Case study: Removing barriers to learning

Written by: James Crawley | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The creation of the Student Progress team at Arena Academy signalled a real focus on underachievement and barriers to learning – from years 7 to 11. James Crawley explains

We decided to reshape our pastoral structure when our new headteacher joined in July last year. The reason for this was that we wanted to remove all barriers to learning – to ensure there was no reason why students couldn’t leave at the end of year 11 with the results they deserve.

From my own point of view, I find the concept that a certain group of students go through school, year-in, year-out, with the same barriers holding them back very frustrating. This is the sentiment that set the vision of the Student Progress Team, whose objective was to remove those barriers.

As with any project, we started by identifying the needs of the entire year group and thought about the interventions each individual pupil would respond best to. Our data needed re-organising so that it immediately highlighted our top underperformers based on their own targets. The rank ordering of the data created a cohort of 15 to 20 students who required direct mentoring and support from the designated progress lead.

We created these cohorts for each year group, and for the first time in the school’s history, we monitored underachievement seriously from year 7.

For me, having developed from an NQT to a middle leader in a few years at the school, it has been really refreshing to see us taking a sustained, long-term approach to tracking data and using this data to intervene where necessary.

The Student Progress Team was enthusiastic, energetic, creative and inspiring to work alongside. They ensured they met with each student and their parents to identify any barriers to learning. The range of barriers were incredibly daunting at first: it was difficult to even comprehend how we were going to overcome each barrier. The uphill battle started with a long team meeting to establish how we were going to tackle the vast and complex nature of underperformance across all year groups.

Collectively, we agreed it needed to be a whole-school effort. Our next step was to diagnose the issue by pulling together all the information and data from different sources. We analysed behavioural, attendance and achievement data and sought the opinions and judgements of key members of staff.

We brought all this information to a “summit meeting” where myself, the relevant progress lead, head of year and other key members of staff met to review the data and decide upon what intervention was needed and who was going to monitor the impact.

While we were busy working hard with individuals, the rest of the school was being led through a changing assessment system and developing strategies to challenge all learners. We welcomed all the work that was done with the new assessment system – a system that would clearly show up who was underachieving – and the fresh teaching and learning approach that would develop all members of staff. As a team, we knew that if our students were ever going to achieve what we all so desperately wanted them to, it would only happen if they were being taught by great teachers.

We worked with pupils week-in, week-out and saw a real change in their attitudes. We found that a real driver in this was regular parent contact. The team were great at putting all the emphasis on what the child was or wasn’t doing, and how the parent could support any changes we recommended. Parents were involved every step of the way – they were great at helping to provide confidence and raising aspirations, but more importantly they were great at ensuring their child knew that school came first above all else. Without such supportive parents we would have struggled to implement any real change.

The change they saw in pupils naturally won over many members of staff who were wanting to see the impact of this new team. We found that staff were happy to have someone who could help with their concerns over the quality of class work or tackling difficult students who were reluctant to work hard. We found that we didn’t need to highlight any of the successes as the students were doing it for us.

However, I think that the real benefit to the staff was seeing the new senior leadership team thinking and building for the future by creating a sustainable programme for tackling underachievement.

As a school, we had always managed to raise the percentage of A* to C grades by putting more enrichment and intervention sessions on, and as a result, more pressure and accountability on teachers.

However, during this project, the thing that made me the happiest was that we did not once ask the teaching staff to do anything extra. It was a big challenge to ensure we didn’t create or add work for teaching staff in a year already full of change. With a new headteacher, a new trust and new GCSE specifications, we knew we had to keep staff on side.

So as a school we made every effort to relieve stress and pressure from year 11 teachers and show them that we wanted to build a school that would last and that would prepare pupils for their place in the real world. Without this, we wouldn’t have been able to tackle underperformance across all five year groups.

Another huge challenge was leading the change in staff mentality. We will continue to train staff in optimising classroom interventions to ensure they are sustainable and have the greatest impact. With this, we will need to continue to boost the quality of our CPD programmes to ensure that our staff are able to teach high-quality lessons and identify strategies that will allow all students to access the most challenging parts of the curriculum.

In the future, we will continue to ensure we go back to basics and build sustainability. Our initial plans are to track reading and spelling ages and drill down into this data alongside a pupil’s academic data.

In addition, we are developing our parent handbook to help parents support their child with their school work at home. The handbook will have advice and tips on managing personal stresses and how to support their child in reading, spelling, writing and more subject-specific themes.

We intend to put on a host of interactive sessions specific to each year group to demonstrate to parents and students the types of activities they could be doing at home to ensure they get the most out of school. For example, in June we intend to host a year 7 reading and spelling evening where we will chase responses from parents to push for a 100 per cent turnout.

During this event, there will be competitions, reading and spelling activities, prizes to be won and a set of pre-prepared tasks for all parents to go home and complete alongside their child. We hope that by catching them in year 7, parents will value the events that the school puts on and really buy into what we are trying to achieve.

Whatever happens in the future, the focus will always be on developing student attitudes and real-world readiness. We will continue to communicate with parents and provide them with a wealth of information about how their child is doing in school and how they can support. My own priority will be to ensure that no teacher sees underperformance as their sole responsibility.

The only thing I will be asking of staff is to continue to teach great lessons and actively seek out excellent CPD opportunities.

The objective was to support students, but my fear was that all the new initiatives, teams, and objectives would pull people in too many directions and dilute all the great work people were trying to do. It has been difficult to manage at times but the change was necessary, we will only really know the true impact of it over the next 12 months, but the changes look promising. 

  • James Crawley is an associate assistant head at the Arena Academy in Birmingham. He is a participant on the 2017 cohort of the Teaching Leaders programme run by Ambition School Leadership.

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.


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