Creating an effective school

David Ashley, Headteacher, Parrs Wood High School, Manchester

In recent years it has been my privilege to serve as headteacher in two successful comprehensive schools. I joined The Hathershaw College of Technology and Sport, in Oldham, in September 2002 before moving on to Parrs Wood High School in Manchester in September 2005.

On the face of it these are two very different schools with very different needs. However, there are basic principles that apply to any school seeking to become an effective school.

Hathershaw is an 11–16 mixed comprehensive school with only about half the number of students that there are at Parrs Wood (see the school context at the bottom), but it serves some of the most deprived wards in the country. It achieved technology college status in 2001 and dual specialist status for technology and sport in 2004. As with Parrs Wood, the school is a leading edge school.

While roughly the same proportion of students are from minority ethnic backgrounds, the local area around Hathershaw has suffered from high levels of racial tension in the past and 38% of students are entitled to free school meals.

On entry to the school, Key Stage 2 pupil performance is in the bottom 5% in the country; Key Stage 3 performance is better but still below national expectations. However, KS4 performance is typically in the top 40% of schools in the country (based on prior attainment), with more than 50% of students expected to achieve five A* to C grades at GCSE. In 2004, 58% of the students achieved this.

The school regularly achieves recognition for value-added performance between KS2 and KS4 and for school improvement (in 2002 only 29% of students attained GCSE five A* to C GCSEs). Compare these statistics to those on Parrs Wood.

Observing effective schools

An effective school is a school in which students achieve high standards that they can use in their future education or the workplace, a school where students feel safe and happy. It promotes those values that will help pupils to become good and responsible citizens, enable them to become involved in their community and become good family members. We all write these sorts of things in our school mission statements and school documents, but we are all too often distracted from them in day-to-day planning.

High standards are not the preserve of a few socially advantaged individuals and we should never lower our expectations on the basis of social background. For that reason, contextual data can leave us too easily satisfied with poor performance.

The Fischer Family Trust and the school Panda (performance and assessment) both provide schools with contextual value-added data that evaluates expected pupil progress based on social indicators such as free school meals. While this is a good measure to use to monitor the improvement of schools as institutions, it should not be used to set lower targets or have lower expectations for individual students.

I am privileged to have worked in some effective schools with staff who have developed highly effective strategies. There are many highly effective schools across the country. Visiting them with an open mind makes you come away with a burning desire to develop something of what you have seen for your own school. I would recommend this as a strategy for headteachers as well as for teachers, support staff and students from across the school.

Establishing priorities in your own school will necessarily come from a consultation with school stakeholders.

I have sometimes found it useful to hold visioning days, where stakeholders are invited to identify future priorities for the school and these are then used to help the senior team set priorities within the school improvement plan. When doing this it is important to involve all stakeholders: teachers, support staff, students, parents, governors, partner schools and multi-agency groups that work with the school.

Improving behaviour

The starting point in any school has to be behaviour. We all know how to tackle the acts of extreme verbal or physical violence that sometimes occur in our schools. They are distressing but they are, in general, infrequent and are not the main distraction from helping students to learn. The behaviour problems that cause a real problem in schools are generally low level, but can render everything else we attempt to do virtually useless. Lack of attention from students, talking out of turn and petty squabbles in the classroom are far more likely to undermine effective teaching than anything else.

It is this type of behaviour that teachers rarely deal with effectively or refer to other school leaders. If it is dealt with, it is too often done through ad hoc detentions and so on; these are inconsistently implemented by staff and lead students to understand that the consequences of their poor behaviour are not actually very severe. While it is important that we continually support teachers to create a classroom environment in which they are in charge and which encourages good behaviour, we also have a duty as school leaders to manage the consequences of poor behaviour centrally.

Ninestiles School in Birmingham has developed this through its Behaviour for Learning programme. The basic structure of this programme has been adopted and developed to good effect by a number of schools across the country. This is what is used at Hathershaw and we are developing our own model now at Parrs Wood.

The approach is simple: no pupil is allowed to disrupt another student’s learning or to make anyone feel uncomfortable, threatened or unhappy. Students are made aware of the consequences of doing these things and all adults in the school are empowered to record the fact that a pupil has breached this code, preferably electronically. A central team of staff, including senior staff and support staff, ensures that the consequences are always carried out.

Students and parents regard the programme as fair and consistent. It empowers all staff, given all staff do exactly the same thing when a student misbehaves. It also ensures that teachers carry on doing their job, teaching the well-behaved students who are all too often left waiting while they watch teachers trying to deal with uncooperative students.

Rewards for learning are equally important and can be administered in precisely the same way. The idea that students can gain rewards that have monetary value and can be spent in a school rewards shop is particularly effective. Behaviour for learning strategies can have dramatic effects on a school in terms of pulling the whole school community together around a common focus.

Creating right learning environment

We are trying to develop schools that are professional learning environments, where students feel that they are in school to learn and will be supported from the moment they walk in through the door.

The new building at Parrs Wood lends itself to creating this through well thought out planning when the school was built. Whatever type of building we have, it will usually be possible to create the space to celebrate student achievement and ensure that everyone who visits the school and every student who enters the school knows how well students achieve and how well they, as individuals, will achieve in the future.

Once in the school, this needs reinforcing through classroom and corridor display. Traditional school environments were developed along the principles of the Victorian factory and this is not appropriate to helping students learn in the 21st century.

One of the most powerful reminders of the Victorian era is the school bell. The absence of bells has little effect on punctuality and tends to lead to a better flow of students along our overcrowded corridors because lessons begin and end over a five-minute period rather than the instant a bell rings.

The issue of corridor behaviour and overcrowding may seem trivial but it is an aspect of school life that students do not like and sometimes fear. Certainly, overcrowded corridors and the poor behaviour that often accompanies them undermines our attempts to create professional learning environments. We need to tackle the ‘school factory’ environment through creative timetabling and school organisation. One way we have gone about this is to create a continuous day.

Achieving personalised learning in practice

Creating the right culture, environment and ethos in a school, where students know they have come to learn, have high self-esteem and trust the school to deliver, are essential precursors to good teaching and learning.

No amount of effort to improve standards of teaching will have much impact unless they are in place. However, having established the right culture, the classroom experience must deliver and meet the individual needs of every pupil. This requires each teacher to know the needs of each individual pupil, and for structures to exist where students can be assigned to the right teaching groups to meet those needs, rather than being made to fill spaces in classes created by a predetermined timetable.

The personalising learning agenda presents us with many challenges. First of all, it is now essential that every teacher has instant access to student data in the classroom in a useful form. This means that either every classroom needs a computer or every teacher needs a laptop that will access the school network.

National data relating to progress between key stages is available for most subjects taught at KS4. It is reliable and rigorous and can be used effectively to promote student learning.


In the classroom, teachers need to know the mean national expectation for each student in their subject (what the average student achieves nationally with the same prior attainment).

They need to know the upper quartile expectation (what the top 25% of pupils achieve with the same prior attainment) and any school-specific factor. So, if your science department usually performs in the top 5% of schools nationally, you would want to know the expectation for a pupil performing in the top 5% band of students with the same prior attainment.

Teachers sometimes question this approach but it would be difficult to justify setting targets that aimed to achieve lower than the mean expectation for students with the same prior attainment. For many of our schools, we would want to be in the top 25% or better of schools nationally.

All of this information should be shared with students and parents, who should monitor alongside teachers the progress made in class against mean national expectation, upper quartile expectation and any additional band that you might wish to create. Many schools now hold review days where parents, teachers and students meet to discuss progress towards targets, among other things, and these are often more successful and better attended than conventional parents’ evenings.

It is worthwhile to produce progress-to-target reports (in the way described above) for parents on a very regular basis, rather than written reports at the end of each year. Behaviour, attendance and punctuality data can also be added, and such reports can be easily produced electronically, again releasing teachers to teach. The parents of students causing concern can then be targeted for individual interviews.

Sometimes teachers raise the issue of social context in relation to the way we use data. However, social issues for most students (although not all) do not change significantly between key stages.

If the national data is based, as it is, on prior attainment then there is generally no reason to expect student progress to be less in KS3 or KS4 than it was in KS2, so it is still reasonable to expect the student to meet mean national expectations or better.

It is not reasonable to accept that socially deprived students should achieve less than other pupils. It is certainly not acceptable that we should set lower standards for those pupils or be satisfied that we did a good job because they achieved good grades given their social background. Contextual information, when applied at student level, risks us lowering our expectations. It may also have a place at institutional level in determining whether a school is making adequate improvement, but never with individual pupils.

If students and parents are aware of their likely attainment at an individual subject level, this will influence the subjects they want to study and should influence the individual curriculum plans we devise with parents and pupils. In turn, this should attempt to maximise attainment while ensuring that the curriculum provides appropriate educational and career pathways.

These individual curriculum plans must increasingly allow students access to courses or modules across institutions, regardless of their age. Pupils should be able to study the appropriate courses, not the ones that the school has available or the ones it has deemed to be appropriate for their age group.

I am currently studying the work Leigh City Technology College has done on mixed age vertical groupings, with a view to developing the right structures for Parrs Wood. Rivington and Blackrod High School has also worked on vertical groupings and effective partnerships for delivering courses with other institutions. Meanwhile, we do what we can to adhere to the principle that the needs of the student come first and to accommodate flexible curriculum arrangements as far as we can within current constraints.

All of this depends on having quality staff in place to deliver this in practice.

Empowering leadership

A few years ago it was common to assume that the effectiveness of a school revolved around the quality of the headteacher. Consequently, the idea of the ‘superhead’ who could swoop into an underperforming school, solve all of its problems and swoop out again was prevalent. It is now generally accepted that such a model, so dependent on short-term, top-down management, was nonsense. However, the headteacher does have a crucial role to play.

The key role for a headteacher is that of empowerment, creating a culture in which the vast intellect, ability and talent of the staff is not only valued, but fully utilised. If headteachers do not make it clear that all staff (teaching and support staff) have the authority to make decisions, to be innovative and creative, then they will assume that they do not.
If that happens, the vast wealth of knowledge and experience that exists in all schools will remain untapped.

Right structure

If headteachers create flatter leadership structures that ask all staff to contribute to problem-solving, that do not start out with preconceived solutions that everybody else is supposed to guess, then that collective knowledge and experience will be used to move the school forward.

Structures need to reinforce the notion that every member of staff can make decisions within their own sphere of influence. This is not to say that staff are not accountable for their decisions; it is important that they are. It is not to say that a headteacher or other senior leader should not put forward their own views or solutions; they should. It is not to say that we should not sometimes judge that, on this occasion, this is a matter that the headteacher needs to decide. However, it is important to listen to all members of staff (and parents and students for that matter), to be clear about which decisions you are making and which ones they are able to make and to trust them to make many more decisions than has been the case traditionally in schools.

Relying on collaboration

Creating the effective school is not something we do in isolation. The period in history when schools were made to operate in competition with one another, seeking to bring about improvement without sharing their ideas with others is over. The new thinking is about collaboration, sharing ideas and networking and this is an environment in which educationists are rather more at ease. I am grateful to those who have shared their thinking with me and look forward to future dialogue, which I trust will help us all to develop excellent schools for all young people.

Choosing the appropriate networks to work with is a matter of personal choice and school context. It is useful to work with local school leaders through local authorities. Leadership incentive grants, Excellence in Cities and so on can develop initiatives that may directly involve students across a locality.

It is worth developing relationships through national networks too. The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust is an organisation that can enable you to do this very effectively — for more details, see: 

The advantage to working in networks outside your own locality is twofold: l on the one hand the range of strategies to which you become exposed is greater and will involve schools that have developed differently and under different constraints

l it is often easier to look objectively at a school when you do not have a predetermined image of the school and when you are not in competition with it for pupils.

Future plans

Future challenges for Parrs Wood are similar to those for most schools across the country.

We are committed to the idea that every student should succeed and achieve, although they may demonstrate this in many ways.

The Government has set a considerable challenge for us through its 14–19 agenda, which opens up the curriculum to deliver a range of vocational and academic routes. It has also challenged us to set a new expectation that most students will continue education in a coherent and planned way to the age of 19 rather than 16, with GCSE and equivalent qualifications only a marker along the way.

To meet the challenge of this huge curriculum entitlement, we must collaborate with other schools and colleges in a way we have not seen before. Schools and colleges will need to refine their provision to meet the needs of all students, rather than persuade pupils that the provision we have traditionally offered is what they want.

To do this, the collaborative spirit will have to replace the competitive spirit, especially between post-16 providers. The future is not so much about being an effective school as it is about being in an effective collaboration to provide broad-ranging personalised learning.

David Ashley, Headteacher, Parrs Wood High School, Manchester

School context

Parrs Wood High School is an 11–19 mixed comprehensive school with dual specialist status for technology and performing arts. It is a leading-edge school, serving nearly 2,000 students, including 450 in the sixth form.

The school is housed in a five-year-old building, facilitated by an unusual land swap arrangement with a leisure company who has developed part of the old school site. Parrs Wood is a genuinely comprehensive school, with roughly 40% of minority ethnic students. The school serves a community that is socially very diverse, including some of the most privileged and some of the more deprived wards in Manchester; 23% of students are entitled to free school meals.

The school enjoys a very good reputation, locally and nationally, as a successful, innovative school and has done for many years. On entry to the school, Key Stage 2 student performance is broadly in line with national expectations. More than 70% of students consistently achieve at least Level 5 across core subjects at KS3. At Key Stage 4, 58% of students achieved five or more A* to C grades (2005). At KS5, 95% of students achieved A–E grades at GCE A level, with nearly all students gaining their first choice higher education place. Results across the school have been consistently good for many years, although improvement at KS4 is a current focus for us.

Excellence visits

Excellence visits are perhaps the most effective form of continuing professional development (CPD).

Not only do they enable your school community to see first hand how things work in school and relate this to their own school context but very often they lead to relationships developing between staff in schools and this forms the basis for long-term networking.

If you seek to do this you might want to consult the book Excellence in education: the making of great schools (ISBN 1-84312-213-8) by Cyril Taylor and Conor Ryan, published by David Fulton Publishers. The book serves as an excellent directory of good practice across the country.

Running a continuous day

Parrs Wood has 2,000 students. Every time a lesson ends, we need to avoid all 2,000 of them meeting together in the corridors between lessons, at breaktimes and at lunchtime.

We have made some progress. In common with many schools, we have different lunchtimes for different year groups, but we are also experimenting with structures that might eventually lead us to a continuous day. The continuous day concept is simply the notion that we should timetable lunch, break and lesson change just as we timetable lessons.

The objective is to create a calm professional environment in which students move around in smaller, calmer groups. Some schools have managed to achieve a situation where staff take their classes down to break or lunch during an extended lesson, and return to continue the lesson.

These relationships between staff and pupils are indicative of highly effective learning environments.

Engaging teachers

All of the developments discussed here rely on having the right staff doing the right jobs. Teachers should be involved in promoting the positive values of the school and the school ethos, planning and implementing the most effective and motivational lessons possible. Teachers will be supporting all students to ensure that they are learning as well as possible and monitoring the progress of all pupils so that they can act where progress is inadequate. That is a huge job. School leaders should not allow teachers to become bogged down in excessive report writing, investigating behavioural issues, performing social care (beyond that which we would expect from any caring teacher in that it could be provided in the classroom), school duties, cover for absent colleagues (unless there is a clear educational reason for doing so), ICT technical support or the myriad of other jobs that schools have dreamed up for teachers over the years.

Workforce reform has moved us on considerably with this. It is not that we should not do these things in school; it is simply that we should employ the right people to do them, and they are not teachers.

Many of these activities are so important that we need professional staff to see them as their main role in school. We should not leave them in the hands of teachers who may be able to fit them in between lessons, at break or at lunchtime, while trying to focus on their teaching activities.