Restructuring the curriculum can enhance personalised learning, risk taking, creativity and Key Stage 3 and 4 results, as Mo Laycock, Headteacher, Firth Park Community Arts College, reports

Firth Park is the pilot extended school for Sheffield and is open from 7am–9pm daily for students and adult and community learning. We are also open in the  holidays and at many weekends for focused student learning workshops and family learning weekends. The arts specialism and extended school initiatives have positively affected our school in relation to a belief in learning, community profile and raising self-esteem, self-confidence and aspirations.

From 1969 to 2000, Firth Park ran as a split-site school. The school sites were 1.5 miles apart; students and staff had to travel two or three times daily between sites using buses and cars. This proved to be problematic for improving the school and raising expectations (see School Context, below). We moved to the lower-school site with new buildings and a refurbishment to the original building in September 2000.

Between 1995 and 2000 we tried hard to improve results at Key Stages 3 and 4 but maintained the national curriculum ‘one-size-fits-all’ structure. We initiated considerable support for students, such as academic mentoring, better use of data and meetings with parents. At the same time, there was a radical review of staffing and many new staff were appointed.

School context
Firth Park Community Arts College is a school in challenging circumstances, situated in the Sheffield Brightside political ward (the area portrayed in the film The Full Monty). In 2002, we achieved status as a specialist performing arts school. We have 1,380 students on roll, aged 11–16. Our standard number is 273 per year group, but we are now regularly oversubscribed in Year 7, going to 280 on appeals. The year groups are divided into 10 forms on entry.

We have enjoyed 11 years of continuous success at Key Stage 4, having 41% of students achieving five or more A*–C GCSEs in 2006. Our target for 2007 is 45–47%, with 25% attaining English and maths.

We have 47% of students on the SEN register for learning or emotional behavioural difficulties; 26% of students come from black and ethnic minorities, many of whom are refugees or asylum seekers. On entry, approximately one-third of the Year 7 cohort has attainment below Level 3, many significantly below, requiring specialist intervention and withdrawal from lessons to improve literacy skills for access to the curriculum. The local area is mostly social housing and there is a history of early parenting. Free school meals uptake is 32%. The local community has second- and third-generation unemployment, parochial attitudes and low expectations. Of 1,000 parents at our school, just four went to university.

Creative overhaul
We crawled slowly to 21% attainment of more than five A*–C GCSEs by 2001. Changes in the senior leadership team (SLT) from 1999 to 2000 helped us to consider creatively our KS4 provision. It was clear from our intake and poor attendance rates in KS4, that the ‘one-size-fits-all’ diet was inappropriate for the bulk of our students.

From September 2000, we restructured KS4 into five learning pathways, differentiated in relation to ability, and we engaged in a review of each student’s data in Year 9, prior to one-to-one meetings with each student, led by middle/senior leaders. Students were recommended to take one of the five pathways during these meetings. We followed up a week later with a meeting with student and parents, prior to the Year 9 option evening.

Pathways one and two are for more able and motivated students, allowing them access to various GCSEs, both core and selected, as well as GNVQ and BTEC courses. Pathways three and four invest heavily in vocational learning and offsite education at Sheffield College and other training providers. Pathway five, for 15 to 20 vulnerable and weak students, focuses on key skills, Asdan and offsite learning.

The Key Stage 4 pathways model is refined each year. We have Year 9 student data on computers, showing CATs scores on entry, internal assessments and KS2 SATs results. The data leads to a colour-coded pathway – red and green for pathways one and two, yellow for pathway three, blue for pathway four and purple for pathway five. This is linked to an investment in time with each Year 9 student, regarding their individual learning plan. Students continue with academic mentoring on a one-to-one basis and, over the past six years, we have ensured that data is used smartly and consistently throughout the school.  Creativity at KS3 is evidenced by our two Year 7 and two Year 8 special classes, taught for 12 lessons weekly by one of four primary teachers appointed at Firth Park.

There is also a learning-to-learn strategy in humanities and the arts. We have a target-setting day annually in October, where parents and child meet a key member of staff to consider strengths and weaknesses and agree targets for improvements. A review day follows in March each year. All targets are recorded in student planners and with all staff.

This model of differentiated learning pathways has been pivotal in Firth Park moving through the 20–30% range of students achieving more than five A*–C GCSEs in five years, leading us to 41% in 2006. The model will be refined again in 2007 and is resource heavy regarding staff, offsite education, supervision of students offsite and exam fees.

Embedding creativity
Since becoming a specialist performing arts school, we have also developed arts and creativity across the curriculum. This feeds into all subject areas and has been the focus of training days, continuing professional development (CPD) and twilight Insets.

We have a non-negotiable framework for lessons, to aid consistency in teaching and learning. This is a four- or five-part lesson plan that includes objectives and aims, two or three active teaching and learning components and a plenary from the students, related to the initial objectives.

Framework for lessons

    • Aims and objectives – what we are learning today
    • Reviewing and connecting the learning – what we did last lesson
    • Lessons chunked into two or three component parts, with an emphasis on arts, creativity and groupwork
    • Active methodologies
    • Plenary – what we learned today – from the student, not the teacher

This framework is underpinned with consistency in the areas of creative and risk-taking learning strategies and our whole school arts strategy.

 Areas of consistency underpinning lesson framework

    • Assessment for learning strategies
    • Deep questioning
    • Rewards and praise
    • Exemplar materials displayed of KS3 Level 5 and 6 work and GCSE A*–C work
    • A non-negotiable behaviour-for-learning policy based on a sequence of consequences from one to four
    • Investment in information and communications technology (ICT); training and support; interactive whiteboards in many classrooms; projectors in all classrooms; faculty wireless laptops in modern foreign languages, science and maths
    • Consistent high-quality displays in all corridors, reminding staff and students of our expectations and celebrating that we believe Firth Park is fantastic
    • Arts-staff support, artists in residence and theatre groups linked with schemes of work, such as geography and a Year 8 environmental issues topic, launched with a theatre group and an interactive session for the year group
    • Lead lesson in all faculties using the learning resource centre/school hall; a lead practitioner introducing to students and colleagues a lead lesson that is ICT based
    • Self-review, monitoring quality and standards on a termly basis, involving all staff
    • A team of four teaching and learning coaches work with our assistant headteacher, a shared post with another local secondary school, to promote further creativity and risk-taking strategies with faculties and key staff
    • A learning to learn/emotional literacy strategy within humanities and with two special Year 7 and 8 groups annually

Some of the many excellent examples of creativity across the curriculum were seen at our ‘celebration of learning’ evening for parents, governors and visitors in March 2007. Year 7 history students presented an interactive game on ‘was King John a good or bad king?’ This involved the audience in feedback and students in role. A maths teacher had been working with the visual arts department, studying the work of the artist Escher. In maths classes, Year 8 students worked on tessellations and produced a PowerPoint presentation of their work, linked to Escher. In English, students in Year 9 worked with an artist in residence on the set KS3 SATs text Much Ado About Nothing. Students studied the text by going into role and enacting the text through drama. This helped them understand the characters more fully.

Currently, all of these developments and initiatives take place within a traditional secondary school building. As we are oversubscribed and have long narrow corridors and difficult stairwells, we have little, if any, space for more creative use of the building. However, from September 2007, as part of the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) Pathfinders Project in Sheffield, Firth Park will acquire the following new creative facilities:

    • A new sports hall/dance studio and covered walkway
    • Three new first-floor classrooms and personalised spaces for learning adjacent to these bases
    • New staircase from the ground to the first floor, allowing us to isolate a wide music and arts corridor for personalised learning
    • New information and communications technology base for up to 50 students
    • Media/film and digital technologies, area with state of the art facilities and resources

Key role of staff
The staffing in the school has also been radically overhauled. Our current teaching staff numbers 91, of whom 69 have been appointed by the headteacher since 1995. We have a large majority of young and enthusiastic staff who have bought into our culture and aims. They are complemented by 22 more experienced and outstanding staff, who have been at Firth Park for many years.

We are very proud of the team spirit and support ethos at Firth Park, from all staff, teaching and non-teaching. We hold weekly CPD meetings, Insets and training on key areas of development, such as Assessment for Learning strategies, which are embedded in all lessons. Brain gym is used as a lesson starter activity. All exams have a 30-minute warm-up session with bananas, water, nuts and raisins to lift energy rates, followed by quick-fire questions and answers and a self-esteem/’go-for-it’ final five minutes. Teaching and learning coaches work alongside staff to model creative and risk-taking learning strategies for all staff, led by the two deputy headteachers.

We have ensured creative learning and risk-taking strategies in all lessons by:

  • engaging teaching and learning coaches
  • arts staff working alongside other specialist staff in modifying and reviewing schemes of work
  • prioritising and focusing on one or two changes in teaching and learning practice on a termly basis after the weekly CPD sessions.

Competencies approach
Due to the community from which our intake comes at Year 7, we will struggle to go much beyond 50% achievement of at least five A*–C GCSEs in the future. Our KS2–4 contextual value added score for the school is excellent, but less positive at KS2–3. This has focused our minds over the last 18 months.

During 2005/06, all members of the SLT and some middle leaders researched other schools that were adopting a creative approach to the KS3 curriculum. We felt it was imperative to move to a more differentiated curriculum in KS3, underpinned by literacy, linguistics, self-esteem and learning to learn. This research was important to us (as was the consultation) as it is clear that a school cannot simply graft on to the school the work of others, no matter how effective. We gave feedback on the research to staff via CPD sessions.

In October 2006, having decided to adopt the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts ‘Opening Minds’ competencies curriculum to plan and implement for September 2007, we held a training-day event for all staff. We also engaged in SLT training with a consultant from Opening Minds and reviewed the work of the 14 pilot schools using this approach.

In readiness for September 2007, we appointed three outstanding primary practitioners to teach English and maths at KS3 only. We have appointed two more for September 2007, as the competencies curriculum is underpinned by best-practice primary-school strategies. We asked for staff to volunteer into a working group to develop the competencies curriculum and the thematic approach to learning. We were delighted that 16 staff, teaching and non-teaching, volunteered their support.

The competencies curriculum will be taught by highly effective teachers, including our four primary-trained staff. In September 2007, the first focus will be on a learning-to-learn approach, ensuring that all Year 7 students understand learning styles, how they learn best, mnemonics to help with memorising facts, words, details and organisational issues regarding learning. From here, we will engage in themed projects. The first of these will be Sheffield based – me in Firth Park, my family, friends and primary school. The second will spread wider – me in Firth Park, Shiregreen (our local community) and Sheffield. This will involve the history of Sheffield, steel making, the cultures that make up Sheffield, business and industry today. External speakers on local history, business and industry will have input into lessons. Students will also visit Graves Park Museum and Kelham Island Museum.

The third themed project will be about Sheffield in the global world and international links. Students will keep a portfolio of work, including their best work for presentations and assessment regarding competencies (independent learning, teamwork, research and PowerPoint presentations). Five other half-termly themes will follow. Our Deputy Headteacher Chris Keen is leading this, working with two groups of eight personnel on the competencies approach. Group one is involved in developing materials, themes and resources. Group 2 is the monitoring group. In Year 7, we are taking eight lessons per week out of 30 for this approach in September 2007. The decision as to where the lessons came from was problematic, but has finally been agreed via consultation. We are taking:

  • five from humanities (two geography, two history, one religious education)
  • one from English
  • one from modern foreign languages
  • one from drama.

Students in Year 7 will be taught the competencies curriculum for eight lessons weekly by one teacher who must be an enthusiastic and highly effective practitioner. The important change of mindset is to accept that we are teaching competencies and learning experiences focused on literacy, linguistic skills, self-esteem, peer cooperation, social skills and learning how to learn. The national curriculum is not a factor in the competencies approach, although aspects may be cross-referenced.

Students will be taught for the eight lessons in one base, their ‘competencies classroom’, with their work displayed, all having portfolios of their work as the theme develops over the six-week period.

Research in other schools demonstrates that this approach not only aids learning progress but also helps with transition issues, peer friendships, being settled and confident, reduces poor behaviour and reduces student movement for lessons, which is often very confusing for new Year 7 students.

The model assures continuity of the approach in Years 8 and 9, with two lessons continuing each week. We have agreed that our competencies curriculum will be a pathways development and differentiated.

Breakdown of groups for competencies curriculum
Group 1: Gifted and talented students. Level 5 KS2 SATs, approximately 23 above average students

  • Groups 2–6: 22 students per group at Level 4 KS2 SATs in English, maths and science
  • Groups 7–8: students approaching Level 4
  • Groups 9–10: students at Level 3c or below
  • Groups 11–13: very small, focused special education needs (SEN) groups

The competencies curriculum would be broken down for Year 7, with differentiation continuing in Year 8. For example, group 1 will have early entry into KS3 SATs at the end of Year 8 and KS4 in Years 9 and 10. Links with Longley Park Sixth Form College in Year 11 for A/S-level courses in critical thinking and extra GCSEs/BTECs. This model ensures a differentiated approach to progress, based on students’ abilities. We have encountered a number of issues with implementing the competencies curriculum.

Issues for implementing competencies curriculum

    • All staff need to be on board with this radical approach to KS3
    • Consultation has begun with our four main feeder primary schools
    • We need to consult with Year 6 parents in April/May 2007 and convince them of the worth of this model
    • The planning and review group for the competencies curriculum will have quality time out of school to train and prepare materials for September 2007 between January and May 2007
    • There is a big investment required in staff training between May and July 2007 regarding the first two or three themes and ensuring resources are ready
    • It is highly desirable to have volunteer staff from English, maths, science, modern foreign languages, humanities, design and technology and arts in the planning and review groups
    • The Year 7 planning moves us from 10 groups to 13 smaller differentiated groups. This will be resource and staffing heavy and has budget implications, yet this is our priority for the next two to three years

Taking stock
Our action plan for this KS3 development is shown on page 10. It is vital that the pathways model/differentiated curriculum and personalised learning start at Year 7 in secondary schools and takes account of the excellent practice of many primary practitioners. Models such as this enhance standards and reduce the Year 7 transition dip. Over the next five years, rigorously monitored, we believe this will allow us to achieve 60% of students leaving with five or more A*–C GCSEs, leaving us with a positive post-16 future and a continuing belief in lifelong learning.

Mo Laycock, Headteacher, Firth Park Community Arts College, Sheffield