Turning around an underperforming school


The challenge of turning an underperforming school around can be a daunting one. Principal Dara Carroll discusses some key areas which his school – Milton Keynes Academy – focused on to help turn things around.

I know from experience that the road to school improvement is not an easy one. Back in 2011, just 20 per cent of students at Milton Keynes Academy gained five or more GCSEs graded A* to C including English and maths. By 2012, the figure had risen to 38 per cent and in 2013 we saw 53 per cent of our students achieving this. Although our work is ongoing, we are now the fastest improving school in Milton Keynes.

Ours is a story about a school community pulling together to make things better and I would like to share some of the highlights of our journey so far.

Back to basics with attendance

Milton Keynes Academy is attended by 1,200 students aged between 11 and 19. Situated in an area of socio-economic deprivation, nearly half of our students receive free school meals (FSM). 

Like every school we have a unique set of challenges, but the first step for any school focused on raising attainment is to make sure that students are in the classroom on time and ready to learn.

Previously, truancy was an issue and addressing this was a priority. We were regularly recording students’ attendance, but we wanted to get much more insight from this data than we had done in the past.

The introduction of electronic registration in every lesson gave us the tools we needed to identify persistent absentees and late-comers more effectively. This meant we could take action sooner.

Now, texts are sent to all parents of students who are found to be absent without an explanation. We have seen that simply alerting parents quickly to the fact that their child is missing some or all of their lessons is a powerful tool in getting students into school on time. Our attendance rates have increased by two per cent since the initiative was first introduced.

Expectations for behaviour

Another area that had not been acceptable for some time was standards of behaviour. This was something we wanted to change. Fixed-term exclusion rates were above average and lessons were frequently disrupted by individuals or groups of students, which had a negative impact on everyone’s learning progress.

For a new approach to work well, it was important for us to get the facts right and start to build a complete record of each student’s behaviour. We now get teachers to record details of all incidents electronically – from low-level classroom disruption to more serious issues. This allows us to track student behaviour much more easily and take action quickly when incidents occur.

Staff can share information about student behaviour right across the school too. If a student is disruptive in an English lesson, this is recorded by the teacher. A colleague teaching the same student later in the day can then see this record and keep a closer eye on them in class.

All positive behaviour is also recorded on the system and as soon as a student achieves a specified number of good conduct points, they receive a reward certificate. This has gone a long way towards highlighting student achievement and has proved itself to be a motivating force for change when it comes to tackling poor behaviour at the school.

Achievement across the curriculum

With effective attendance and behaviour management strategies in place, we have been able to focus our efforts on raising students’ academic achievement. 

About one third of our students have SEN so involving all staff is key to boosting the attainment of every child.

We use electronic mark sheets, which are accessible to individual tutors, subject leaders and the senior leadership team. Giving a range of staff the ability to record and access data enables us to work together to spot any patterns that emerge in student performance.

Being able to focus on the achievement of specific groups of students means we can also keep a check on how each child is performing against their peers. This is particularly important for measuring and encouraging the progress of vulnerable groups, such as SEN and FSM students.

Having an up-to-date picture of how individual students are progressing has been enormously important to us in our target-setting and in monitoring achievement against these targets.

Our staff are now much more confident in planning interventions that meet the needs of students because they can see what strategies work best. And with more information on each child, we can continuously look at what needs to be done to help a student move from a D to a C grade, or from a B to an A*.

The shared vision and commitment of both staff and students led to an increase of 18 per cent in the number of students gaining five A* to C grade GCSEs including maths and English between 2011 and 2012. And the improvement continues – in 2013 we recorded a further increase of 15 per cent. It has been wonderful to see what our students can achieve with the right support in place.

A stronger school community

A strong school community is key to the success of any school. Many of our students come from low-income families and we have a duty to ensure that no child is disadvantaged by their background or circumstances. 

To offer our students the chances they deserve, we have introduced a range of initiatives to support our vision of whole-school improvement, all of which have helped to inspire and sustain the progress we have made so far.

As well as making better use of technology, we encourage our students to stay on in school until 5pm in the evening if they wish to complete homework, participate in activities and access extra help with their learning. 

As a business and enterprise school, we are keen to ensure our students develop their entrepreneurial spirit too. We want students to feel that there are no barriers to achievement, whatever their background, and as part of this they are given the opportunity to learn how to run their own businesses. Some of our 6th form students set up a fashion business last year called Vetro, which took first place in the Milton Keynes Young Enterprise competition.

Our students are able to take vocational as well as academic courses and we are careful to ensure that each student follows the pathway that suits them best. We believe this is key to ensuring that every student reaches their full potential. 

The joy we experience in seeing our students start to really believe in themselves and what they can achieve is second to none. Milton Keynes Academy has come a long way and we are committed to ensuring our school improvement journey continues.

  • Dara Carroll is principal of Milton Keynes Academy, which uses Capita’s SIMS management information system.

CAPTION: Transformation: Technology and the intelligent use of data has helped to drive improvements at Milton Keynes Academy



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