How did a new head turn Oxford Spires Academy round in just two years?
Its name may evoke scholarly tranquility, but under its previous identity, Oxford Spires was closed down for its poor results.
Richard Garner has been Education Editor of The Independent for 12 years and writing about the subject for 34 years. Before becoming a journalist, he worked as a disc jockey in London pubs and clubs and for a hospital radio station. His main hobbies are cricket (watching these days) and theatre. On his days off, he is most likelt to be found at Lord’s or the King’s Head Theatre Club.
Wednesday 10 April 2013
The very name of the school – Oxford Spires Academy –seems to conjure up an image of learning in a tranquil atmosphere in keeping with the university city in which it resides.
Indeed, it gets a lot of help in terms of mentoring for the pupils from the two universities nearby – Oxford and Oxford Brookes.
The reality, though, is very far from a plush secondary school with pupils being taken from a wealthier than average middle-class background.
For a start, more than 50 per cent of the school's 760 pupils have English as a second language. It takes in a fair number of asylum seekers – some of whom enter the country on their own from war-ravaged parts of the world.
In addition, the school has replaced a struggling secondary school – which was closed after it had become a "national challenge" school, needing extra help to meet the (previous) Government's minimum targets for GCSE passes.
It has made astonishing progress since it first opened as an academy – run by the CfBT chain – in January 2011, Despite having just four months to go before pupils sat their GCSEs, the school managed a 10 percentage point improvement in 2011 in the percentage of pupils obtaining five A*- to C- grade passes including maths and English.
Last year, the improvement was even more impressive, with the figure rising to 57 per cent.
"I think we would be one of the most improved schools in the country – if they measured it on just one year's performance," says the school's principal, Sue Croft. Unfortunately, they don't and she will have to wait until four years of exams before it can be considered for that.
Many of the pupils can still remember their days in the predecessor school. They now have smart new purple uniforms – designed by themselves, a competitive house system and prefects who are encouraged to help their younger pupils settle into "big school" during their first year.
The four houses are named after people with connections with Oxford: Roger Bannister – the first four-minute miler, Amelia Earhart, the American aviation pioneer, Mary Seacole, the black nurse whose name has just been retained by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, as part of the new history curriculum, and Professor J R R Tolkien, who – one student informed me – wrote The Hobbit and Lord of The Rings in an Oxford pub.
"There's a lot more structure to the school in terms of learning and extra curricular activities," says head girl Siobhan McCluskey. "Homework is set and you know what you have to do. With the house system, too, everybody know each other. It is most competitive, too."
Yes, she says, there were uniforms with the old school. "Everyone looked very scruffy, though," she adds.
"It was just a jumper," adds the school's head boy Tomos Davies, who has just secured a place at Birmingham University provided he gets two A grades and a B in his A-levels later this year. "You wore the jumper with a white T-shirt underneath. It didn't look particularly smart."
The new uniforms were introduced for the first day of the new academy and it was made clear that every pupil should be properly attired.
"I was very firm about that," says Mrs Croft. "If anybody didn't do what they were asked to, we said we would be monitoring it very carefully.
"Some students came in on day one and deliberately flouted the rules. We didn't let them into lessons until they'd got the right uniform on. It meant visits to Primark and Matalan and we came back with a lot of stuff – but we got there."
The stance paid off – and discipline in the school has vastly improved during the two years since the academy opened.
In the last year of the predecessor school, there were 105 pupils excluded with a resulting 394 days of education being lost. "It was like a conveyor belt for some children," she says. "They came back from exclusion and were off again."
The most recent figures show only 12 pupils being excluded with just 21 days education being lost. Mrs Croft is proud of the fact that only one child had to be excluded more than once.
The extracurricular activities include debating clubs – the school's club has managed to beat independent schools in interschool competitions.
On the day that I visit, Qasim Ali, aged 17, is arranging a talent show for the school, which will include 25 different acts involving music, drama and comedy.
"You can put up an idea to Mrs Croft and – if she likes it – you can go ahead with it," he says. "There will be people singing and dancing. It gets the whole school together."
If Mrs Croft has one regret about her first two years at the helm, it is that old reputations die hard. "People are prepared to believe the worst," she says. "They still link us to the old school."
As a result, pupil numbers have so far failed to rise – there are still just 760 pupils in a school that could hold 1,300 pupils.
A bright spot on the horizon, though, is that growing numbers of parents are putting Oxford Spires down as their first-choice school. The figures have gone up in the past three years from 55 to 71 to 97. In addition, the school's sixth form is attracting pupils from other schools in the city. From a perspective where the number of pupils in the year group for the first year in the sixth form shrank because students were not going on in full-time education after the age of 16, they rose from 120 to 125 last year.
The school is blessed with good sports facilities – although it has a rickety old cricket pavilion that looks as if it could do with a lick of paint. "The school was unloved," says Mrs Croft.
It will also soon gain a new building, with a new science block with 10 classrooms opening in October. The building will also house a new theatre for the school. (Drama is important, stresses Mrs Croft, as an emphasis on creativity can foster a love of learning in its pupils.)
Back to the name, though. Oxford Spires was chosen by the pupils for the new school. Mrs Croft believes it is the right one. "It gives the feeling of being aspirational" she says.
The proof that the school is living up to its name came in a monitoring visit by the school's improvement partner Peter Johnson, who was appointed in the wake of the critical verdict delivered by inspectors on its predecessor school.
This was just four months after it opened and was ahead of a full-blown inspection likely to take place any moment now.
In his report, Mr Johnson said: "The academy has made good progress overall and outstanding progress in increasing the attendance and improving the behaviour of students.
"Students consider the academy has improved in almost all respects. In particular they state that their relationships with teachers are much better, teaching is improving and is now more consistently good, students' behaviour is much improved and their motivation is higher."
Its results have got even better since then. Aspirational indeed.
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