The write stuff: How Unity Academy transformed its students' literacy skills

A few years ago, Unity Academy didn't even have a library. Now other schools visit to find out how its students' literacy skills have been transformed, reports Richard Garner

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The Independent Online

Dylan Wright has just completed his first novel at the tender age of 12. It's a 53-page science fiction story that he beavered away at during breaks, lunchtimes and after school. Now his school, the Unity Academy in Middlesbrough, is helping him to publish it online with a grant of around £100.

At 13, Declan Gilgannon is a year older – and a budding entrepreneur who is just starting up his own business with some friends selling playing cards, again with the aid of his school. The idea came to him on New Year's Eve when he was giving a show as a magician – something else he dabbles in out of school.

He realised that all the playing cards he had seen had been manufactured in the United States and he thought "it would be cheaper if they were manufactured in the UK". Now he plans to sell them to a range of outlets, including fellow magicians and schools, which could use them to interest pupils in maths lessons.

It was not always like this at the Unity Academy, one of the first three academies to be set up under Labour's stab at the programme a decade ago.

Unity was the product of merging two comprehensive schools in the then predominantly white, working-class area of East Middlesbrough. These were "two of the most challenging schools in the area," according to the present principal of Unity, Patricia Towey. For several years, it still failed as an academy.

The percentage of pupils obtaining five A* to C-grade passes (in the days before maths and English passes were considered compulsory to rank in the league tables) was just 2 per cent at the time of the merger. One teacher observed at the time: "Thank God for rounding up – it gave us 2 per cent."

Now the figure is 98 per cent – 48 per cent if maths and English are included. In addition, it was one of the few schools to see a rise in English last year – the year when the C-grade boundaries were raised just before the bulk of pupils sat the exam – to hit 50 per cent for the first time.

It achieved that, according to John Wray, the school's director of learning – responsible for English and literacy – because it did not just push the pupils to the point where they would have converted a borderline D/C pass into a C grade. They aimed higher. Ms Towey says: "It took a long time to move on from what is now ancient history to the modern history we are now creating. We've changed from 'I wouldn't dare [do that]' to 'I would dare'."

Literacy was the key to setting off on the road to success. After years of reports from education-standards watchdog Ofsted talking of failure and delivering the academy with a notice to improve, it was finally awarded with a good ranking in all areas in the most recent report published last month.

On average, 85 per cent of pupils were at least one year behind their average reading age when they arrived at the newly opened Unity – and 17 per cent were four of five years behind, which meant they were arriving at secondary school with a reading age of just six or seven. Only 5 per cent had a reading age of above their years.

The situation was compounded because text books for other subjects assumed a reading age of 13. There was one year when not a single child arriving at the school had the ability to understand or work with their science textbooks, one teacher recalls. "If you're unable to access the curriculum and you're faced with a science book you don't understand, you don't want to look stupid," says Mr Wray. "You switch off and become naughty."

He recalls being interviewed for his English post at Unity and asking at the end of the process about the school's library facilities. "There isn't one," he was told.

It became the first school in the country to pioneer the accelerated reader programme offered by an organisation called Renaissance Learning across the whole of its age range. The reading scheme has since been taken up by many other schools and Renaissance Learning says many report pupils improving their reading age by two years in a 12-month period.

Now, rather than receive adverse publicity as a result of its low ranking in league tables, the school has other academies flocking to its door to see how it masterminded its literacy drive. It involved assessing the pupils when they arrived to determine their reading age and their ability to master individual words.

The library (there is one now, and it is well stocked) was them compartmentalised into zones so that books suitable for a particular reading ability were congregated together. As a pupil improved his or her reading ability, they could progress to another zone.

It wasn't as simple as that, though. As John Wray puts it, you could not just give an 11-year-old with a reading age of six a book suitable for that age group. "The subject matter just wouldn't interest them," he says. So staff had to scout about for simply written books that would appeal to, say, 13-year-olds. Science fiction has played a major part in helping them deliver.

In addition, prizes are now offered to pupils who read the most books or words. There is also competition between the school's four houses – Resolution, Endeavour, Adventure and Discovery, whose initial letters spell "read" to emphasise the importance of literacy. Unity, which is sponsored by the AET academy chain – which also runs a number of schools nearby – still has its fair share of challenges to overcome.

According to Ms Towey, there are 322 secondary schools in the North-east and Unity has the highest percentage of pupils entitled to free school meals – 74 per cent. "Sadly, we're top of the league here," she adds. "We want to be the top of other leagues – not that one."

The school also no longer serves a single-culture, white working-class community. Some 10 per cent of its pupils do not speak English as a first language and the majority of these come from a Czech/Roma background – many of the families having moved to East Middlesbrough because it offers some of the cheapest housing in the country.

One benefit of this, though, has been the pupil premium introduced by the Coalition Government, which can be used to fund ventures such as Dylan's story and Declan's business as well as school residential trips such as the one it organised to the Olympics last year. It has also helped the school to hire extra maths and English staff. One difficulty the school does not have, though many other schools do, is convincing inspectors that it is spending the extra money on helping disadvantaged pupils, as the school has such a concentration of them.

The school is planning to offer pupils what it calls a "residential experience", enabling them to live in for a while, say a week, and experience an alternative to home backgrounds where learning may be difficult.

"It is not boarding per se," explains Ms Towey. It would include an English college where struggling pupils could spend time concentrating on improving their literacy skills. "It will provide an opportunity for learning beyond the classroom."

It is also planning to open a sixth form now that more pupils are aiming to stay on in education after reaching the end of compulsory schooling at the age of 16.

And it will hope to inspire more budding novelists and entrepreneurs such as Dylan and Declan in the future.