In a bid to help students raise their achievement and know success, the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust initiated Raising Achievement Transforming Learning (RATL). David Crossley explains the school-to-school mentoring scheme which allows teachers to learn from the success of others

At too many schools there are too many students spending too much time experiencing underachievement, when the duty of all schools is to help every pupil achieve their potential and know success. But there are also a considerable number of schools that have found ways to overcome this dearth of achievement — and many of these have been involved in the Raising Achievement Transforming Learning (RATL) project run by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT). This articles finds out what this project is all about. Its starting point is that the profession itself has most of the answers to the challenges it faces — it is just a question of allowing teachers the time and space to share their successful approaches and learn from others. Schools exist to improve the life chances of young people. Successful school systems celebrate success and use this confidence as a catalyst to improve further. We have a lot to celebrate about our schools and what is being achieved. In terms of results, we have seen something little short of a revolution. Think back to 1988 when only 25% of young people achieved five or more high grades at 16 and a qualification society valued. It was perceived to be the natural order of things and there was almost a closed five-barred gate to prevent other young people taking their next step. Yet in 2007, almost 60% had reached that standard. Far fewer are left behind and every child matters more. In England, we have tended to undermine schools as a result of false academic and vocational divides and elitism. We often fail to understand that it is the criticism that damages our system most. Teachers tire of being told they are not doing a good enough job, yet most parents feel their child’s school is good. We all end up falling into the trap of feeling that things must have been better in the past. They weren’t. Our education system has always been very good for the best (and we are now better) but has been less good for the rest and least good at what is often known as the trailing edge – poor performers, often the most disadvantaged, do less well in the UK compared with many other countries. So to tackle underachievement and improve achievement we need to value what the system is achieving and build on this.

Getting the culture right is one of the key catalysts to enabling students to achieve. As the late Peter Drucker argued:

Achievement is addictive – finding students’ strengths and focusing them on achievement is the best definition of teacher and teaching. (Post-capitalist society, Butterworth Heinemann, 1985)

But he also said that too much time by too many students in too many schools is spent getting marginally less good at something you are not very good at, and how motivating is that? Yet if students experience achievement and success it gives them the confidence on which to build on that success and take on further challenges too.

There is more to do. The Children’s Plan (DCSF, 2007) sets an aspiration that our country should become the best place in the world for young people to grow up in. It further suggests that students need not be held back by poverty and disadvantage if we work together to tackle all the barriers for learning faced by young people.

Key features of RATL

  • ‘By schools for schools’ — our capacity to deliver is in schools
  • Uses an inspire-challenge-encourage model
  • Links short, medium and longer term goals
  • Ensures sustainable improvement because it empowers schools to make the difference themselves
  • Has a demonstrable impact on outcomes for students
  • Uses proven, high-quality school leaders and school-based practitioners — ‘inside-out knowledge’ is shared
  • Is about working with and not about being done to, partnership and support, not threat (either implied or actual) or coercion
  • Challenges schools, but not in a way that makes them feel threatened or afraid — in a way that engenders openness and honesty and in almost all cases they welcome the support (many schools keep in touch once they leave the project); it is a positive experience, unlike many government initiatives that are critical and judgemental and do not offer any follow-up support
  • Has high credibility — schools work with colleagues who are actually doing the job and have recent practical and successful experience to share
  • Supports schools so they do not experience the ‘being done to ‘ syndrome

RATL — bringing about change In 2004,  the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) launched the Raising Achievement and Transforming Learning Project (RATL) – a by-school-for-schools that involves peer challenge and support through conferences, school-to-school visits, engagement with data and mentoring and coaching. It is practitioner led and enables schools to transfer practice and solutions that have been successful in one schools to another. It operates through national, regional and local networks and the SSAT itself, whose role is to help replicate and transfer practice within and between the networks. Initially targeted at more than 200 coasting or underperforming secondary schools, it has now worked with more than 600 schools. The key features of RATL are listed in the box above. It could have been called the underperforming schools project, but who would have wanted to be part of that?

Professor Andrew Hargreaves of Boston College, in his research on RATL, said:

RATL really does represent a distinctive theory in action of how you bring about change and improvement in schools. (Hargreaves, 2007)

He argues that it has conquered the isolation of teachers and has shown how much change can come about by connecting teachers together and understanding that with a little help the profession has most of the answers to the challenges it faces over time. In the words of mentor head Alan Yellup of Wakefield City High:

RATL is unique in this country in that it is founded on mutual trust and respect and positive in orientation.

It involves raising standards along with preserving self-esteem and dignity. Once people lose their dignity, they quickly lose self-esteem and enthusiasm and can become a drain on the system. It provides hope for those schools that feel beleaguered. Success breeds success. RATL focuses on the moral purpose of increasing life chances of young people. So far, the project has unleashed the capacity of more than 70 mentor schools and headteachers and supported them in enabling others to generalise from, replicate and apply their practice in their own settings. Support is led by successful practitioners and/or schools that have made ‘leaps’ themselves, and this has a huge amount of credibility with project schools. The conferences allow schools in similar circumstances to meet and share strategies and this means they don’t feel ‘alone’ in what they have to do, which is hugely motivational. From the beginning, the project was as interested in the medium and long term as the short term. Its objective was to combine immediate strategies that make a difference with longer-term strategies that have sown seeds for real transformation of schools. It has also been developing imaginative ways of releasing capacity for schools to help other schools. Mentor schools argue that involvement in the project has contributed significantly to their improvement too. Flexible and responsive networks are a key feature and an added strength in that they can work at a local, national, regional or even international level. Schools are encouraged to form their own links and network with other schools. The networks of mentor schools and consultant headteachers offer variable levels of capacity to provide personalised support as well as to showcase good practice through in-school events and conferences. The introduction of the high performing specialist schools (HPSS) RATL mentor school option in 2005 has further embedded school-led system capacity. From April 2008, there will be nearly 40 HPSS RATL mentor schools in addition to the schools and 300 staff that already work to support the programme.

One other key reason for the success of this model is clear accountability and, from the schools’ perspective, clarity about what they are expecting to achieve. It is often worth asking three very simple questions of whatever initiative you are embarking on:

  • Will it raise achievement?
  • Will it impact on students?
  • Most importantly, how will you know?

Between them, the more than 600 schools involved in RATL since 2004 have seen their results improve on average at nearly three times the national rate of improvement. The five key approaches of RATL that have enabled schools to make such a difference to achievement are outlined in the box below.

Raising achievement: five key approaches of RATL schools

Short-term strategies can make a real difference and are easy to implement

Short-term strategies make a real difference, act as a motivator and are a real catalyst for change. We all need and value quick wins. At the conferences, schools share strategies of what had worked for them and schools on the programme take, adapt and apply the ideas almost immediately. The programme has developed a significant portfolio of case studies of proven strategies that we know make a difference. As Loretta Williams from Melior Community College (formerly Thomas Sumpter School and in RATL Cohort A), said:

From the very start we did the quick wins and went straight back to school and offered things like breakfast clubs for students, catch-up sessions, mentoring — all the things we had learned from others that had worked.

One major development over recent years has been in the use of what became known as study leave time. There was a tradition of students going on study leave around two weeks before the main exam period started and remaining on study leave for the whole exam period. This works well for some who plan and organise their time at home. For others, it meant they were not taught and did not practice what they knew for anything up to six weeks before they took an exam. Contrast this with a sports team: would anyone ever suggest that they did not practice in the weeks before a major match? And if they didn’t would we expect them to peak?

It is not just what you do — it is how well you do it

We discovered that most schools were already doing most of the things that make a difference, but the question was how well they were doing them. The difference between using a strategy at a basic level and doing it better is rarely complex. For example, most schools offer revision sessions, but for them to be effective those students who most need to go to them need to attend as well as those who choose to go. At a wider level, consistent, clear, standard operating procedures and practices are a key feature of schools that add value. John Atkin and his team at Kemnal Technology College provide one example of a school that has documented these practices and now works intensively with schools in special measures or on notice to improve — even in challenging circumstances, this is the way to enable and empower schools to improve.

Do fewer things really well
Doing too many things not quite well enough is an endemic feature of the reality in schools. A new initiative or development is introduced and for a while it is done well at the same time as the initiative that was introduced previously is done less well.

It is important to ensure that the initiative you are introducing really yields. This is relatively easy to do and something that can be learned quickly from considering the practice of others. This is a question of capacity: you are better doing fewer things well than too many things badly. So schools are encouraged to ask the questions — will it raise achievement and how do/will you know and if not stop doing or abandon it?

Embed use of performance data
RATL mentor schools say that embedding use of data was one of the most significant things they have done. It really has enabled schools to know every student and know their potential’ and to benchmark themselves against others.

From this, schools can learn from others that are more successful with similar students and apply or adapt their strategies. Whatever we think of testing regimes and their limitations, embedding use of data has probably been the most significant lever for tackling underperformance. Jim Collins argues this case particularly persuasively in the pamphlet, Good to great and the social sectors (Random House, 2006) with his comment: All indicators are flawed, whether qualitative or quantitative. What matters is not finding the perfect indicator, but settling on a consistent and intelligent method of assessing your output results and tracking your trajectory with rigour.  Alleynes School in Staffordshire is one RATL school that has put particular energy into embedding use of data. As Headteacher Anne Spears commented:

We now have much better use of data in both departments and year groups. We are using data to track individual student’s progress and achievement.

Data is increasingly seen as the vehicle for engaging pupils and teachers as part of the learning process. It also forms an essential resource to enable schools to personalise learning more effectively. Schools that become more effective move from using ‘post-mortem data’ to using data to predict. Engaging becomes predicting. Regular reporting provides an early alert of any changes and attitudinal data become as effective a predictor as prior attainment. Embedding use of data allows schools not only to benchmark themselves with other schools but also enables the perhaps more serious issue of within-school variation, staff and student expectations to be tackled too.

Link the short-, medium- and long-term strategies from the beginning
Christine Owen at Bartley Green in Birmingham, a RATL mentor school, sums up what is involved in linking the short-, medium- and long-term strategies from the beginning:

There aren’t any easy answers but neither is it very complex.

She attributes much of the success in her own school, where results rose from 9% in 1994 to more than 77% today within one of the country’s top value-added scores, to things like leading by example and through knowing what was going on. However, it is the ethos, atmosphere and culture of achievement that strikes you most whenever you visit the school. This leads to our key conclusion — don’t just focus on the short term. As Jane Garret of South Craven School in Barnoldswick commented:

What RATL taught is that it is a mixture of working on the short-term strategies with students while at the same time working on the medium- and longer-term strategies with staff.

In Andy Hargreave’s words in his research, it is about ‘sequencing, harmonising and integrating the long, medium and short term’ (Hargreaves, 2007). This is more motivating and sustainable too

Raising and sustaining achievement Curriculum design is the key medium-term lever for change. At a whole-school level. it takes two years or more to yield, but it is this change that will have the most impact on students. The timetabler really is the most powerful person in a school, but all too often the timetable is dominated by a number of unwritten priorities.

Swinton High School in Manchester is a school whose results have gone from 22% to 76% over the last five years by embracing curriculum design. The school redesigned the curriculum in Key Stage 4 for the benefit of students. Courses like dance, textiles and ‘I media’ were introduced and all of these subjects exceeded their Fischer Family Trust D value-added targets, which put their performance in the top 25% of schools nationally. As Head John Biddlestone commented:

This was down to first-class teaching, enthusiastic students who enjoyed the greater emphasis on kinetic learning.

A comment from one of the students shows how the achievement culture of the school and that of the students are so closely interrelated:

The fact that the school did so well last year gives me a boost – and I think to myself I can get good grades too.

Curriculum design at a whole-school level in terms of the timetable has it most impact at a classroom level.

It is not what you do — it is the way that you do it

In the final analysis, how is more important than what. There are two key levers that are underused in raising achievement: abandonment and redeployment of resources. This is linked to the question of capacity too.

Schools and teachers can do most things, but they cannot do everything. If we are to do new things, we must abandon some of the things we do now. This means abandoning the things that are already moribund or at least will be within five years. It also means abandoning some of the things you do in a school that have little real yield. Abandonment makes a difference and is motivating for staff but can be challenging for those who are involved in the thing you are abandoning. Linked to this is redeployment of resources. One impressive example is Cramlington Community High School where they abandoned 100% face-to-face teaching in KS5 for post-16 students and reinvested the resources in web designers and facilities in a conventional school. The difference made is breathtaking. Derek Wise Principal and a RATL mentor school comments that he wants to show these sort of radical changes can be achieved in a ‘normal’ school and to give others the confidence to follow their example. He also reflects on the powerful combination of what RATL does:

It is both transformative looking at new ways of teaching and learning and of organising schools while at the same time supporting people in the here and now to get better grades for their pupils.

Future challenges

Most students in most schools do as well as we expect. In some schools, they do better than we would expect – we can and should learn from them and recognise that there are still challenges to meet for the school system as a whole to be successful in raising achievement. This is what we are now calling the ‘Third wave of raising achievement’, and it will be about going further and developing a personalised curriculum for every student that responds to what they are good at and builds on that. Together we can take the risk out of these more radical developments, as many schools have already begun their journey and are learning key lessons that they are happy to share. This takes school transformation beyond merely doing what we do well now and requires imaginative combinations of strategy that link ethos, curriculum design, use of new technologies and building design with the clear purpose of enabling all students in all settings to maximise their achievement.

Sustaining and building — if you get the learning right all else follows

From the start, it is vital to commit to sustaining achievement. Andy Hargreaves identifies eight ways to do this – see the box right – which include much that resonates well with teachers and their experience. From the obvious comparisons of like with like to the need to focus on learning, if you get the learning right the results follow anyway. We can also see a link to what makes the short-term work, as he stresses the importance of identifying interim indicators of success when working on long-term change.

Leadership and culture are key

In the final analysis, leadership at all levels is the key catalyst. You may have the best vision, resources, buildings, but unless you have the right people you will never deliver. In the words of Jim Collins:

It doesn’t matter if you may discover the right direction – great vision without great people is irrelevant. (Good to great and the social sectors, Random House, 2006).

The converse is also true: with the right people almost anything is possible. There is a debate to be had on who the right people are and whether people can become the right people. Most schools are made up from a range of staff who can take on both positive and destructive roles. In some schools, the energysappers or blockers dominate. The challenge for leaders at all levels is to create a dominant culture where they do not dominate and to win hearts and minds. Enabling all students to achieve their potential is at the heart of the moral purpose of schooling and schools.

School-led improvement and change is both an energising and empowering process. It is schools and their staff that improve schools and together they who will truly transform our system as a whole.

Eight ways to sustained improvement

  • Establish correct validation — compare like with like
  • Develop sustainable growth rates
  • Be ethically consistent
  • Balance investments — focus on learning as well as on results
  • Prioritise planning — long-term considerations should precede the short-term ones on agendas
  • Broaden the vision — to truly personalise learning
  • Create intermediate indicators of longer term progress and monitor these along the way
  • Commit to shared targets

(Andrew Hargreaves, 2007, The long and short of school improvement, SSAT)

David Crossley, Director of Achievement Networks, Specialist Schools and Academies Trust For more details about RATL, see: www. schoolsnetwork.org.uk/achievement If yourself or your school is interested in finding out more about the programme and its associated Capturing Transformation Project, contact Graham Corbyn SSAT Head of Programmes responsible for RATL at: Specialist Schools and Academies Trust , 16th floor, Millbank Tower, 21–24 Millbank, London SW1P 4QP


Related case study:
We learn from a school where underachievement was being masked by overall good school performance, so to overcome this it redesigned its whole approach to teaching and learning — from creating a new vision statement for the school, and putting in place a specialised team of support staff, to overhauling the way it carried out assessment, and collaborating with other schools.