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Overcoming challenging circumstances at Whitley Academy

jumping-1024stephen-steinhaus-250Stephen Steinhaus, Vice Principal, Whitley Academy, writes…

Sure, we could look at all the indicators of a school in ’challenging circumstances’ and say that Whitley Academy meets a number of them, and that we deliver in the face all of those things and more. Instead, the challenging circumstances that we care about are those we face in meeting the very high expectations we set for ourselves and for students (96% attendance, positive progress 8 for disadvantaged students and for the whole cohort despite standard KS2 scores)… we focus on the internal challenges rather than external and contextual challenges.

For staff, the challenge starts at interview. We are very clear in both roundtable discussions and individual interviews what the ’ask’ is of staff here. Our staff teach a full and varied timetable across a range (at times) of groups or subjects – with some students who need not only great input, but a considerable amount of care. The pace is very fast and resilience is absolutely necessary. It’s no use sugar-coating at interview and then losing staff when they, through no fault of their own, realise they are not really ’Whitley’. I always tell candidates that working here has to be a calling, a vocation. If it’s just a job they won’t enjoy it, last long, or find success (gain the trust from/attachment of our students, help pupils make beyond expected progress).

Working here… If it’s just a job they won’t enjoy it, last long, or find success”

Our students will know it, too. Our pupils recognise and appreciate (and will work hard for) the staff who commit to extra intervention, and complete and consistent feedback. And who take the time and effort to build relationships.

For students, it comes immediately with transition. From the word go, students in year 6 know the challenge ahead of them, to be the best they can be. They also know there is a waiting list (we are completely oversubscribed throughout KS3 and becoming so in KS4).

For the students who come to us below national average and/or ’not secondary ready’ (and we have our share of those), this added challenge flows through to our inclusion and SEN team. We make significant staffing and resourcing investments in ‘the BASE’, our inclusion and SEN unit, which has been set up with one bottom line: to remove barriers to learning for our students.

Whether those barriers are emotional or social, or a mental health concern, or special education need, all students have access to a range of specialist provision to ensure they are as well prepared to learn as possible… That could mean everything from providing subject-specific and literacy/numeracy support, to making sure students attend regularly (with full kit and equipment), to ensuring they have a safe and productive place to do homework, or teaching them proactive strategies for self-regulation.

Removing barriers to learning includes literacy/numeracy support, making sure students attend regularly, ensuring a productive place to do homework, and strategies for self-regulation

This investment means that class and form teachers know enough of their students’ backgrounds, so they can concentrate more on progress and learning. We acknowledge and address all these issues as barriers to learning to be removed, not excuses for lack of progress.

And it works. Looking at our students’ responses on the PASS (pupil attitudes to self and school) survey, all school-based averages are in the top category. They show particular strengths in perceived learning capability, self-regard as a learner and confidence in learning. Our students also indicate high satisfaction with their learning experience.

We all embrace the challenges, and through Inset training have co-opted Dave Brailsford’s concept of the “aggregation of marginal gains.”

From ‘Wave 1’ teaching, to feedback, to intervention, to progress meetings and outreach events, we constantly ask not only “how will this benefit our students?”, but “what else can we do to make up ground?” Staff have taken on board the idea that if we can improve every area possible for our students even by one percentage point, then those small gains would add up to significant improvements.

For example, we agreed to a set of pupil premium basics/non-negotiables for teaching staff. All staff recognised and accepted that the vast majority of pupils’ progress comes out of good teaching and learning (and feedback) on a day-to-day basis, and these basics would focus on progress to improve attainment. This, alongside the significant investment in and tracking of intervention (especially at year 11), could help our students make up even more ground.

We introduced PP learning walks and feedback trawls… pupil premium progress is a standing item in every type of meeting

Initially, we had Inset to launch our new intent and raise awareness of our pupil premium students, and to share best practice as tutors, teachers and support staff. We sent out weekly ’best practice’ emails and adapted observation paperwork and protocols to include a pupil premium focus/target and specific PP criteria. We led a half-termly best practice briefing and also ran a pupil premium ’PEG’ (professional exploration group) for CPD. We introduced PP learning walks and feedback trawls and embedded pupil premium progress as a standing item in every type of meeting (line management, middle and senior management, departmental, etc.)

We have closed the attainment gap for pupil premium students year-on-year for the last three years (by 11% for Basics), but our 2015-6 results are particularly noteworthy. Our PP students have a Progress 8 score of 0.08, both a positive score and higher than the national average for PP students, and in line with non-PP students from 2015. Our disadvantaged students’ achievement puts us in the top 10% of schools in the city and top 20% of similar schools nationally. These interventions and best practices are now embedded in our systems, training, and classroom pedagogy.


We’re delighted to offer Stephen the opportunity to showcase the good work happening at Whitley Academy as a benefit of their participation in the SSAT network. Find out more about getting involved.

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