Dr Barbara Spender, Freelance Writer and Researcher, with information supplied by Terry Smith, Assistant Headteacher, Ninestiles Secondary School, Acocks Green, Birmingham

Ninestiles School has had notable success in implementing the Every Child Matters (ECM) agenda in difficult local circumstances. While that agenda is delivered formally through planned lessons, these are located in a wider school context that promotes high expectations and supports maximum student achievement.

Ninestiles Secondary School is a large specialist technology school in Acocks Green, Birmingham. This is a deprived area and nearly one-third of its 1,500 students are entitled to free school meals. Approximately one-third of the student population comes from minority ethnic backgrounds. The school has its own sixth form and, while foundation status means that Ninestiles can select up to 10% of its intake, more than 60% of sixth formers qualify for the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), payable to A-level students who come from low-income families. The school has an excellent reputation for raising levels of educational attainment and attracts pupils from a wide area.

Ninestiles is also a federation school. Although it is the federation’s lead school, staff see this aspect of their work as more of a partnership activity. They enjoy and benefit from having worked with a variety of neighbouring schools, including Birmingham’s International Community School. Staff are currently linked with Central School in Gloucester.

The speech and language centre, for statemented students, is a special feature of the school. It caters for 45 students, mostly with speech and specific learning difficulties. The Ofsted inspection of February 2006 commends Ninestiles for ‘outstanding’ progress made by pupils with specific learning difficulties and disabilities.

Headteacher Christine Quinn is supported by two deputies and nine assistant heads. They invest heavily in senior and middle management, with middle managers taking the lead in staff training. As part of the Leading Edge Partnership Programme, Ninestiles provides improvement training and services for other local schools.

While Every Child Matters is an agenda that pervades every aspect of school life, Ninestiles, as many other schools, has used citizenship and personal, social and health education as the curriculum areas best suited to introduce it into the classroom. Ofsted described the curriculum opportunities the school offers as ‘outstanding’ and particularly commended citizenship, PSHE, careers advice, work experience and work-related learning.

As a school that had already thought carefully about how to meet the needs of its students and its local community, Ninestiles was in a good position to assimilate the principles of ECM into its daily life and work. The school already had a mission statement that reflected the fundamentals of ECM and it has summarised these in the acronym PARIS:

  • Participation
  • Achievement
  • Resources
  • Inclusion
  • Structures

Assistant headteacher Terry Smith points out that participation, achievement and inclusion express the goals of ECM while resources and structures are what facilitate their achievement. Terry describes the process of change as culturally based. It is about much more than adjusting individual areas of school life; schools need to think collectively, at a strategic level, and as organisations composed of individuals, about all five of ECM’s core objectives:

  • being healthy
  • staying safe
  • enjoying and achieving
  • making a positive contribution
  • achieving economic wellbeing

Step 1: PSHE is a starting point

Terry Smith was the personal, social and health education (PSHE) lead teacher. She completed the PSHE-accreditation course and worked with colleagues to revamp the curriculum, taking a whole-school approach that built on commitment to being a healthy school. This involved:

  • working with the healthy schools group to rewrite the sex and relationships education policy, in consultation with a parent governor, school nurse, and student representatives
  • developing the programme; it now includes information about support services and helplines and there is a strong emphasis on pastoral support tailored to individual need
  • training a team of teachers from the humanities department to deliver the course.

This work was part of the National Healthy Schools Programme and was in place before the publication of the Every Child Matters policy. The programme was supplemented from external sources, as funding became available, for example, in the use of Theatre in Education (TIE). Much was achieved with no additional funding. The programme was delivered and updated as necessary, as part of the school’s drive for continuous improvement.

When ECM became an established part of the education scene, Ninestiles was able to use the work Terry had led as a solid foundation for integrating ECM principles into the social life and curriculum of the school. Teachers and curriculum managers had experienced the benefits of working in partnership with parents and students on curricular issues. They appreciated the importance of individual choice and personalised learning; they were already in tune with the aspirations of ECM.

Terry received strong support from senior managers, who are committed to a philosophy of raising students’ self-esteem and creating a safe and positive learning environment. Several of the senior managers have experience in PSHE teaching and pastoral care.

Step 2: PSHE and wider curriculum

While PSHE remains the most visible focus of ECM activity, it has increasingly been integrated into other curriculum areas so that it is strengthened by the consistency of attitudes and messages. For details of how PSHE is taught, see the end of this section.

Students’ awareness is assessed at the beginning of each stage so that course content can be adapted to suit their needs. Course content includes information about support services for different ethnic groups and helplines, for example, students are told about help available to gay Muslim men. There is a strong emphasis on pastoral support, including an in-house student support service, mentors and input from the school nurse. The senior pastoral team and PSHE lead teacher see it as a fundamental part of their role to provide support and referral to specialist services.

This team is also sensitive to the needs of its ethnic minority students and ensures different cultural and faith perspectives are acknowledged during discussion. Some lessons take place in single-sex environments. Information about specialist services providing support for specific communities is always provided. No parent has withdrawn their child from non-statutory sex and relationships education (SRE) in the last 15 years.

Years 7 and 8
Humanities lessons are delivered in week-long modules, including discrete PSHE modules at certain points during the school year.

Year 9
PSHE is included within weekly humanities lessons.

Years 10 and 11
The school’s ‘Respect’ course integrates religious education (RE), citizenship and PSHE. It is taken by all pupils, with the exception of those pursuing an intensive science option. There are plans for an online Respect course to ensure access for all.

Step 3: Future of curriculum

This year, for the first time, citizenship is offered as a discrete subject on the timetable. It crosses Key Stages 3 and 4 and incorporates PSHE and SRE. Drawing these together, students are invited to consider topics such as ‘Me in my society’ and ‘Me in my groups’. At the time of writing this is very new and is still in development. In future, Ninestiles hopes to integrate ECM themes into other mainstream curriculum areas.

Beyond the school gates, students’ horizons are expanded with a comprehensive programme of cultural and sporting trips and overseas visits.

From the beginning, school leaders realised how important it was to weave ECM principles into the daily life of the school, both in the formal curriculum and through a school ethos that gives clear and consistent messages. An essential tool in the creation of the school community is the daily assembly. The school is unusual in insisting that all students attend one of two assembly sessions each day. Their content is spiritual rather than religious. The assemblies are used to manage and maintain the school ethos and the consistency of the messages students receive about their life at school. They complement and support personal development programmes and the citizenship curriculum. The content of both daily sessions is the same and they are led by the same person.

The aim is to encourage students to consider carefully selected topics. Many assemblies are based on multimedia presentations and provide a base from which the school can maintain assessment for learning (AfL), celebrate student achievement and promote a working ethos that respects students. Providing spaces for students to reflect on such issues has paid dividends. Ofsted noted that students liked being in school; they are keen to attend, the school is oversubscribed and students express willingness to work and achieve.

Safety within the school has been a high priority. All school developments are underpinned by a clear and simple behaviour policy, used by the whole school: behaviour for learning. Misbehaviour is dealt with using a series of warnings or consequences of escalating severity. Low-level disturbance attracts consequence 1; a further incident leads to consequence 2. Consequence 3 is a one-hour detention.

These are managed centrally on a rota basis and the fact that students are not supervised by the member of staff who gave the detention depersonalises the penalty and enables staff and students to maintain civilised working relationships. Depersonalisation also helps students to see the system as fair. Although the policy was introduced before schools were encouraged to access student voice, pupils are involved in refining it in practice. It is a simple system that means students know what will happen if they are disruptive in class.

The successful implementation of this scheme led to the school’s receipt of a Leading Aspect Award. Award judges commended the hard work of the staff in using behaviour for learning to create a truly participative and inclusive school community. Ofsted noted that students say bullying is rare and that occasional incidents are dealt with effectively.

Within the curriculum, students have constant opportunities to reflect on their progress and to discuss their needs with teachers. AfL is implemented in all curriculum subjects. The school begins this process by teaching all Year 7 students what the different curriculum levels in those subjects actually mean.

Students (and parents) have access to all the information they need about assessment criteria before they make informed choices about their work. Pupils then select the level they would like to work at and are grouped accordingly. They set and review their own targets and evaluate their progress against them.

Staff have a battery of statistical information they can use to check that students’ choices do not lead to coasting and underachievement. As well as standard assessment tasks (SATs) results they have cognitive ability test (CAT) scores and data from the Fischer Family Trust. Putting all this information together, they can gain a real sense of each pupil as a whole learner. Homework is set regularly and carefully planned. Feedback is regular and frequent and students are given clear guidance on how they can improve their work.

These self-selected groups are not setting by another name; setting has traditionally been determined by teachers. By letting students control the level and pace of their own learning, the school opens the door to greater achievement for them. Putting students in control of their learning by making sure that they know what is required of them at each level has helped them to target their efforts for maximum effect. Their targets are challenging but achievable.

Throughout the school year, students have further opportunities to decide whether they are working at the right level for them. Middle managers act as heads of student progress and work with parents and students to ensure progress is encouraged and maintained. A student support centre can offer immediate advice for individual problems.

Structures and partnerships

Everything that is done in the classroom is supported by a series of activities and partnerships that operate at a whole-school level. These are the product of conscious decisions to reflect principles that are taught in the classroom in the way that the school operates.

The school has developed excellent national and international links in addition to its close ties with the local community. External agencies are frequently involved in school activities, with several having a permanent presence on the school site. Careers and advisory services, police liaison, child protection and community liaison officers are regular visitors and a local councillor is based at the local leisure centre that shares the school site.

The school is currently exploring the possibilities of working with the Lions International Club on citizenship issues. The flexibility of the school’s approach encourages staff to pursue opportunities as they arise. Ofsted identified the school’s excellent relationship and links with the local community as a key factor in its provision of outstanding guidance and support for students. Coupled with a ‘strong ethos of care’ it enables staff to secure the trust and confidence of parents and students alike.

There are no bells between lessons; students know what is expected of them and cooperate without coercion. Meals are available on a rolling basis so students can choose which free time they will use to eat. An indoor social space has recently opened, using a converted gym that has carpet, music equipment and DVDs. A senior member of staff, with responsibility for gathering student opinion, will ensure that further consultation identifies what other facilities students would most like to see.

Students are helped to understand what it means to live in a community where they have both rights and obligations. Congress is elected by students who register to vote UK-style and then determine who should represent them on an official ‘Thursday polling day’. Representatives regularly identify key issues and survey student opinion so that they can make their voices heard and effect change. School ambassadors deliver sessions to visitors, telling the story of Ninestiles School.

Opportunities to take part in community activities, for example, fundraising for charities, are built into the curriculum and the school works hard to prepare students for work in the wider world. Work experience placements are carefully organised and each student is offered expert guidance on careers opportunities and further study.

Terry has worked at Ninestiles, through its various incarnations, since 1983. When she first arrived, fewer than 7% of pupils left with five or more GCSEs at grades A–C. In 2006, 83% did so, a further increase of 5% on the 2005 results. These results provide strong evidence of the school’s good work on inclusion and on getting the best out of an intake that has many disadvantaged students. This success has been achieved in an atmosphere that is calm, respectful and non-confrontational. This huge leap forward in results has happened in a changing climate of cooperation with, and respect for, students that epitomises the best and most desired aspirations of Every Child Matters.

Evaluation and engagement

At the end of the last summer term, all the school staff examined the five ECM areas and identified key systems, curriculum areas and other initiatives that were already being used or could be further developed to deliver ECM. This exercise was both an audit of current activity and an aid to future planning. The inclusivity of the whole-school staff activity mirrored the inclusion that is a central requirement of the Government’s agenda and encouraged the same sense of individual reflection and responsibility that is nurtured in students through the use of AfL.

This exercise was an integral part of the school’s effective planning process, which is ‘streamlined and carefully prioritised to focus clearly on whole-school improvement’, according to the February Ofsted report. ICT systems are used to support and monitor shared planning. ICT is also an essential tool in monitoring each student’s progress.

In the longer term, the school’s approach to ECM is the same as for its other agreed objectives. To be merely good is not enough; outcomes must be outstanding. The school’s senior managers describe its objectives as ‘customer-orientated’. This carries specific and clear expectations that:

  • students will have explicit ownership of their learning
  • parents will feel confident that their children have opportunities at national and international levels
  • staff will feel ownership of the school’s objectives.

All three groups are invited to participate in regular surveys of opinion. In addition to its Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and regular parents’ evenings, the school has adopted an open-door policy that gives priority to consultation with parents whenever they request it. There are active family numeracy courses in which children and adults work together to improve their number skills.

Terry Smith’s most important piece of advice to those still contemplating the challenges of ECM is to do it from a cultural perspective. At Ninestiles, the whole leadership team has taken responsibility for rolling out ECM. Everyone has to be involved and systems must be developed to maintain the desired culture. It is a matter of moving philosophy into practice so that it works and continues to make sense.

Dr Barbara Spender, Freelance Writer and Researcher