At some schools, individual cases of underachievement can be masked by overall good performance. Liz Allen tells how her school in Bromley overcame this by redesigning its whole approach to teaching and learning

School context

Newstead Wood School for Girls is an 11–18 highly selective girls’ secondary school in the London Borough of Bromley. Its 7.5-mile catchment circle covers a wide, rich range of socio-economic and ethnic areas: 35% of students are from minority ethnic groups and more than 70% of our students will be the first of their families to enter higher education. The school is within the top 10 in national league tables and manages a very positive contextual value added (CVA) score (1,007 in 2006 and 1,009 in 2007), despite its selective intake. A total of 10% of students have a specific learning difficulty of a dyslexic nature; 30% have English as an additional language (EAL); about 20% have emotional behavioral difficulties (EBD) or other special educational needs (SEN). With able girls, special educational needs can be difficult to identify because, by the time they reach secondary school, they have developed masking and compensatory strategies. The leadership team comprises the headteacher, one deputy head, three assistant heads and a senior teacher leading the engineering specialism.
In 2001, when I was appointed headteacher, at first sight Newstead Wood School for Girls looked very successful. Every student attained five or more A*–C grades and Key Stage 3 and A-level results were equally strong.

However, there were clear indicators of underachievement. For example:

  • variation between subjects’ percentage at each GCSE grade
  • a ‘tail’ of C and D grades at GCSE in a few subjects
  • some U grades at A-level
  • continuous complaints from Year 10 students and their parents about the limited options at GCSE
  • similar complaints from students and staff at the lack of curriculum choice and time for AS-level.

This was a ‘success’ that needed redesigning, a difficulty faced by many schools where good performance masks whole-school underachievement. On the surface, the school was extremely successful, producing excellent exam results, employing very able and dedicated teachers, setting rigorous standards and offering excellent extracurricular and enrichment opportunities. The school’s approach at this stage is summarized in the box below. This was not a school that appeared to need to change and so change was not going to be easy.

Previous policy

The school’s policy had been to focus on a rigorous scientific curriculum for students at Key Stage 4, giving a high proportion of time to sciences and maths. So, students whose abilities lay elsewhere were not able to opt for many of their strong subjects and underperformed in science. The policy was heavily focused on attainment, measured regularly by teacher-marked tests, using a variety of grading methods. In-year results and reports were published in order of merit with an average for the year group, so students were ranked constantly. Teaching was content-driven and generally didactic in style, focusing on knowledge acquisition. Departments worked in isolation, working hard to raise standards in their own subjects, and were committed to getting the best results for their students. Competition between departments was seen as an incentive to keep results high. Although there were many highly committed and caring form tutors and four excellent heads of school, there was no comprehensive pastoral leadership strategy and behavior management was reactive.

Newstead had developed a superb enrichment and extracurricular program for its students but, in 2001, students had conflicting demands placed on their time and there were visible tensions. For example, should a pupil who is behind in her homework be performing in the school play?

Bringing about change

I could have been forgiven for simply ‘holding the fort’ for the next 10 years, rather than risking everything and instituting a program of radical, innovative development. However, I took the risk because superb teachers and able students were underachieving and unhappy and because I had the support of governors who gave me the opportunity to appoint a leadership team of immense capacity in my first 12 months as head.

The development plan was clearly sequenced in a tight timescale, as outlined here.

Development plan

  • Appoint school leaders in clearly defined roles, to lead on achievement strategies, including consulting on a revised curriculum that offers progression pathways through each key stage, with students able to make personal plans
  • Form a pastoral leadership team that has responsibility for individual students’ academic progress as well as for their personal development
  • Replace summative assessments with a formative assessment program, based on a robust student tracking system that monitors progress and informs students, who can then set appropriate targets for achievement
  • Redesign roles of middle managers to make them responsible for teaching and learning, achievement in their subjects, and committed to whole-school improvement
  • Consult on the school’s vision statement, ensuring that students have the loudest voice among the stakeholders
  • Develop a highly specialized support-staff team, able to provide the best possible information, administration and learning support for the students
  • Look outside of the school for opportunities to learn from others

Student voice was central to each development and pupils were the first to recognize that a shift was happening. In challenging moments, it was encouragement from students and the support of governors and the leadership group that kept us confident and on track. Each school leader had a specific area of responsibility to raise achievement as shown here.

Leaders’ responsibility for raising achievement

  • The deputy headteacher worked on curriculum redesign, student leadership, opportunities for enrichment and provision for the exceptionally able. Later, she led the school’s application for our engineering specialism. Her work on this and leading heads of department to share good practice and collaborate has been instrumental in raising achievement. Her understanding of able students’ learning has earned her a national reputation, especially for her input into the Institutional Quality Standards (IQS) for Gifted and Talented.
  • From 2005, the deputy headteacher led a working group that introduced radical deep learning. The working group revolutionized assessment. Self- and peer-assessment are now the norm. Students know the assessment objectives and success criteria required by each level or grade. They are confident, if critical, in assessing their own work and sensitive and supportive when assessing each other. They are independent learners, willing to take risks. The deep-learning reforms are among the most significant strategies that have raised achievement.
  • The assistant head who has responsibility for continuing professional development (CPD) and  teaching and learning pedagogy has been instrumental in raising achievement, despite having a particularly challenging brief. Encouraging teachers to change a style that has been successful for a long time requires skill and considerable ability. Through a thorough personal, team and whole-staff program over more than four years, teachers and support staff have been able to increase their understanding of learners’ dispositions and needs. This has enabled them to focus on learning rather than content, to have students leading learning rather than listening, using new technologies to resource learning and speed up data logging and analysis. New technologies are not employed for entertainment and engagement but only used if they enhance learning outcomes.
  • One of this assistant head’s most successful strategies has been the delivery of a leadership-coaching program. Following a successful pilot with two heads of department in 2005/06, the program has been rolled out to all team leaders, in four 1.5-hour twilight sessions in the spring term (main scale staff have six hours to commit to a personal development plan each year). The impact on students’ achievement is measurable, as team leaders become more skilled at getting the best from the development of their teams and at diagnosing and refining their assessment and target-setting systems.
  • The assistant head with responsibility for achievement and attainment introduced a progress measurement system in 2002/03. Students were very concerned that attainment measures did not show effort or progress and many found the assessment process demoralizing. The achievement program required students and teachers to discuss progress twice a year, recording the agreed outcomes on a database. The questions, such as, ‘Do I contribute to discussions?’, and  ‘Do I hand in my work on time?’, were a crude attempt to recognize the skills and competencies that the revised 2007 Key Stage 3 specification expects. Everyone struggled with the achievement measure but, after much trial and error, we found a pupil achievement and tracking system in 2004 that works for us — AIM High (from Cosby Clifton Computer Consultants — see: This assessment and reporting system can be customized to a school’s requirements. It is to the credit of the assistant headteacher that he was able to lead a data-wary staff to embrace AIM High and refine its use year-on-year, so tracking and target-setting are almost fine arts and have a consistently positive impact on raising achievement.
  • The assistant headteacher with responsibility for support was charged with creating a pastoral leadership strategy from almost a standing start. She had four heads of school, each responsible for two year groups (transition and Year 7, Years 8 and 9, Years 10 and 11, and sixth form). The form tutor’s role was undefined, more administrative, with no clear responsibility for students’ academic progress. Assistant heads of school were appointed to each year group, with specific responsibility for monitoring gifted and talented students’ progress. Academic tutorials were introduced in 2005 (once AIM High could provide the information). Held at the start of each term, students lead the 15-minute tutorial and set their own progress objectives. Prior to each academic tutorial, the pupil has a preparatory one-to-one discussion with each subject teacher to consider specific success strategies. The students record their objectives in their planners: they can be generic or subject specific. The assistant headteacher leads a continuous program of positive behavior management training. All behavior policies are positive and focus on what students can do. Pupils design award and recognition systems and review them regularly. Heads of school are accountable for each student’s progress and they are expected to intervene with specialized individual education plans (IEPs) as soon as a need is recognized. The impressive achievements of many students who find even being in school difficult and sometimes impossible, are outstanding, thanks to the pastoral leaders’ capacity to get parents, fellow pupils and teachers to work together on personalized support programs. The assistant head’s current development is the Sustainable Schools program.

Subject changes

While contextual factors are important to a plan’s success, two of our most successful programs to raise achievement are probably transferable in principle: reducing variation in science GCSE performance and reducing underachievement across GCSE subjects.

In 2003, the need to address comparatively poor performance in GCSE science was a priority. All students studied triple science and, despite having dedicated and well-qualified specialist teachers, students’ relative performance in all three sciences was low. Around 90% of incidents of poor behavior occurred in science lessons and the only parental complaints I received about the curriculum were about the compulsory triple science program that occupied 30% of curriculum time. Research among sixth-formers showed that 50% would have preferred to study the dual award, plus an additional option. Year 9 students were given the choice in their progression interviews and, in 2004, the first dual-science groups began. The additional option choice boosted numbers in history, geography and languages. The first GCSE results in 2006 demonstrated the success of the choice strategy:

  • the ‘tail’ of C and D results was virtually eradicated
  • triple science results improved considerably
  • A-level science numbers grew by about 10%, some coming from the dual-science course
  • the percentage of A/A* grades increased significantly in history, geography and languages.

Empowering students to design their personal study program was the key to improvement. Our current  improvement program is aimed at reducing underachievement to an acceptable minimum.

We know we cannot eliminate it because circumstances, such as illness, bereavement and emotional difficulties, can overwhelm a pupil. But we should be able to give an account in each case. The success of our program depends on the factors outlined in the box below.

Factors affecting success of program

  • Our professional skills to set appropriate target minimum grades that are based on well-established use of comparative data in each subject and every teacher’s thorough knowledge of each student’s capacity to improve.
  • Students’ knowing the assessment objectives in each subject and having regular opportunities to assess their work against the grade criteria.
  • Matching learning opportunities with the research outcomes and catering for the dispositions of able learners, particularly their preference for one-to-one discussion.
  • A student focus group for every subject that is in dialogue with the subject staff.
  • Team leaders’ sharing best practice in reducing underachievement. In 2007, one subject had no students underachieving and eight subjects had fewer than 15% of students underachieving. Continuing collaboration should get the general rate down to an acceptable 10% within two years.
  • The rigorous scrutiny of targets, monitoring of performance and evaluation of outcomes by team leaders’ line managers, who comprise the leadership group.

Unexpected impact

The last three priorities in the initial school development plan (see the box right) have had a far greater impact on raising achievement than I envisaged at the outset. These were: consulting on the school’s vision statement, ensuring that students have the loudest voice among stakeholders developing a highly specialized support staff team, able to provide the best possible information, administration and learning support for the students looking outside of the school for opportunities to learn from others.

Consulting on our vision

When I initiated a year-long consultation on the school’s mission in September 2001, many stakeholders believed it to be a banal exercise that would distract from our core purpose — maintaining our league table position — and would risk a drop in standards. In my first headship, I had learned to recognize the efficacy of a shared moral purpose that built community cohesion through valuing and nurturing the individual, in particular, through one-to-one conversations. In the light of that experience, I was determined to press on with the mission consultation. Students were asked:

  • ‘Who do you want to be by the time you leave the school?’
  • ‘What do you need from the school to help you to achieve?’

Parents, staff and governors also answered these questions (see box below).

Consultation answers

  • Students did want excellent academic outcomes, but not for personal gain. They could use their knowledge to improve their world. Young people need causes.
  • They wanted to develop their social and leadership skills, to communicate with peers and adults and to be more active in the school’s development.
  • They wanted to become confident, independent learners through more active learning experiences.
  • Above all, they wanted to become ready to move into the worlds of higher education and work, confident to take every opportunity that came along and ready to make a difference.
  • Parent, staff and governor responses were generally in line with students’ although some parents did not want their daughters to be given too much leadership responsibility.

By May 2002, representatives from each stakeholder group were ready to draft an agreed mission statement: it was a Year 11 student who scribed on the day and her version has remained in use, unaltered for five years. It forms the narrative for the school prospectus, which has carefully selected images to enhance the text. Every three years, the mission statement goes through a rigorous consultation process to ensure that every policy and procedure matches its aims and to consider any revision that may be necessary to help the school to improve its practices. Improvements have ranged from alterations to the uniform to a major revision of the school’s rewards program and the addition of new courses at both GCSE and A-level. Through the constant attention to our mission, the school’s core purpose has become the care for the individual, so that she is ready to make her difference both while she is at school and throughout her adult life. The impact on achievement was very quick. As soon as the students realized that their recommendations led to actions, they became much more engaged in all aspects of their school, particularly in their learning. Their confidence grew through the acknowledgement of their achievements, the success of their strategies for improvement and the growing opportunities to take on leadership roles. The focus on mission has prepared the school for its current development — co-construction and the sustainable schools program.

Curriculum support

In 2004, every school began developing its workforce and a staff working group consulted on a most effective support staff structure that plays a powerful role in supporting students’ best achievement. Many of the posts will be common to all schools: one may be more unusual. The school has a team of curriculum support assistants (CSAs) who work for each subject team leader — 18 have the support of a CSA. The hours vary, from 10 hours per week for each of the core subjects to one or two hours per week for an A-level subject. The CSAs need to be specialists in the subject area because their primary role is to research and produce resources for teachers’ use and to support senior pupils when researching their coursework. CSAs assist in the recording of pupils’ progress data and may produce analysis for subject staff. They are a great asset to the school, beyond their CSA role — the majority are graduates with considerable professional experience from non-educational careers. The workforce has been enriched beyond the scope of their role.

Collaboration challenge

The final priority — to look outside of the school for opportunities to learn from and with others — was one of the biggest challenges we faced, yet it has raised achievement significantly. In 2005, the climate was still competitive between schools and sharing good practice was not the norm. It was a high-risk strategy for a selective school that felt safer keeping its head down. Now, we have to consider restructuring the leadership group by making an assistant head role into a second deputy and by adding more senior leadership roles, to build in greater capacity as the school’s local, national and international networks expand. The box below outlines some of the processes involved.

Expanding national and international networks

  • Gaining specialist status as an engineering college in 2007 made us produce a community action plan. We are diligent in making sure that it receives 40% of specialism revenue each year. Activities with local primary and secondary schools have multiplied and each one provides enhanced opportunities for our students to lead and achieve.
  • Engaging with the diploma development at national and local level has led to the school leading a successful Engineering Gateway and to the offer of Level 2 and Level 3 at Newstead from September 2008. Many colleagues are withholding judgement on the diploma but, because  I did not like what I was hearing in the early development days, I wanted to act responsibly. With a fellow engineering college headteacher serving with me on the Engineering Diploma Development Panel, I am sure that we have helped to make it a valuable addition to accredited courses.
  • We took every opportunity to engage with organizations that specialize in gifted and talented education. The deputy headteacher’s knowledge and experience quickly ensured a link with the then DfES gifted and talented unit: the relationship has generated many opportunities for teachers and students. Work with the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth (NAGTY) and NACE has enhanced the opportunities even further. As a consequence, our most able pupils’ achievements have risen and we are continually hosting visits from national and international educationalists who wish to learn from our practice. We cannot provide them with a blueprint for success but we describe our strategies for learner engagement and leadership and the risks we take. The more we describe them, the more we learn from their questions and the more we refine our strategies.
  • Research was by far the most powerful instrument of improved student achievement. Since 2002, the assistant head (CPD) has coordinated a program of research. Teachers are supported, with time and funding in some cases, to pursue their own research; the school also identifies areas that need research to inform policy. For example, in 2002, I was concerned that students new into our sixth form were not achieving as well as expected. They might have been unprepared for the step up to A-level study, finding the faster pace of a selective school too challenging or have chosen an inappropriate set of subjects. The opportunity to conduct the research was advertised internally and I was delighted with the response. The teacher-researcher had a university supervisor and the final report has been helpful to us, to the four other schools who participated in the research and to a wider audience through a dissemination program. The report shows that the primary factor for underachievement is probably more to do with the step up to A-level than to a change of school and it has helped refine our transition process.

Larger research projects have had considerable impact on our students’ achievement and on the achievements of many other young people. In particular, an independent/state school partnership was launched in 2004, led by Sue Mordecai, now president of the National Association for Able Children in Education (NACE), and Hilary Lowe from Oxford Brookes University. The research explored learning dispositions of exceptionally able girls — factors that help them to achieve and that hinder their learning. As with our mission statement consultations, the answers of students and teachers did not always match. However, I was very pleased to learn that the match was relatively close at Newstead, where teachers were developing their understanding of able girls’ learning needs at a good pace. It would be difficult to underestimate the impact of the research:

  • it accelerated pupil voice developments, preparing us for co-construction
  • it enhanced good relationships between students and teachers
  • it sped up deep learning developments so that I am confident that assessment really is for learning at Newstead
  • it improved our personalization strategies because students are confident to negotiate their learning pathways, particularly at key progression points
  • it hastened the development of the academic tutorial as the student’s forum for discussing personal targets
  • it gave us the opportunity to support the achievement of able pupils wherever the research has been read.

There have been doubts expressed about the value of independent/state school partnerships. For us, it was an opportunity for our students and teachers to work together on a very professional and highly relevant research project.

Responding to opportunity
On the school’s development journey, we have been open and receptive to opportunities that have arisen outside of our planned program. Being flexible and responsive are signs of an organization that accepts that change happens. I recognize that it is not easy and that teachers require constant reassurance but, once evidence of successful change accrues, they can approach the next opportunity with greater confidence.

Opportunities for improving students’ achievement are coming from our successful application to be a Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) regional development and research hub for deep leadership, allowing us to continue to develop our student leadership strategy that includes:

  • a senior student school development team that contributes to self-evaluation and the setting of school development priorities
  • continuing to develop peer and cross-phase academic mentoring, including students as tutors in the school’s extended services program
  • the Eco School Council’s restructuring to lead the Sustainable Schools’ ‘eight doorways’ (Sustainable Schools is a program of whole-child development, focusing on care for self, care for others and care for the environment; the eight doorways include energy and waste, travel, and transport, with the last three being about personal development — inclusion and participation, wellbeing and global dimension, and responsibility).

Newstead was designated a high performing specialist school (HPSS) in 2007 and we are preparing to develop languages as our second specialism. This gives us a further opportunity to raise achievement across the curriculum through sharing expertise within and beyond the school.

Ongoing journey

Two Ofsted inspections, in 2002 and 2007, have acknowledged our determination to seek further improvement, despite our students’ high attainment. Our mission keeps us very focused on our core purpose — to create a secure, stimulating environment in which every pupil can grow in confidence, able to make decisions that are right for them and to take on responsibility for others and the environment.

We are aware that we must keep on learning if we are to be able leaders of learning. At least once a year, we bring in a leading educationalist to work with us. This year, for the first time, our senior students joined teachers, governors and parents to our session on transforming learning with Professor John West-Burnham.

Nine gateways for change

  • Curriculum
  • Advice and guidance
  • Assessment for learning
  • Learning to learn
  • School organisation and design
  • Workforce development
  • New technologies (ICT)
  • Mentoring
  • Student voice

We have been in step with David Hargreaves’ nine gateways for change (see the box, above), four ‘deeps’ (learning, experience, support and leadership) and have 14 of the 20 ‘reconfigurations of system redesign’ in our practice (see iNet’s Personalized learning), especially in the increasing opportunities for student leadership and the exciting prospects in co-construction.

Our pupils will make sure  there is every opportunity for achievement in the school.

Liz Allen, Headteacher, Newstead Wood School for Girls, Bromley, London

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