Lou Iles, head of science at Weydon School, Surrey, talks about her presentation at the forthcoming Achievement Show.
In 2001, science was the lowest performing department at Weydon School, in Farnham, Surrey, with GCSE results of 56% A*-C passes. A new head of department, Jackie Frost, transformed the department’s results to 91% A*-C and 39% A*-A by 2006. But when she was promoted, her replacement was less successful, and results dipped. That department head was replaced in turn by Lou Iles the next year. Last year Weydon’s science department, now one of the most successful in the school, achieved 95% A*-C and 48% A*-A.
How did Lou Iles do it? She saw her challenge as replacing a ‘can’t do’ attitude with ‘can do’, and the approach she took as having three stages.
Stage 1: take control
‘We had a divided curriculum area, with lots of resistance. So I did a lot myself – far too much, but you have to accept that in the beginning. I had to win the team over, and change the inconsistent approach to teaching and learning, raising aspiration and challenge in KS3 and KS4.’ She introduced assessment for learning and group work throughout the department, and greatly increased the analysis of children’s performance, leading to more effective parent interventions.
Stage 2: develop the team
The students were very passive, she thought. “I felt we had to develop the kids into independent learners – they were expecting us (teachers) to take all the responsibility for their learning!’
The original (but now revitalised) team tackled key stage 3 very successfully. The focus on performance management (of teachers as well as students) worked well, and Lou was glad to be able to applaud her team’s performance at the end of the year – as did the school’s head. ‘But the next year, when we tried to do the same with KS4, it didn’t work so well.’ The teachers were nervous about taking the same risks as they had done in KS3.
So she unpicked the then new Ofsted criteria for an outstanding grade into a ‘simple recipe’, and divided the teachers into four groups of three, who worked together on their approaches to teaching and learning. That worked. By the end of the year, all teaching was at good to outstanding levels.
Stage 3: stay ahead of the changes
However, such changes cannot come without a cost. Five of the 12 teachers in the department left the school, three on competency grounds. ‘Now we’re very lucky: we have a strong team of 12, with five technicians.’
The science team aims to stay ‘always a year ahead’ of changes in the national curriculum and assessment standards. They were working on stretch and challenge in science with all ability groups at KS3 before the new KS3 curriculum made this a national focus.
Weydon also started on the new GCSE specification before it was mandatory and embedded literacy approaches before the first assessments with new specifications were required.
Looking at other schools is another focus in this stage of the department’s development. Lou Iles had noted that value added in science at Weydon was not as good as that of a neighbouring school with similar intake. ‘So we visited them, and saw they were doing GCSEs with all students – no vocational alternatives. Their approaches to teaching and learning at foundation stage were also different. We’ve adopted much of their approach.’
Now she is stepping back from some day-to-day management of the department and empowering the team to take over – ‘not just delegating, though obviously I step in if I need to. We’re always talking about teaching and learning, and sharing ideas. It feels like a very positive place.’
But there’s never a time for resting on your laurels, she insists. ‘We’re doing well with A*-A grades, but we’re now working with lower ability groups to bring them up too.’ She concludes: ‘If you ever think you’ve got there, that’s the time to leave teaching.’