Motivating students with a positive learning environment can inspire staff as well as pupils to aim high, achieving more progress than they had imagined possible and achieving student responsibility

I joined Rawlett Community Sports College in January 2007. Over the previous three years, the school  had maintained a reasonable 54% for GCSE grades A*–C and 43% for GCSE grades A*–C including English and maths. However, the three-year contextual value added (CVA) pattern showed a decline into the bottom 25% of schools.

Over the first two months, I observed lessons, got to know the staff and students and was able to soak up the culture of the school. Several key points became apparent:

  • good to excellent teaching existed in isolated pockets around the school
  • Year 11 study support lacked a strategy
  • students needed more challenge and motivation
  • staff had limited knowledge of accelerated learning or current pedagogical thinking about how the brain works but demonstrated a positive will to learn
  • Rawlett had a strong positive ethos, focused on generating a positive learning culture and increasing student engagement.

The headteacher and I got together and, with the senior team, started to formulate ‘Rawlett fit’ – a new short-term vision for the school. This was primarily designed to re-energise staff. Our first key decision was to create a learning and teaching improvement group. 

In the midst of this revisioning, the call came and Ofsted arrived. Ofsted look backwards and so scrutinised our gentle decline with brutal efficiency. We presented the future but such things are off their radar. However, they did support our identification of areas to improve and focused two targets on ‘increasing challenge’ and ‘sharing practice’. We were graded ‘satisfactory’. That summer the results and CVA continued their gentle slide towards oblivion, placing us in the bottom 20% of schools in the country. Morale was low and nerves were jangling.

In September 2007. ‘Rawlett fit’ was launched, an eight-point plan that focused on establishing a rigorous positive learning community. The learning and teaching (LAT) group designed six lessons, utilising some of the principles and techniques outlined in Accelerated Learning: A User’s Guide (see ‘Resources’ at the end of this article). I say ‘some’ because we were determined not to box in teachers or cramp their personal styles. The thrust was about sharing active learning strategies and encouraging staff to consider how to teach ‘the brain’s way’. Pairs of staff from the LAT group delivered their lessons on a second Inset day in September. Members of staff experienced four different lessons as if they were students. ‘Be a teaching magpie’ was the message we were attempting to send.

Several immediate spin-offs were apparent from this day. The staff were laughing (the PE lesson was particularly amusing); the staff were talking – sharing had begun; but most of all the staff were inspired – by each other – saying ‘Yes, we can turn things around’. The building of belief had begun.

We tried to support this with several other staff initiatives, among them:

  • a wellbeing programme was instigated, sending the message, ‘we value you’
  • a copy of Accelerated Learning: A User’s Guide was purchased for all members of staff, sending the message, ‘we believe in this’
  • a staff learning zone was proposed, sending the message, ‘we are a learning community’
  • staff were told ‘take risks; we’ll support you,’ sending the message, ‘do not be afraid to fail’
  • a teaching bulletin was circulated every month containing active teaching ideas, sending the message, ‘try out new ideas’
  • meaningful data was provided, using GCSE scores not grades, sending the message, ‘every six points a student gains makes a difference to them and us.’

We immediately set about drawing up a Year 11 strategy with the aim of making the strategy part of the annual cycle of student support. We consulted staff through our Inset feedback sheet and ran an ‘active’ meeting with middle leaders, who shared positive ideas focused on re-energising Year 11. We took these and formulated a 25-point Year 11 intervention strategy.

In the meantime, I received an email from the British Academy of Advanced Training, citing huge success in pushing up GCSE grades. We decided to give it a try as we did not have anything to lose.

Dr Paget arrived with all the trappings of a highly academic professor (hair the students described as ‘random’ and a deep baritone voice). He spent two hours with each of our Year 11 bands – 190 students in total. They sat behind exam desks while he waxed lyrical about ‘their world’. He then asked them to imagine each of their grades going up by one grade. How would that feel? ‘Good!’ they said. He then eyeballed them all and made three things very clear:

  • you only need an extra 10% maximum to go up a grade in any subject.
  • your teachers are giving their all, so what are you going to do?
  • active revision now will deliver that 10% (he delivered his day in November).

His message was transparent : you can make the difference to your grades. He inspired them, gave them active revision ideas and began to build motivational confidence. The ‘Am I bovvered?’ generation was being rewired right in front of eyes.

This changed our approach. If we could get the students as well as the staff to go that extra mile, could that make the difference? We redesigned the Year 11 strategy to include motivational support for students. These are the key elements:

  • We began two study-support groups, one for underachieving girls and one for the very able. Both these groups piloted University of The First Age materials, teaching students how to actively revise. The able group were also taught memory techniques sourced from Derren Brown’s book Tricks of the Mind and techniques from Tony Buzan’s books.
  • Interval CVA data was produced and, controversially, a Year 11 league table.  This showed clearly which students were doing well and which were falling behind. Many able students were in the bottom 20%. It shocked parents, staff and students into action.
  • A variety of mentors were used with students struggling with learning issues, including teachers, Aimhigher mentors, learning mentors, a pastoral worker, tutors and the pastoral coordinator.
  • A revision pack of materials, including a revision guide, Post-It Notes, highlighters, coloured card and the Learning to Learn Pocket Book were given free to all Year 11 students.
  • A Year 11 success bulletin was emailed to all Year 11 students twice each half -term, with a particular active revision technique explained, revision websites identified, inspirational quotes and a week count down.
  • Year 11 assemblies became interactive demonstrations of active revision and memory techniques, as well as explaining the psychology of motivation and how to get yourself motivated (see the box below). Our aim was to make the students more internally motivated, to build in the ‘I can make a difference to my life’ attitude. These were designed to be amusing and inspirational.

Types of motivation

There are essentially two types of motivation:

Internal motivation
When you motivate yourself and make decisions based on reflection to actively improve your performance. You believe that you can make a difference. You strive for your ‘personal best’. You govern and determine your success.

External motivation
This involves external ‘carrots’, such as achieving five C grades because you have been promised £50 by your parents. You allow external reward to govern and determine your success.

  • A mock-results morning was put in place after the mock exams to attempt to replicate results day. Parents turned up with students to open their mock envelopes; this was then followed by meetings with tutors who had a form list of the CVA data.
  • Ten-minute pre-exam warm-ups were run in the theatre before each exam. The role of progress coordinator had been developed during the Teaching and Learning Responsibility restructuring. Our Year 11 progress coordinator had an excellent command of data and focused particular interventions accurately, based on a range of evidence.

In August our results arrived: an 18% increase in A*-C grades and a 15% increase in A*-C grades including English and maths, with a CVA of more than 1000. These were the best-ever results achieved by the school.

Morale was through the roof on our first Inset day and another seven different lessons were shared by a combination of 10 different teachers. The cycle had started again but share sessions were now built into the calendar as part of directed time. We are determined to continue to release staff creativity and, in order to release creativity, you have to support your staff in a risk-taking environment where it is okay to fail once in a while. We are moving towards a culture where lessons are judged and away from a culture where teachers are judged.

As we pick through the data, the strategies and the ups and downs of the last year, several key points emerged and these are given in the box here.

Key points

  • Teach active revision and memory techniques. Do not assume that just telling students what to do or demonstrating a technique will work. It will not. Students need to experience it first.
  • Give and teach students motivational strategies and ideas so they can attempt to manage their own morale and motivation. Everyone finds this tough. Why should we assume that teenagers find it any easier?
  • Provide a distinct programme of study support that is based on specific groups: compulsory for some and invited for others.
  • Provide a range of mentors with different skills for different student needs.
  • Create dedicated, structured time and activities that allow staff to share ideas and create active learning classrooms.
  • Active learning and revision provides many memory hooks for students and allows them to retain learning and gain belief and confidence.
  • Be bold in sharing data with students. It is tough love but they will thank you for it on results day.
  • Get staff to think in GCSE scores, not just grades, as this promotes a culture that ‘every grade matters’ rather than just a ‘D’ to ‘C’ push.

All of these elements generated a sense of occasion and tension but they also led to a building of belief and an attitude of ‘I can make a difference’ from staff and students. Our improvements were not down to luck, or a good year, or fluke. They happened because students and staff were well motivated and engaged.

As Colin Jackson proclaimed in a BBC documentary earlier this year: ‘It’s the time and effort that I’ve put in that’s made me outstanding in what I’ve done.’ Getting students fired up to achieve their personal best is no easy challenge but with a persistent, positive strategy you may be able to turn the, ‘Am I bovvered?’ into ‘Bovvered? I am!’

Ian Brierley is deputy headteacher with responsibility for learning and teaching at Rawlett Sports College


  • Smith, A, Lovatt, M and Wise, D. (2003) Accelerated Learning: A User’s Guide, Network Educational Press Ltd, ISBN 978-1855391505
  • Barwood, T (2005) The Learning To Learn Pocket Book, Teacher’s Pocketbooks, ISBN 978-1903776643
  • Buzan, T (2000) Use Your Memory, BBC Books, ISBN 978-1406610185
  • University of the First Age, Brain Friendly Revision, ISBN 978-1855391277
  • Brown, D (2006) Tricks of the Mind, Channel 4 Books, ISBN 978-1905026357
  • British Academy of Advanced Training