Three simple steps to whole-school literacy


The impact of Shaun McGuigan’s very simple literacy policy on his school and its students and teachers has been highlighted by Ofsted as an example of good practice. It is based on three fundamental premises, as he explains.


When Ofsted visited City Academy, Hackney in 2012, inspectors noted that, “the promotion of literacy skills across the curriculum is exemplary”, and that “students make good progress in lessons because teaching makes consistent links to the academy’s key literacy foci, such as the need for students to respond using full sentences, across all subjects”.

They were impressed with what they saw and returned twice within the same year as part of their survey on improving literacy in secondary schools. Published in spring 2013, the survey report – Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools – included a focus on the literacy policy that I had introduced at the school.

The report said: “The survey visit confirmed the consistency with which teachers from different departments implement the literacy policy. As a result of this sharp focus on pupils’ literacy skills, expectations for all teachers in both reading and writing are high.”

What then constitutes a literacy policy that has an impact on both pupil progress and impresses the adjudicating Ofsted? 

For me, as the subject leader for literacy and English at my school, success consisted of three fundamentals – consistency, simplicity and CPD.  

Keep it simple, keep it consistent

More than any other, the principle that governed my approach was a desire to devise a policy that would not simply be consigned to the staff handbook, but would be an active part of daily teaching and learning, not just in the English department but across the school.  

I wanted a policy that staff would remember and apply consistently to their teaching. I achieved this by adhering to an important fundamental: simplicity. 

My policy, which initially consisted of five core priorities and was later reduced to three, is neither wordy nor abstract. Instead, it consists of three simple expectations in terms of teaching and learning, which we called our literacy strands:

  1. Always insist on full sentences.

  2. Talk, model, write.

  3. Are you checking your work?

Given the school’s success with the Accelerated Reader reading programme, the literacy policy focuses primarily on oracy and writing. While outwardly uncomplicated, each strand of the policy is guided by an uncompromising belief that it is the responsibility of both staff and students to raise standards in literacy.  

This starts with an expectation that students should respond in full sentences and in Standard English; teachers are expected to model this, to challenge poor oracy, and to provide students with the language necessary for a high-level response.

Before setting their students to write, teachers should model the process of writing: the thinking, the planning, the drafting and the editing. 

And before any work is handed in, students should use their green pen (provided by the English department) to check their own literacy.

This simple approach ensures that all staff and students are clear about their responsibilities and that there is a consistent application of the policy across the school. This is then monitored through lesson observation and book checks.

Of course, devising the policy is not an end in itself. For it to be implemented successfully it needs to be coupled with a programme of CPD that is both comprehensive and constant.


It is important to start from an understanding that many people struggle with literacy. How then do you empower staff enough for them to feel comfortable with placing literacy at the forefront of their lessons?  

An indispensable part of any successful literacy policy is regular and effective CPD. At my school, the English department leads on whole-school literacy training at least three times across the academic year.  

Each training session focuses on one of the strands of the literacy policy and offers practical strategies for addressing it. 

In so doing, the wider staff body is continually reminded of its obligations and equipped with new strategies for fulfilling them. 

I have always insisted on three things when delivering literacy INSET. First, staff involvement (either in the delivery or the reception of the training). I always involve my whole department in the planning and delivery of CPD; this has had the dual consequence of encouraging my team to reflect on and improve their own teaching, while creating a strong team of literacy experts who feel confident sharing their expertise with other staff.

It also means that the entire English department assumes a position of leadership and ownership with respect to whole-school literacy and that they set high expectations of students’ literacy in their own classrooms.

At least once during the academic year I also involve one other department in the delivery of INSET. In an effort to demonstrate that literacy is integral to student progression in their lessons I have collaborated with the music department, the modern foreign languages department and the humanities department.

Second, INSET should be interactive and fun.  Literacy training at my school has involved treasure hunts, costumes, cartoon characters and Zumba. If we expect staff to be attentive for two hours at the end of the school day and then apply what they have learned to their lessons the next day, we need to ensure that the training is both engaging and of a high quality.

Third, attendees should leave with something practical to apply in their lessons. If we consistently keep on top of the basics of literacy then student progress should follow. Therefore I always focus on these basics: how to model writing, how to promote excellent oracy, how to ensure students take responsibility for their own literacy, and how to make literacy an interactive part of all lessons.

Fundamentally, literacy in schools is about student access to a diverse curriculum. If students are unable to do this then we have failed in our mission. Therefore the most important thing to ensure as a middle leader with any literacy policy is that all staff are aware of it, all staff buy into it, and all staff are applying it – this cannot be achieved without investment in your staff.

  • Shaun McGuigan is subject leader for English and literacy at City Academy, Hackney in London. He conducted this initiative while on the Teaching Leaders Fellows programme.

Teaching Leaders
The Teaching Leaders Fellows programme is a two-year intensive development programme for high-potential middle leaders working in schools in challenging contexts. Applications open on January 6. For more information, visit
Further information
Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools: A shared responsibility (Ofsted, April 2013):


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