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‘This is not a silver bullet’: making consistency happen

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

This is the second 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. The first taster explored the successful co-headship model adopted at Batley Girls’ High School.

This taster focuses on Barr Beacon School, Walsall and their transformation from Ofsted ‘notice to improve’ to ‘outstanding’ in seven years.

Zone: Inspiring Schools
Presentation: This is not a silver bullet: making consistency happen
School: Barr Beacon School
Presenters: David Lowbridge, Deputy Headteacher and Alex Turner, Assistant Headteacher

Show delegates will have the chance to find out now only how one West Midlands school soared from an Ofsted ‘notice to improve’ in 2007 to an emphatic ‘outstanding’ in 2014, but did so sustainably by ensuring initiatives were implemented consistently. Rather than going for whatever off-the-shelf solutions were available, the leadership team judiciously selected which actions to take, which to ignore and then put all their effort into making sure they were adopted by everyone.

Although the presentation will focus just as much on the ‘how’ of implementation as the ‘what’ it will be illustrated with the stories of three innovations which have had significant impacts on pupil progress:

  • Monitoring: How it has been made more rigorous so it presents a reliably accurate picture of what happens in classrooms every single day
  • Exam preparation and marking: The modifications to practice across the whole school which are securing ever-increasing gains in pupil progress – and how they made sure everyone was doing them
  • Middle Leaders: How these key members of staff have been made increasingly accountable for improvement but also empowered to drive change.

David and Alex will be structuring their presentation around key documents, taken from each of these areas, which have guided the development of Barr Beacon into an outstanding school and beyond.

David and Alex explain how monitoring has been continually tweaked to ensure it portrays the school as it is, rather than how they wish it could be on a good day. Alex says, ‘in terms of observations alone, every teacher is observed three times a year and every judgement is quality assured.’

Every teacher is observed three times a year and every judgement is quality assured

Expectations are ‘scripted’ via a minimum entitlement for all pupils. We do not accept anything less than this.’ David picks up Alex’s point: ‘We always come back to the question: Would we want this for our own children? Our headteacher believes in always asking “why are we doing this?” If there isn’t a good answer we stop doing it. Monitoring gives us many of the answers, but it also throws up questions.’

Barr Beacon, a teaching school with its own Masters programme, runs a number of research projects – teachers taking part in action research receive an additional allowance – which clarify what works and what doesn’t in improving their children’s learning.

To take a simple example: they have discovered that homework given out within the first five minutes of a lesson is far more likely to be completed than that given out in the last five minutes so this is now standard practice across the school.

Homework given out within the first five minutes of a lesson is far more likely to be completed than that given out in the last five minutes

Exam preparation and marking
One of the minimum entitlements is that all pupils are well-prepared for exams. This is monitored highly diagnostically, with the result that examiners’ reports are routinely shared with students, all of whom are expected to be fully conversant with assessment criteria.

‘The onus is very much on pupils to take responsibility for all aspects of their assessment. Pupil ownership of targets is instrumental. A common language is key,’ says David.

Alex adds: ‘you could ask any pupil about their targets and they would be able to tell you exactly what they need to do to improve.’

Interestingly, the targets are set for each child based on the minimum that their teachers expect them to be able to achieve, rather than an across-the-board ‘four levels’ or whatever.

Achievement of each individual’s target is celebrated – when they go ‘amber’, or ‘green’. ‘Red’ (underachievement) is challenged by all class teachers. Yet, this is becoming increasingly rare.

In response to ever-more rapid pupil progress, the school has added ‘purple’ for the highest performers. ‘We’ve got quite a few purple children now!’ says David.

We’ve got quite a few purple children now!

Middle Leaders
Each year, Barr Beacon’s middle leaders spend two days off site examining national developments and the school’s approach to them. They then decide if they will apply them in their own areas and, if so, how they will make them meaningful for their teams.

This sometimes leads to heated, very candid, discussions, recalls Alex Turner – perhaps because the participants know the outcome will help set the school’s agenda for the coming year.

Alex says: ‘Typically, if say 10 national initiatives have been announced, Barr Beacon will throw its weight behind the few that it judges will make a difference to its own students.’

The middle leadership team’s consideration of which national developments to implement and how sometimes lead to heated, very candid, discussions

Although the meeting is ‘nowhere fancy, just a hotel down the road,’ David says, ‘just meeting outside the building for a couple of days is essential for gaining perspective.

It is easy to just react to initiatives but we like to get out in front and decide what will be right for Barr Beacon, sixth months, or even six years down the line.’

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