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Burnt Mill Academy Deputy Head Achievement and Recruitment Stephen Hehir

Big leagues

Luke Evans takes a look at how converter schools are using their academy status for outstanding success

Posted by Hannah Oakman | April 16, 2015 | People, policy, politics

The debate about academy conversion is starting to wane. Academies currently make up 56 per cent of all state secondary schools in the UK, and most teachers and school leaders seem more frightened by the spectre of unqualified teachers and free schools than they do by the idea of greater economic independence. A recent report by Ofsted found that 68 per cent of converter academies achieved five or more A*-C GCSEs including Maths and English. Local authority schools, by comparison, came out at 59 per cent, the figure which just also happens to be the Department for Education’s (DfE) current provisional average.

Grist for the mill
The last few years have seen the league tables blossoming with schools that have leapt up in grade improvement. One of the most prominent among these is Burnt Mill Academy, a converted comprehensive school based in Harlow, Essex. In five years, Burnt Mill’s grade average has risen by 48 per cent, showing an unprecedented 84 per cent A*-C improvement in a town that, until recently, faced higher unemployment and lower education rates than the rest of the UK. The turning point came in 2010, when Helena Mills became headteacher of the school after an all-time low of 27 per cent the previous year. Mills had previously worked as a senior leader in London schools for 20 years where she was part of the London Challenge, a five-year DfE initiative that focused on improving the city’s poor GCSE grade average by recruiting excellent teachers to work closely with pupils and leaders.

Mills used everything she learnt from the Challenge when she arrived at Burnt Mill. Even as we spoke, she was looking at spreadsheets to see which children were falling behind in each year. “We’re very careful about tracking children from the minute they walk through the door, because every kid will have a time when they just slip or fall back a little bit,” she says. “So we use private tutors, we use one-to-one tutoring – we also put on after school support sessions, and we put on Saturday school. For some of those children that are slipping we would make it compulsory for them to come into school on Saturday.”

Although Burnt Mill continues to maintain a good relationship with Essex County Council, she feels that when the school became an academy in 2011 it freed them up to make decisions more efficiently: “You don’t necessarily get more money [as a school], but what you do get is the freedom to do exactly what you want with it. So if you compare the schools in Harlow, our staff are paid more than any others […] we think we should use our funds to recruit good teachers.”

However, despite the school’s increasing fortunes, Mills isn’t about to turn it into an elitist haven. “Our intake hasn’t changed at all,” she says, before pausing. “Until recently,” she adds. “The minute you start getting in the 70s, anybody who cares about education tries to get their kid into the best school in the town.”

For her, this kind of monopoly goes against what she’s trying to achieve at Burnt Mill. “We’ve written into our admission code that the children who go to our four main feeder primaries get priority, because I was worried that some of these very powerful middle class parents with very, very bright kids were doing everything to get their kids into Burnt Mill, and it didn’t seem very fair to me.”

Liberty, equality, fraternity
Mills isn’t alone in wanting to improve the educational opportunities for people within her school’s local area. In the borough of Chesterfield in Derbyshire, Netherthorpe School is currently oversubscribed for Year 7 and Year 12, having achieved a 17 per cent grade improvement between 2010 and 2011. However, headteacher Alan Senior feels this won’t alter their intake. “Our criteria for entry have not changed  – we serve our local community and they get first call on places. We like the school the size it is (around 1,100) and have no wish to expand.”

Netherthorpe was ahead of the curve in seeking independence from the Chesterfield Borough Council under the Education Reform Act 1988. “The school has not enjoyed the best of relations with the local authority in the past,” he says, “and we went grant-maintained as soon as that option became available. We then became a foundation school and are now an academy.” Senior is dedicated to running his school as somewhere that both serves the local community and has the freedom to make its decisions based on the needs of its pupils. “Autonomy was always a priority for us and academy status was merely the next step,” he says.

This long-standing freedom has allowed them to develop standard expectations both for staff members and pupils. Reflecting on their grade improvement, he says,
“The school focused very heavily on ‘consistency’, making sure all lessons were at least ‘good’, and where they weren’t, ensuring rigorous support to change that.” Unlike Mills’ emphasis on teaching, Senior took more of a top-down approach. “We focused on the amount of marking, the quality of marking, the amount of homework being set etc. We did not want this to depend on which teacher a student had. We have a whole school behaviour system and all teachers apply this,” he says. “It’s been a team effort and every member of staff has contributed.”

As King’s would have it
Meanwhile, out in the village of King’s Lynn, Norfolk, Andrew Johnson is employing this kind of teamwork to improve education for the whole locality. Since last year, Johnson has been doing double duty as headteacher of both Springwood and St Clement’s High Schools; during his tenure at the former, he’s helped to keep the overall A*-C grades above the national average for the last four years, which he chalks up to communication across departments. “We have a very flat structure within the school,” he says, “so all of the senior team work very closely with the middle leaders and teachers and students to collectively provide a holistic kind of achievement agenda for the school, and every day we talk about students, their progress, and how well engaged they are in their learning within the team.”

Nearby St Clement’s, meanwhile, hasn't had such an easy history: in 2000, the school was cited by Tony Blair as one of the most improved comprehensives in England, but GCSE results dropped to 32 per cent in 2005. By 2013, the school had been placed in ‘special measures’ by Ofsted, and at the start of the 2013/2014 academic year, Johnson took on an executive role to act as interim headteacher. Since then, the school has converted to an academy and joined Springwood as part of the West Norfolk Academies Trust. Grade improvement has been steady, with the current 53 per cent A*-C results on track to meet the national average at the end of this academic year.

Johnson believes that the academy trust model provides an effective hybrid between the local authority-maintained system and full independence. “During the academy process we proactively went out and sought out the very best trustees we could find to provide [a strong] challenge. The trustees have changed, even in the last year, to broaden away from a one-school focus to a multi-school, five-school focus. So we’ve brought in primary experts – one of our trustees is the former executive head of an outstanding primary school – and we’ve brought in further businesspeople from a broad area that covers our locality.” Although he’s executive head of the trust, Johnson views his role as equal to that of other trustees. “It’s a team effort,” he says. “No one individual person in our trust is leading the way. I’ve got a great team of people who work with me and we make sure that we work together so that I can have an operational role rather than doing all the trust work myself.”

Chairmen of the board
The grander success of academy chains, such as Harris Federation and Ark, has shown that this integrated approach can be applied to repeat results on a national level. Despite the autonomous approach of Netherthorpe School, Senior still feels that this has helped to bring about improvements across the country. “There are some inspirational leaders now in education and they are impacting on very many more students through the academy chains than if they’d remained headteachers of just one school,” he says.

Mills, on the other hand, still remains sceptical of the growth of larger academy federations, even with Burnt Mill becoming part of a co-operative trust in 2010. “I’m not convinced – and this is just a personal view – that the whole CEO model works,” she says. “If youre not careful, you just end up with leaders who know a huge amount about finance and premises – but are they actually educationalists? Do they know how to make sure that children get really good outcomes? That’s my concern about the model really.”

As a smaller-scale executive, Johnson remains equivocal on all fronts. “I think that small, locally led trusts which are highly accountable to the local community is my preferred model, but I do feel that it’s powerful to have a mixed economy of local authority schools and standalone academies,” he says. “There isn’t a one-size-fits- all solution to the challenges that we face – there’s only the best solution for the young people in the area.”

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