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Four strategies to raise attainment of disadvantaged students at KS4

This piece is taken from a longer article that first appeared in the SSAT Journal 03.

Recently Charter Academy was named the most improved school in the country, having achieved 83% A*-C including English and maths in 2014, a rise of 59% in terms of GCSE attainment in five years, from 24% A*-C including English and maths in 2009. Here, Associate Principal Mark Masters outlines four easily-implementable strategies that helped to make it happen.

Start with the outcome you want

Rather like a lesson, in which the best planning works back from the desired student outcome, the same, of course, applies to whole-school improvement. We agreed a target for the 2014 year 11 cohort, which was 70% A*-C including English and maths.

We had achieved 68% A*-C including English and maths in 2013, a 20% jump in results from our 2012 result of 48%. Our 2013 result was 8% higher than the school target we had set ourselves of 60% and because of this, we were somewhat hesitant in setting our ambitious whole-school target of 70% for 2014.

There were a number of challenges we faced in this year that made the outcome feel uncertain, not least the phasing out of the pathways we had relied upon in the past. Nevertheless, this ambitious target was decided upon, because it was the right thing to do for the students and the school.

Make sure the curriculum you have in place will deliver for all students

We reduced, uncertainly, as much as we could with the curriculum we designed for year 11. If there were foundation subject GCSEs that for one reason or another were not going to enable the outcome we wanted for that student, we adjusted their curriculum to ensure they were in subjects where they would achieve.

This means playing to the strengths of your teaching staff and middle leaders, as much as possible. The Charter English and maths departments are exceptional, and so students who may have otherwise struggled to achieve the outcomes we wanted for them received additional teaching hours for pathways such as English literature and statistics, a strategy which proved extremely successful.

English literature, particularly, is a qualification that extremely vulnerable students can achieve well in, with the right teaching. Leaders should feel a sense of relief that English literature is so central in the Progress 8 measures going forward.

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Look at and act on your cohort’s data carefully and often

We have a year 11 strategy meeting every week, in which we look at the attainment and progress of a selection of our most vulnerable students, with a random sample of middle and high attaining students discussed in addition to this.

Often there is fresh data every week, which is collated in a standards binder for each member of the team to collectively refer to. As a school, we tend to test fairly regularly, whether through formative and summative tasks, set as classwork and homework, through mock exams, or practice coursework pieces.

This means that the data can tell a very useful narrative to leaders every week about how the students are doing, and strategic decisions can be accurately made to enhance the students’ achievement if they are falling behind.

We have a year 11 strategy meeting every week, in which we look at the attainment and progress of a selection of our most vulnerable students, with a random sample of middle and high attaining students discussed in addition to this.

All SLT are present for these meetings, to comment on students in their areas of line management. The meeting has an atmosphere of complete transparency and accountability that everyone is now used to and is comfortable with.

We are responsible for the departments we line manage, and the achievement of the students within those areas. We should be able to speak confidently on what we are doing if there are students that are a concern to the group in our subject areas.

The data tells the story – act swiftly to close gaps as they occur

From these weekly meetings, a number of decisions are actioned, and proposed actions minuted and sent out to all stakeholders at the end of each meeting. The actions depend on the issue.

If it is an attendance issue, the senior vice principal pastoral will action further support though our year learning managers (non-teaching staff that are year group pastoral leaders) to support good attendance. This can involve heightened parental engagement, or minibus pick-ups in some extreme cases!

It may be a behaviour issue, in which case additional in-class support may be offered to the teacher concerned, and further teacher training delivered, alongside appropriate sanctions being put into place.

From these weekly meetings, a number of decisions are actioned, and proposed actions minuted and sent out to all stakeholders at the end of each meeting.

It may be a middle leadership challenge, with a new postholder struggling to correctly interpret the assessment foci for a new qualification, in which case subject support is brokered with other schools or the examination board itself.

It may be that a more precise intervention for a group of students is needed, or one-to-one tuition for a particular achievement issue, with impact carefully monitored.

Our mantra is: ‘There is always a solution, no matter what the barrier’. Ninety-nine per cent of the time, that can be true.

How applicable are these strategies to other educational contexts?

As you can hopefully see, there is nothing terribly different or difficult to implement for schools in terms of the strategies explored above. The coordination of human resources, and the monitoring of achievement of vulnerable students needs to be very tightly planned for and adhered to, and there are, of course, a large amount of staff involved, all of whom will need to be to unified, vision-aligned and consistent in their approach.

However, great results are achievable, even in this time of educational instability, and we hope that this snippet of what we do will help schools achieve what we have achieved. There is always a solution!


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Download an excerpt of the SSAT Journal 03 here.

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