Student voice helps put school in with a shout

Since their merger, two struggling schools are more than the sum of their parts. By Richard Garner
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The Independent Online

Pupil power – or to give it its proper name "student voice" – it seems can produce some interesting results. When youngsters at the Strood Academy in the Medway Towns, Kent, were given a chance to have a say in how their school was run, they opted to have longer lessons.

The 1,370-pupil academy opened its doors for the first time in September 2009. At that time pupils had five one-hour lessons every day.

"It wasn't long enough for the range of activities the children wanted in their lessons," says Richard Hart, the school's headteacher. "For instance, they couldn't finish their practical activities in science. As a consequence of listening to what they had to say in our first year, we switched to four lessons of a longer duration and now they can finish things like that."

Involving the pupils in their education is one of the key strategies adopted by the academy as it strives to improve performance.

"They are unbelievably honest in what they say and you get accurate feedback from them," says Hart.

The academy, jointly sponsored by Medway Council and the University of the Creative Arts, which has a campus in nearby Rochester, was born out of a merger between two single-sex comprehensive schools, Chapter Girls' School and Temple Boys' school.

Both were on the Government's "national challenge" hit list of schools that had failed to get 30 per cent of their pupils to obtain five A* to C grade passes including in maths and English.

Four years ago, Temple was at the very bottom of the league tables with just two per cent of its pupils obtaining the benchmark.

However, even then Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, felt able to say at the beginning of its report on the school: "This is an improving school that provides a satisfactory quality of education." It also noted that 11-plus tests "cream away a very large number of higher attaining students into the local grammar schools".

In their last year before being closed to create the new academy, the combined performance of the two schools was 21 per cent.

The academy inherits the same situation, with successful 11-plus pupils still being creamed off into the local grammar schools. However, Hart, who was a headteacher at another school in the Medway Towns for seven years before taking on the challenge of the academy, is philosophical about the situation. He says: "It is a fact of life that there is a selective system here. We just have to get on with it and ensure we provide the best education for all our pupils, adding additional value to their education so they can succeed."

During the first year of the new academy, that figure of 21 per cent has already risen to 29 per cent, a significant increase. Based on GCSE coursework performance so far, the school predicts this figure will increase to 40 per cent next summer,well above Education Secretary Michael Gove's new benchmark of 35 per cent.

Even if the school does not reach the 40 per cent prediction, Mr Gove's new approach does recognise that schools with a lower figure that have significantly improved their pupils performance since enrolling should be exempt from any special intervention. The Strood Academy would certainly qualify for exemption under this rule of thumb.

A breakdown of the results show that – in common with the trend throughout the country – the girls are outshining the boys. Among the girls, 34 per cent obtained the GCSE benchmark, compared with just over 20 per cent of the boys.

Since the merger of the two schools, the academy has bowed to pressure from parents that some lessons should still taught separately, at the upper end of schooling. However, Hart's plan is for the whole school to become co-educational eventually.

The rise in GCSE passes has led to a massive increase in the number of youngsters now staying on into the sixth-form.

Previously, Temple Boys' School did not have a sixth form while Chapter Girls' School enrolled around 170 pupils, operating a mixed sixth-form. Now the figure has increased to 240.

"That's a real success story," said Mr Hart. "Part of this is down to the qualifications they now gain at GCSE. Also, there are so few opportunities on the jobs market for 16-year-olds."

The link with the University of the Creative Arts may have played its part here as well. From the beginning of their schooling at the Strood Academy, the pupils benefit from links with the university.

"University students come and work with our students," said Mr Hart. "They do model-making classes with architectural students and fashion students from Rochester have also come here to work with our pupils."

The brightest youngsters from the school's first year also get the chance to go to the university campus and get a taste of life in higher education.

"This is especially useful for youngsters whose parents might not have traditionally aspired for them to go to university," said Mr Hart.

The rest, as they say, is not rocket science. It consists of tracking and recording progress towards individual targets for pupils on a six-weekly basis, with reports back to parents and opportunities to intervene at an early stage if it looks as though a pupil is falling behind and not reaching targets.

"Every six weeks we get the data and where the children are not making much progress against their learning targets, we can intervene," Mr Hart said. "We can intervene very quickly when things go wrong."

He is keen to point out , though, that it is not just one man at the helm that has brought about the significant changes to the school. The school staff are divided into eight different faculties, each one taking responsibility for monitoring its own performance.

Whatever the reason, though, the proof of the pudding is in the eating – or in the results in the case of schools – and the Strood Academy's are on an upward curve.

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