Levelling up in action

Sue Williamson, CEO at SSAT continues her reflection on the government’s announcement to level up across the poorest parts of the country to close the disadvantage gap.

There is nothing better than a visit to see a school or schools in action – this is the great privilege for staff working with SSAT. I went to Middlesbrough to Tees Valley Education, a Multi-Academy Trust and sponsor, which has five academies across Middlesbrough, Redcar, and Cleveland. This area is one of the most deprived in the United Kingdom, and I was keen to see and hear how they were approaching the deep social justice or levelling up agenda. The chief executive is Katrina Morley and her life is devoted to developing a team, environment and curriculum that fulfils the Trust’s mission:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

An integrated approach to schooling

I visited Pennyman Primary Academy and Discovery Special Academy – the two academies offer an integrated approach to schooling. Every aspect of the learning environment is designed so that there is equality of access, and that no child stands out because of a physical disability, for example, the tables are designed so that they can be raised to cater for a wheelchair user and retain the same colour scheme. The children wear their uniform, bright red sweatshirts, with pride. The school provides the uniform and a laundry service for disadvantaged students. The Trust provides high quality food, including a breakfast service, and there are bowls of fruit around the school. The walls have excellent displays, including a wonderful careers pathway in the dining hall.  Every inch of space is used for learning, and there are excellent specialist rooms.

Pennyman’s curriculum statement says it is designed to enthuse children, be fun, but also to challenge them as learners. Discovery’s curriculum is dependent on the needs of the child but is also about challenge and the joy of learning. As I visited classrooms, I was delighted to be approached by pupils keen to show me their work – they were confident to explain what they were doing. Whatever the year group, there was joy in learning. The plan is to co-construct a business and enterprise curriculum from year 1 to year 6 with three meaningful interactions with business for each child. The Trust is working in partnership with employers, Teeside University and community groups to make this a reality from September. In September, the new secondary Discovery Academy will open in a new building on a site approximately two miles away, and this will provide further opportunities for curriculum development and links with business.

Sharing the vision

What also shone through for me was the staff team; everyone’s role was important, and they all shared the vision. Many of the staff had been with the schools for over 20 years. There is a culture of developing all staff. One teacher had started as a volunteer and progressed from teaching assistant to teacher – it had been a long journey, but she was so proud to be part of the team. The whole community had pride in their school – everyone was determined to do well. I was aware from the statistics that the school had many disadvantaged pupils, but I could not tell who they were.

All of this has been enabled by the leadership of Katrina Morley, and we have invited her to contribute to our membership conferences in late spring/summer. She will be able to expand on her plans for a collaborative approach to meet the needs of all children in the area, including developing progressive career paths that help young people to have meaningful employment in the area. There are real opportunities for the schools in the area to make a major contribution to levelling up and SSAT is keen to support. We recognise that there are different needs in diverse parts of the country. We can network and share effective practice – it’s a big project, but one that must be faced.


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