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How do you turn around a failing academy?

Benedick Ashmore-Short, Director of Education at Reach4 Academy Trust, says the focus should always be on teaching and learning

Posted by Lucinda Reid | February 24, 2017 | People, policy, politics

In May 2016, Hatfield Academy joined the Reach4 family. The academy had been in special measures, but in just nine months, the school and its leadership team have worked hard and we are successfully turning the academy around.


Hatfield Academy is a larger than average primary school located in a very challenging area of Sheffield. There are a high number of children receiving free school meals and a significant percentage of children are looked after by the local authority.

When we first visited, it was clear that Hatfield had a range of challenges. Most notably, low aspiration in families was rife. Academically and emotionally, pupils were leaving the school wholly unprepared for the step up to secondary school and something had to change.

Encouragingly, the academy had an excellent headteacher in place who had been appointed just a year earlier. And it was palpably clear that in Charlie Blencowe, the school had a head who was utterly committed to change. As such, our role was to provide the support, time and space she needed to make the changes that were so sorely needed.

A first important step was to work with Charlie to agree precisely what that action plan would look like. When a school joins our family, we always conduct an inspection of our own to help with this process. An Ofsted inspection is just a snapshot of the school at a moment in time. We need much more detail to help develop an improvement plan. We examine the curriculum to see if that is delivering, for example, or look at whether the governors in place have the right skills to drive change. Essentially, we look at all the components needed to improve a school and if anything is missing, find a way to fill that gap.

Once we have all the information, we work side by side with our headteachers to work up a statement of action on how together, we are going to make the improvements needed to get the school out of special measures. Teaching and learning was the first place to start.

A core characteristic of Reach4 and how we support our academies, is through high-quality, targeted CPD. When a school goes into special measures, you generally find that staff development and progress have long been neglected. That in turn has a significant impact on learning. So, we introduced a tailored package of CPD for all members of staff which included whole school training, one-to-one peer coaching and middle leadership support.

Essentially, we look at all the components needed to improve a school and if anything is missing, find a way to fill that gap

Another hallmark of being a Reach4 academy is that we allow our heads to lead. Having put in place the CPD that was needed to support the wider team, backed by Reach4, Charlie and her leadership team introduced a richer, more challenging curriculum for the children. Whilst it is true that Hatfield pupils enjoy a traditional education, we choose to disrupt it creatively. A great example is our science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) classes that we run with visitors from some of the biggest employers across South Yorkshire. They work with our children doing hands-on, live STEM exercises.

The companies also offer our pupils free trips to their engineering and manufacturing bases. The impact of this has been incredible – students’ engagement in these core subjects has come on leaps and bounds as they can learn why their lessons are relevant in the real world. Changes like these were simply unimaginable just two years earlier, and yet play an essential role in moving an academy out of special measures.

The role of evidence is also vital in the improvement process. It is important to have data that lets you know if are on the right path. We examine half-termly data to get a snapshot of progress. The information has the biggest impact in the classroom. And so, staff have access to the achievement data in their SIMS management information system to identify gaps in learning to so they can address any issues that may have been flagged up immediately.

We are extremely proud of the work that Charlie and her team have put in and as a result, all of the evidence is pointing in the right direction. Attendance has improved and the children are evidently happier. And by going through their exercise books, we noticed how changes to teaching and learning had begun to take effect. Above all, Charlie and her team have successfully ignited every child’s flame of learning and that is the most important step on our journey to improvement.

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