Blake Technology College has gone from ‘challenging circumstances’ to achieving the NACE Challenge Award for G&T education. Lesley Griggs describes the improvements to teaching and learning and the approach to G&T provision in the school which led to this success

Blake Valley Technology College in Staffordshire achieved the National Association for Able Children in Education (NACE) Challenge Award in September 2005. During the preceding two years much work had taken place at the school to improve learning and teaching. The school, situated in an area of deprivation, has always had a higher number of students on the SEN register than the national average and although recognised for its excellent work with its SEN students, Blake Valley had resided at the wrong end of the league tables in Staffordshire for many years. At the time of my appointment in 1999 the school achieved 16% 5A*-Cs. The school was placed into ‘challenging circumstances’ in 2001. In September 2002, however, a new headteacher and senior leadership team provided the catalyst for change. The ethos within the school put a much greater emphasis on learning and teaching and this ultimately lead to a remarkable change in fortunes.

Learning and teaching at Blake Valley

Resources were ploughed into improving learning and teaching. Two training days were presented by eminent educational professionals, Alistair Smith and Paul Ginnis. Their passion for learning and teaching was contagious and provided further enthusiasm for improvement. The trainers provided examples of exciting teaching methodologies and good practice. Departments were given time and resources to review learning and teaching strategies. The emphasis changed to sharing good practice. A series of peer observations succeeded in giving teachers a wider view of what was taking place across departments. The school has a learning coach who can assist staff. In their teaching, staff cater for the range of learning styles, assisting students to achieve their potential. In some subject areas students are offered the opportunity to fast-track or take additional GCSEs. The change in emphasis proved to be successful with Ofsted recognising the school as ‘rapidly improving’ in December 2003. How could school keep up the momentum of positive change?

Curriculum enrichment days

The curriculum was one area in need of development. The senior leadership team re-organised the traditional school week and introduced curriculum enrichment days (CEDs). CEDs take place every Friday. The normal timetable is collapsed and there is a separate timetable. Fridays run as a continental day from 8.30 until 1.30 with staff teaching one group all day. The benefits for learning and teaching are numerous. Time is not wasted at lesson change-overs. Such days allow for more variety in lessons – planning must be thorough and varied to sustain engagement over such a period of time. CEDs also allow for the provision of different learning styles and the inclusion of multiple intelligences. They make it possible for a topic, scheme or coursework assignment to be completed in one day. The additional benefit is that if a teacher is not timetabled on a Friday then you do not teach all day! Staff teach approximately 31 out of 38 Fridays. A non-contact Friday allows for improved departmental planning, preparation and team-building. The evaluation of the success of CEDs considered many aspects. Attendance and behaviour were much improved on Fridays as lessons were more engaging and provided better motivation for all students. In the first year the GCSE results showed a marked improvement. In August 2004 Blake Valley received its best ever results – 50% 5A*-C at GCSE, an increase of 34% in five years. Blake Valley became a member of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust’s (SSAT) ‘most improved’ club. Although there was a slight drop in results in 2005 and 2006 ‘value-added’ was still among the best in Staffordshire. In 2007 Blake Valley achieved 70% 5A*-C – an amazing improvement.

Gifted and talented at Blake Valley

At Blake Valley we pride ourselves on the provision we have in place for our G&T students and constantly strive to improve it. There is a register of G&T students. Students can be placed on the register for a number of reasons – SATs and GCSE results and Midyis and Yellis data are used, in addition to staff, peer and parental nominations against agreed criteria. In composing the register we recognise that students develop at different times and at different speeds. It is for this reason that students can be included in, or indeed removed from, the register at any time. There is also a comprehensive extra-curricular programme to support our G&T students. Students who are eligible for admission to NAGTY are included in a programme of mentoring. They are given the opportunity to share examples of good work they have completed and express any concerns they have. Students also complete a learning styles questionnaire. This enables students to understand how they learn best and how to manage best when their particular learning style is not being catered for. Students complete an EEP (exceptional education plan) giving targets for the year. The talent areas also offer much support to their students. There is a regular programme of sporting, musical, dramatic and artistic activities on offer. Students frequently participate in sports practices and matches. Students from Blake Valley have also coached pupils from our local primary feeder schools, helping them to improve their skills in a number of sports. Students attending the art clubs have produced work of such a high quality that they have been asked to provide artwork for local businesses. Music and drama students have staged performances of ‘Songs from the Shows’, ‘Guys and Dolls’ and ‘Grease’ during recent years. Students are given the opportunity to visit institutions of further education. Blake Valley has excellent links with New College, Oxford. Students in years 12, 10 and 9 have visited the college to participate in open days and aspiration days. Students have also visited Cambridge University, Birmingham University and Keele University to participate in their outreach events. Student voice is an integral part of the G&T programme. Students have assisted in auditing G&T provision. They have had discussions with the local authority adviser, inspectors and visitors to the school. The students have impressed on many occasions with their ability to speak about educational matters. Students are also able to express their views via the school and sports councils.

The NACE Challenge Award

The NACE Challenge Award provides examples of good practice in G&T education. NACE is an association dedicated to G&T. However, the Challenge Award seeks to promote excellence in learning and teaching at whole-school level. The Challenge Award is a self-evaluation framework, presented with a folder and supporting documents (available by subscription). The framework has 10 elements, each divided into sub-sections. The elements include whole-school strategies, identification, target setting, learning styles and teaching strategies, resources and systems for monitoring and review. As coordinator it was my role to collate documentation from departments under the headings of the elements in the Challenge Award folder. The award can be achieved following a rigorous assessment. Following an audit of current provision I had a good overview of G&T provision within the school. There was a lot of good practice taking place across the school, but with no previous coordination, departments were working in isolation. With a more cohesive approach and a higher profile, G&T, with learning and teaching at its heart, took off in the school. The NACE Challenge Award assessment is undertaken in two parts by two accredited assessors. The first part of the assessment is a half-day inspection of the evidence provided in the Challenge Award folder and a discussion with the G&T coordinator. The folders are then taken away by the assessors for further consideration. If this part of the assessment is successful, schools proceed to a one-day inspection. The assessors observe a wide range of lessons of all abilities and key stages. A thorough scrutiny of work takes place. There are also interviews with staff, students, governors and parents. At Blake Valley the assessment day was a Friday, a curriculum enrichment day. The assessment would be short but thorough. The assessors (both accredited by NACE, with one being an Ofsted inspector) were especially impressed by Blake Valley’s students and the pride they had in the school. They thought that we had rehearsed interviews with the students such was the fluency of their responses. It was only when the assessors moved away from their normal questions that they realised that the students were able to articulate their own views about their education. The report received by the school stated that it was ‘cool to be clever’ at Blake Valley Technology College – the highest praise. Other strengths identified by the report included the commitment to improving provision for all students, the excellent ethos valuing achievement and striving for excellence and assessment for learning.

The Challenge Award and the National Quality Standards
Confusingly, there are now two self-evaluation frameworks at the disposal of schools who wish to examine their provision of gifted and talented teaching – the NACE Challenge Award and the National Quality Standards (NQS – produced by the DCSF). Although the frameworks are different, they are working towards the same goal – to improve standards in G&T education. My recommendation would be to evaluate provision using the NQS, using the supporting documents of the Challenge Award to make improvements. One of the supporting documents helps to compare the 10 NACE Challenge Award elements with the 14 NQ Standards. If schools are finding that they can meet the requirements of the NQS they will also be well on their way to the successful achievement of the NACE Challenge Award.

NACE and its Challenge Award NACE (The National Association for Able Children in Education) is a charity, established in 1984, whose purpose is to support the daily work of teachers providing for pupils with high abilities whilst enabling all pupils to flourish. The association develops and exchanges strategies for effective practice; provides professional responses to issues affecting education of able children and advice to government agencies. It undertakes development projects with partner organisations, local education authorities and groups of schools and provides professional expertise, advice, training and consultancy services, conferences, events, publications and resources.

The Challenge Award
This framework is a whole-school self-evaluation tool and process which allows an in-depth analysis of provision with exemplification of evidence and action planning to improve. The framework consists of 10 elements which together describe quality provision. Each element contains objective criteria and suggested evidence of what constitutes effective practice. It not only gives benchmarks but, with the supporting documents, shows you how to improve.

Lesley Griggs is the lead practitioner for gifted and talented for the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust in the East Midlands and district leading teacher for gifted and talented in Staffordshire