle.

Using this tracker, we were able to discuss pupils’ progress at department meetings more easily. We could see which pupils were still in the white as they were not making sufficient progress and, using the spreadsheet I’d created, we could identify strategies to work with them, for example, lunchtime revision sessions.
I took this tracker one step further and created a page for each class, which I asked each member of staff to populate with their students. I used national data to set class targets and the level of progress tracker allowed us to see how close we were to meeting department and staff targets.

Collaborating for more impact

I made a lot of changes through the impact initiative – reorganising tracking of progress, leading coaching of staff who were underperforming, reorganising how we set pupils at GCSE – but I undertook changes in a collaborative way.

I ensured that any change I would like to implement was on the agenda for department meetings and I listened to staff’s views in order to see how best to proceed.
This did not mean backing down on areas of practice that I knew needed work, but it did allow staff to have a voice.

It also allowed staff to give me information about whether something I was proposing had been previously tried (and had failed), and that information was valuable in rethinking solutions to issues.

Because I included staff in discussions, they pulled together as a department and started to change the way they worked to be much more collaborative, focused and better informed about the progress of our pupils.

More importantly, the results in 2016 showed that we were working a lot smarter. We had aimed for 60 per cent of pupils achieving three levels of progress, but 73 per cent actually achieved this, while 40 per cent achieve four levels of progress (we had targeted 34 per cent. Overall, we went from 64 per cent A* to C in 2014 to 85 per cent in 2016.

We have learned a lot over the last two years, but we still have areas we would like to improve upon – our second in department has already sought support from the local authority MFL consultant to support us with our listening results and the new GCSE specification is another challenge to grapple with.

  • Anna Pethybridge is a lead practitioner at Biddick Academy in Tyne and Wear. She is a graduate of Ambition School Leadership’s Teaching Leaders programme.

Ambition School Leadership

Ambition School Leadership is a charity that runs leadership development programmes in England to help school leaders create more impact in schools that serve disadvantaged children and their communities. Visit


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