Reading time: 4 minutes. Relevant event: SSAT school improvement 2018
… with outstanding leadership, said Ofsted. Stuart Smith, principal of The Hastings Academy, an 11-16 school in the University of Brighton Academies Trust, gives some highlights of their successful approach to school improvement
We’ve been on quite a rapid journey, between January 2017 and now, as we moved from an Ofsted rating of requires improvement to ‘good, with outstanding leadership and management’ in January this year, the best judgement the school has ever been given.
Our catchment area is a coastal town with high social deprivation. The school plays an important role in the community and its success is very important to it.
Over the last year we have addressed three main problems: staff retention, student behaviour, and teaching and learning.
Hastings Academy was struggling with staff retention and finding it very difficult to recruit. However, over the last year teachers have become happier, because they are listened to and supported. This change is in part also due to improvements in student behaviour, see below. In 2016 we had lost 20+ teachers, but in 2017 it dropped to four, and this year we are expecting a similar number. In fact, now we have people wanting to come and work here and join us on the journey.
Greatly improved student behaviour has been the main driver of the overall school improvement. Vice principal Hilary Morawska has led this improvement effectively from the beginning. Clear boundaries are now set for the students, and implemented thanks to the full support for staff. Behaviour in lessons is good and purposeful, as Ofsted has commented.
To ensure greater consistency in teaching and learning, we developed the nine essentials which underpin every lesson. Essentially these are teacher behaviours which help students to make good progress in their lessons – developed with student input, see below. We also developed an active feedback approach, to ensure that feedback given was useful and that the students would act on it. Now, thanks to the posters illustrating these developments, if you walked round the school for the first time, within two minutes you’d know what our priorities are. They’re not written in some hidden document!
As for students with special needs, Ofsted commented: ‘the school’s provision for pupils with speech and language difficulties makes a significant difference to the life chances of the pupils who attend. The centre provides a haven of calm for pupils who may also have autistic spectrum disorder. Importantly, the centre provides excellent support and training to teachers so that pupils can access mainstream classes.’
What does school improvement mean here?
We are building a school that is about making a difference in the community. This was generally seen as an underperforming school in East Sussex. However there had always been good students here, and we had always had some good results.
As various indicators started to improve, I began to ensure student successes were shared in the community, through the local paper etc, with our good news stories.
Now, the school’s value is recognised in the community. We have had more than 300 first choice applications for the 180 places available come September. And people are really keen to join us – as staff, as kids and as parents. Ofsted talks about a shift in culture, people being proud to work here. That’s rapid change in just over a year.
There had been a will for this to happen before, but it needed certain actions to ensure consistent behaviour and consistent teaching and learning. We have alternative provision available, but we make it clear to everyone that these are our rules. Before, there wasn’t the framework against which people could work.
Ofsted’s comment on the drive behind these improvements:
‘Leaders are exceedingly honest and tenacious in seeking out areas that need further improvement…. [They] have an accurate and insightful view of the school’s strengths and weaknesses… Leaders monitor improvements though sharp analysis of pupils’ progress information. Self-evaluation procedures … are very effective in moving the school forward’
This year, everybody in school understands what we need to do to improve, and everyone is behind our priorities and how we are addressing them – being clear about our expectations, and how we are making it happen. Students talk about this and are happy to tell visitors all about it.
How do we know the school improvement plan is working? It’s the data. This summer, we’re set to be very successful at GCSE. Parent view has produced some 300 positive comments, a marked change on the previous year. So are students’ reactions, seen in the regular questionnaires we put out – especially those of the older students, who have been through the changes. Further, as noted above, staff retention is much better, and we’re oversubscribed.
People began to see the improvement early on, even though there were no immediate outcome measures to show. I was always inviting parents in for after-school sessions, and asking their opinions through questionnaires.
We use different ways of inviting parents into school, softening the standard approach. Students welcome them for parents’ evenings – which are not officially called that any more. Each meeting has a more friendly and specific name, such as ‘Year 11 reports and refreshments evening’. At these meetings, staff talk to the parents about progress, not behaviour; if there have been behaviour issues, these are sorted out beforehand in one-to-one meetings. Ninety percent of parents attended both our parent evenings this year, against 40% last year.
We are now described as the best secondary school in Hastings, and one of the best in the South East.
Ofsted commended Stuart Smith’s ‘unwavering determination that all pupils, especially those that are disadvantaged, have a first-rate education.’ He and ‘his equally committed vice-principal… inspire the highly motivated leadership team to strengthen and rapidly improve the school’
I am very keen for students to take a key part in school improvement. For example, in two weeks of tutor time they addressed the issues of expected behaviour and how we should implement it. This stemmed from an idea by Hayes School, which we have developed for our needs. Through this we developed ‘The Hastings Academy Way’ and we now have posters illustrating this all around the school. I’m fairly new to the school, but as I still teach mathematics this gave me great opportunities to get to know the students. If there is an issue, I consult the school council and the student leadership team. I meet them twice a week so I’m close to the ground on students’ opinions. I also teach cover lessons as well as, of course, undertaking duties around the school. Altogether this ensures I get a flavour of what’s going on!
Understanding the students and relating well with them is a key element in school leadership, I believe.
Read more in the ‘School improvement stories’ series:
- Creating the right ethos for teaching and learning improvement
- All teachers and TAs get involved in checking for consistency
Stuart Smith, Principal, The Hastings Academy