Personalising to help students realise their potential

The curriculum at Essa Academy, Bolton, gives students real-life experiences based on their interests and levels of achievement, to foster their drive to succeed.

The school has developed a skills-based approach to the curriculum, starting in year 7, which is the only year group taught discretely. From year 8, students pursue several strands or learning in mixed-age groups.

Reflecting one of the themes in SSAT’s forthcoming National Conference, Essa Academy has markedly closed the performance gap between disadvantaged students and their peers, as reflected by its valued added score of 1014.8.

The Y7 curriculum is based on the Australian New Basics model. Rather than focusing on subject areas in isolation, students cover all areas of knowledge while tackling real-life issues and organising events.

The Y7s work in ‘pods’ for 70% of the week (English, maths and PE are taught separately). Each pod contains approximately 60 children, and has two teachers and a TA. Of the two teaching staff, one is ‘pod leader’, who knows the students and their learning needs well and stays with the pod all year; the other is the ‘rich task leader’, working in their specialist subject with each of the pods in turn. The pod leaders are primary trained and oversee integration.

The four ‘rich tasks’:

  • British national identity: what it means to be British. At the end of this task the students produce iMovies, which are celebrated at an Oscars-style ceremony.
  • Science and ethics: genetics-based, culminating in a conference which the students organise and deliver.
  • ‘Away with words’ is heavily literacy based.
  • ‘Unlock your future’ begins the process of aspirational personal planning.

Stage not age

chilli 300Years 8-11 are taught in an integrated structure, the ‘chilli curriculum’, which has three levels of cognition (chilli 1, 2 and 3) and nine strands:

  • Science
  • Sport
  • English
  • Maths
  • One World (humanities and MFL)
  • Languages
  • The WEB (work, enterprise and business related learning)
  • Arts (art, drama, music, performing arts)
  • Wellbeing (e.g. food tech, nutrition, sociology, psychology, childcare, health and social care).

All students study all strands in all years, but with choice in how and when. Each strand leads to certification, but students have four years to get to this point; this enables them to try a variety of courses within each strand.

The chilli pattern provides wide experience at chilli 1, becoming more focused later on. For example, in wellbeing at chilli 1 students can follow a course that combines sociology, psychology and nutrition. This later becomes more focused on one of these three areas.

Each strand takes 19 weeks, and students then opt for their preferred pathway for the next. The choices available are based on their aptitude level, not their age.

However, generally chilli 1 will tend to be years 8/9, chilli 2 year 9 with some Y8s and some Y10s, and chilli 3 Y10/11.

At the end of each strand, students opt for their preferred pathway for the next, with choices based on their aptitude level, not their age

To identify these levels and measure progress, the school uses a combination of baseline assessment and thorough formative and summative assessment.

Students who have shown appropriate cognitive development within each strand can progress to the next chilli level. Those who have not will be given choices between courses at the same chilli level.

So timetabling is focused on timetabling students to courses and not teachers to classes.

All experiences are chosen and designed to develop clear attributes and skills. For example:

  • ‘Productive pedagogies’, which seek to develop students’ thinking and communication skills across all subjects and lessons.
  • A clear culture of equality and transparency: all students and staff eat in the restaurant space, which doubles up as a meeting space as there are few offices.
  • Tutor time gives both teaching and non-teaching staff a role in ensuring personalised care and learning.
  • Learners leading learning: students collaborate and co-construct the learning with staff, highlighting the social capital investment being made.

Changing a culture requires a fundamental shift in the approach to young people and the mindsets of all stakeholders. Staff are with students throughout their whole day at school, whether in classrooms or in the restaurant.

Blinds have been removed from most areas to increase transparency across the organisation. Weekly CPD creates time for all staff to be together and is seen to be highly effective at building a culture as well as nurturing skills.

Culture change requires fundamental change to mindsets and the approach to young people

The school’s leaders have seen significant improvements in engagement with learning, sense of value, and purpose – in both staff and students.

The school improved its performance significantly over five years (2009-2014), moving from the bottom ranked school in its region to the third highest, with its valued added score at 1014.8.

Essa was placed fifth out of the 55 similar schools in the national performance tables, with the third highest Progress 8 figure in Bolton.

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