Combatting the coastal school challenges

Written by: Heath Monk | Published:
Photo: iStock

A recent report has sought to shed further light on the challenges coastal schools face and the kind of leadership that is required to overcome them. Heath Monk explains

Many coastal areas in England face unique challenges after decades of economic decline. With waning industry, limited transport infrastructure, low-paid work and few skilled employment opportunities, coastal populations have fewer choices than people in other areas.

These issues are no secret. But what many do not consider is the effect that the isolation of coastal areas has on schools.

In 2010, Dr Tanya Ovenden-Hope began a longitudinal study of students entering a coastal school. This expanded to include five more schools, and all six became part of a broader piece of research, entitled Coastal Academies: Changing school cultures in disadvantaged coastal regions in England (Ovenden-Hope & Passy 2015).

The report found that the schools faced remarkably similar challenges. But that wasn’t the end of the story.

As well as identifying the challenges, Dr Ovenden-Hope and her colleague, Dr Rowena Passy, described some of the solutions the schools found. One of the key factors in coastal school improvement, they found, was leadership.

The Future Leaders Trust works to improve children’s life chances through leadership development programmes for aspiring senior leaders and headteachers of challenging schools. Through the Talented Leaders programme we find and place experienced leaders in headships in the schools that need them most – often in coastal and rural areas.

We wanted to delve further into the practice behind transformative leadership and so published a summary of Dr Ovenden-Hope and Dr Passy’s report, together with case studies of six of our heads who lead coastal schools. The practices that our headteachers told us were helping to turn the tide in their coastal schools were closely aligned with the initial report’s findings.

Coastal challenges

Educational isolation: Where inner-city schools are surrounded by cultural sites, universities and employers, in coastal areas these are often absent. There have been none of the targeted investment and improvement programmes that inner-city schools have benefited from over the past 10 years.

Recruitment difficulties: All headteachers reported difficulties recruiting staff, with some saying they often had only one or two applicants for roles – or sometimes none at all. This came down to their areas’ isolation; coastal areas often have few transport links and limited employment opportunities for partners.

Difficulty engaging students and families: Schools reported problems engaging with students and families. In areas with high levels of unemployment that sometimes spanned generations, many families failed to see the point of education.

Struggling local primaries: The smaller number of primaries in coastal areas means year 7 in-takes are significantly affected by low-performing feeder schools, leading to teachers having lower expectations of the entire cohort, which can have an impact on the rest of their secondary education.

Politics and policy: Changes to performance measures, academy organisation, the curriculum, assessment, and exams led to significant challenges for the schools who were trying to improve grades. These changes affect all schools, but have a bigger impact when coupled with the issues described above.

Turning the tide

Engage students with learning: The report states: “It is not enough for students to attend and behave; they need to be engaged through additional initiatives.”

Andrew Day, executive director of Northumberland CE Academy, said: “We raise aspiration through trips abroad, visiting speakers, celebrations of student successes, and trips to universities. In 2015,
51 per cent of sixth-formers went on to university – compared to only 27 per cent four years ago – with one student going to Oxford and several others to Russell Group universities. The message to the community and our students is the same: your background doesn’t matter, the only thing that counts is what you want to become.”

Raise expectations: The report states: “Headteachers need to create a sense of urgency about the need to raise standards, recruit new teachers, develop staff, and improve school infrastructure.”

Phil Humphreys, principal of Oasis Academy Mayfield in Southampton, said: “We focus on staff leading their own development; we have weekly ‘drop-in’ sessions to help teachers develop their practice and a research and development room, where staff have timetabled sessions to discuss the latest educational research and learn from one another. This has been recognised as a model for others to follow by Roy Blatchford (director of the National Education Trust) and the Oasis Academy Improvement Team.”

Change student behaviour: The report states: “Reducing bad behaviour is vital, but equally essential is increasing positive learning behaviours and raising aspirations.”

Kevin Rowlands, principal of Oasis Academy Immingham, said: “Three years ago, fixed-term exclusions were three times the national average but they’ve halved every year since then. Attendance improved from 93 to 96 per cent with persistent absence down to three per cent from more than 10 per cent.

“In the early days, our approach to behaviour was a zero tolerance policy. However, despite lower levels of disruption, pupils still remained passive. We evolved our behaviour policy away from ‘carrot and stick’ and towards building intrinsic motivation. Detentions and isolations have been removed and students are supported to engage with their education, building resilience and not allowing them to give up.”

Work with the community: The report states: “Coastal schools often suffer from a disengaged local community. The report’s headteachers increased engagement by welcoming community members into school through open days and offering services.”

Nadia Paczuska, headteacher at Meadow Primary Academy in Lowestoft, said: “Meadow hasn’t been decorated since the 1970s. We asked members of the community to volunteer to come in over the summer and make the school a more inviting place to learn. We had a remarkable response.

“By giving the parents a sense of ownership of Meadow, we can encourage them to increase their involvement in their children’s education, which we know will help the children to achieve more.”


The challenges coastal schools face come down to isolation – geographical, economic and cultural. Schools can’t update the rail network or build motorways, but they can show students that there is a way forward.

They can’t create jobs in the local area, but they can help students meet employers from further afield. Successful headteachers make their schools sites of access which combat the isolation experienced by the whole community.

One thing is clear: educational inequality in Britain is a real issue. Despite much excellent work from leaders and teachers around England, there is a great deal to do before we can guarantee that every child will receive the excellent education they are entitled to.

I believe that school leaders sharing good practice is one of the surest ways to drive school improvement more quickly.

  • Heath Monk is CEO of The Future Leaders Trust.

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