Driving improvement in coastal schools: A case study

Written by: Stuart Gardner | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Raising aspirations, teaching students how to think, and a focus on staff development have proven key to raising outcomes for pupils at the Thinking Schools Academy Trust, which serves coastal communities in the South of England. Stuart Gardner explains


Coastal schools in England have long been a challenge for many in the education sector. The socio-economic disadvantages in these once thriving seaside communities poses a unique challenge, to not only turn local schools around, but also to sustain and continue levels of improvement.

Many coastal schools are in the “stuck schools” bracket, which was proposed by Ofsted earlier this year (2020).

A “stuck school”, according to Ofsted, is one that has received consistently weak inspection outcomes – failing to achieve a “good” rating during a 13-year period up to August 2019. They are often those characterised by hard-to-fix, long-term performance problems.

While not all schools in coastal areas struggle, many are tasked with common and persistent problems that are difficult to overcome, a number of which are caused by issues inherent in their communities (Ambition Institute, 2015).

These problems include high levels of generational unemployment, and fewer prospects for young people, which affects motivation and can lead to low aspiration. Additionally, schools in such areas can find it harder to attract and retain the best teachers.

The Thinking Schools Academy Trust is a group of 17 schools across the South East which operate exclusively in coastal areas – Kent, Medway and Portsmouth.

Thinking Schools was named the top-rated academy trust in the South East in the Department for Education (DfE) rankings for GCSE progress and in December we were also ranked in the top 20 per cent for key stage 2 outcomes.

Upon joining the Trust many of our schools were in challenging positions and faced similar difficulties to those above.

We believe education has the power to transform life chances and it is important that both students and parents see this too. We set high aspirations to ensure pupils believe in the opportunities available to them and we ensure that our ambitious vision for each student is shared among the staff.

Our approach is centred around our ethos of “Thinking about Thinking”. We have developed effective thinking and learning communities harnessing cognitive education and metacognition. By using a set of thinking tools, we have developed a common language of learning which enables pupils to independently overcome barriers, take ownership of their learning, and more generally think for themselves about how to handle certain situations.

Exeter University’s “Thinking School” accreditation programme underpins the development of the metacognition and cognitive learning in our schools. It has helped to develop our ethos of “thinking about thinking” and also to create our consistent language of learning which has broken down learning barriers that many pupils have suffered from in the past.

As part of this work, we think it is important for students to understand why they are attending school, why their education matters, and why they are focusing on the topics they are learning. We therefore hold regular sessions between students and staff to enable them to analyse and understand these matters. This understanding helps to raise aspirations, making students aware of what is possible.

We also use this ethos as part of our approach to behaviour management. Students are asked to think about the consequences of their actions themselves and to learn from their mistakes.

We have a project in place called “Be your Best”, which enables students’ aspirations to grow and for them to develop. It allows students to reflect on their own strengths and areas for improvement, equipping them with strategies to help with self-improvement and challenging them to continue to improve over time. We ask students to shape their own success by considering what they want to achieve and then planning how they are going to achieve it.

When raising students’ awareness of the opportunities education can provide them, it is important that parents are both informed and invested in the ambitious visions we hold for their children. To help illustrate our approach and increase parental engagement we host open mornings and topic-themed express events which help to spread our message and secure buy-in.

At the end of last year, we also launched an online Parent Network for all our schools in Portsmouth – designed to engage parents from schools across the trust.

A challenge that has proven particularly difficult for many schools in coastal areas is recruiting and retaining the best teachers. To combat this, we have introduced an innovative new pay model, backed by the National Education Union, which means we can pay our teachers above the national pay scale.

This encourages staff to join the trust, stay with the trust, and also to remain in the classroom – not move into a management role to increase their income.

Additionally, we have put in place more opportunities to help our teachers develop. These include providing more online training, offering new staff extra paid CPD days to support their induction, and we have also created a career map that allows staff to use personalised types of CPD to help them achieve their own ambitions.

Our CPD initially focuses on developing key thinking tools to help create a common language of learning and behaviour for all staff. The thinking tools include Hyerle’s Thinking Maps – eight maps each representing a different thinking process and used to tackle different problems and questions (Hyerle & Alper, 2011) – the de Bono Group’s “Six Thinking Hats”, which give pupils different ways to come at a question, and Tony Ryan’s Thinking Keys, which helps deepen learners’ thinking in different contexts and encourage students to think outside the box. For more on these approaches, see the TSA Trust website, which includes pages dedicated to the Thinking Schools philosophy (see further information).

We also dedicate time in staff meetings to sharing best practice and supporting one another. Teaching staff are encouraged to think reflectively about their own practice, and to understand a range of thinking methods that can be used to support student motivation and progress.

Our teachers become upskilled over time with an expanded pedagogical toolkit that is common to all staff in the school and understood by students, helping to drive improvement across the whole school.

Turning around coastal schools is a complex process that will never be straightforward. However, with a patient and positive approach we believe we have found a method that can help turn these schools around and thrive moving forward.


  • Stuart Gardner is chief executive officer of the Thinking Schools Academy Trust.


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