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Making exceptional progress through marginal gains

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Achievement Show Preview: tasters of what you can look forward to

This is the eighth of our Achievement Show Preview: tasters of what you can look forward to series. During the series, you will hear from practitioners and leaders who are presenting at this year’s Achievement Show – giving you a preview of what to expect from their presentations.


Zone: Inspiring Schools
Presentation: World class – the aggregation of marginal gains making exceptional progress routine
School: The City Academy, Hackney
Presenters: Mark Emmerson, Principal

City Academy, Hackney, has adopted the remarkable approach of Dave Brailsford, who achieved outstanding success as manager of the Sky cycling team and subsequently the British Olympic cycling team. At the Achievement Show, principal Mark Emmerson will explain their approach, give examples of how it works, and highlight its exceptional results.


The academy applies the approach specifically to four areas: behaviour, teaching, assessment and curriculum.

In each case, Mark says, ‘we look at how to do the basics – but a little bit better, in every area. That is how the British cycling team achieved its world-beating standards, and that’s what we’re applying in our school.’ He had discussed the school’s approach with Brailsford.

Aggregation of marginal gains can lead to exceptional progress – this applies in education as much as in bicycle racing

Alongside this approach, City Academy aims to preserve the energy of its staff by making everything simple, efficient, and clear.

‘This means being strong about what we know works and not being deflected. You really have to believe that it can be done, otherwise it’s too easy to be thrown off course by the first obstacle you reach.’

In behaviour, an example of the ‘basic but better’ approach is the school’s student planner. It includes a detention grid designed to overcome a common problem in many schools: students who have been given a detention simply don’t turn up, or they double-book detentions or find other ways to subvert the system.

Often, they get away with it because it becomes too difficult to follow up, says Mark.

City Academy’s detention grid clearly shows all the detention slots: break/lunch/after school; and 20 minutes/ one hour/ two hours – so detentions cannot be double-booked and the responsibility of student (and teacher) is crystal clear.

This system ‘makes a tremendous difference in following up homework, especially with students who are a little bit recalcitrant.’

Another example takes place at lunch times, when all the way from year 7 to year 11 students are split into groups of six, determined by vertical tutor groups, and take turns in various tasks such as serving food and collecting dishes.

They also eat together, using knives and forks. Through this they learn politeness, respect and the art of conversation, Mark maintains: ‘it’s delivering the softer skills in a very practical way.’

In teaching, the approach involves a six-point plan, clearly laid out on one side of A4 paper, which is used in every subject, every lesson.

It involves: preparation; managing entry to the classroom; engaging students through a starter activity; teaching for progress; using agreed intervention strategies when necessary; and managing the end of the lesson in a plenary.

Students cooperate well because they are so used to the approach being used in every lesson.

Teachers use their six-point plan in every subject, every lesson

For assessment, every exercise book in every subject has a front sheet showing the student’s ‘flight path’ through KS2-KS4, with the expected four levels of progress broken into yearly targets. (This is now being modified to accommodate Ofqual’s changed gradings.)

Intervention is given for any student falling below their desired trajectory. Proof of the pudding: in English and maths, 70+% of students are achieving the academy’s expectation of four levels of progress.

These approaches are reinforced by six training sessions for all teachers every year – three themes, each repeated, on the basis that ‘one-off training is remembered for a couple of weeks but then forgotten,’ as Mark puts it.

The academy’s curriculum focuses strongly on the EBacc: 90% of students take it and last year 66% achieved the full EBacc qualification.

Only 16 of the 175 Y11 students instead took BTECs (in arts or sports). And this with a cohort 65% of whom are eligible for the pupil premium.

City Academy’s value added score of 1081.3 is the second highest in the country and the best of any co-educational school.

‘Over-executivisation’
In his Achievement Show presentation, Mark Emmerson plans to ‘throw out a few challenges.’ He maintains schools in this country have become too complex in the way they are organised and run.‘I’m amazed how we school leaders tie ourselves up in knots, to such an extent that it inhibits the ability to achieve.

A school leader’s job should be 10% strategy, 90% operational. If you don’t walk the corridors, personally monitor and teach lessons, you haven’t really got a handle on the school.

We need to be much more attached to the everyday work of the school. In order to be able to make it easier for everybody else you have to know – to really understand – the difficulties staff have in implementing your policies day after day.

The easiest way to do this is to do it yourself.’


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