Return to Queen Elizabeth’s Academy

I first visited Queen Elizabeth Academy earlier in the year, and left inspired by Helen Brothwell and her team. I’ve enjoyed following the school’s journey since then, regularly checking in by email to see how they are getting on, and bumping into people at various events around the country too.

However, nothing beats walking around a school in person, and so this week I returned to Mansfield for a second time, to feel how things have come on since February.

I am so glad that I did. The progress is palpable. It felt like a happy school last time, but one could sense from the students that they had been through a lot in recent years. (Aside from terrible outcomes and an awful Ofsted, they’d experienced some extremely unhelpful and misinformed school shaming had occurred just before my visit.)

This week I experienced a school much more confident and joyful.

There was a clear structure to what I saw as I wandered in and out of lessons. Students organise their equipment on their desks in the same way, teachers follow a “recall/I do/we do/you do” pattern as the learning unfolds, and expectations were kept extremely high through the use of “LEARN.” (QEA’s version of SLANT.)

Transitions were buzzy and pretty quick, with adults visible all over. Break and lunch saw staff and students happily mingling, and lots of discussions taking place in a (now phone-free) environment. A genuinely moving assembly was held with children from a local primary school performing a shadow play about WWI remembrance – and QEA students rose to the occasion throughout this sensitive piece.

Having tracked down the last Ofsted report for the school, the contrast could not be more stark. While there is still much to do – Helena and the team are the first to say this – QEA is now a school that the staff, students, and wider community can be proud of. The education provided is finally commensurate with the gorgeous site on which it takes place.

How has this turnaround happened? From talking to people across both my visits several aspects seem absolutely vital:

  • Freedom to improve
    • The trust – DALP – has given Helena & Neil (the Executive Principal) the time and space and to do things their way; QEA’s approach is very different to the rest of the MAT, but the executive team has respected their decision to do this.
  • Deliberate shaping of the culture
    • How students and staff are expected to interact with learning and one another has been carefully crafted, and then reinforced, by the senior team, and they have gone about this in a systematic fashion, avoiding change-overload at any given time to try and take as many people with it as possible.
  • Curriculum redesign
    • QEA has fully embraced a knowledge-rich curriculum, putting considerable effort into ensuring students experience as much of the best that has been thought, said, and done during their time at the school. Kids told me that they feel cleverer nowadays, that they have more they can think or write about. Staff told me they felt more empowered & re-professionalised.

The result of the above? Well, here are a few stats:

  • Attendance is up from 90% to 94% (and still rising.)
  • Lateness is down from 2.8% to 0.6%.
  • The proportion of students having to be removed from lessons at any point in the day has gone from 35% to 0.2%.
  • Recent staff recruitment has all been done through social media –which was only possible as word-of-mouth is so different now, and they’ve saved thousands of pounds as a result.
  • The number on roll has gone from 458 2 years ago to 575 – with 32 of those arriving after the start of this term, as word has spread about the changes.

The improvements are starting to feed through into exam outcomes too – although the overall GCSE results this summer don’t yet reflect this, as the school opened its arms to 38 Y11 kids last year whose studio school was closed. (The fact that QEA volunteered to take in these students speaks volumes about the moral purpose of the people here.)

Perhaps most impressive is that all of this has been done with largely the same group of staff and students – a testament to the effort and commitment shown by Helena & Neil to taking people with them and doing things with integrity.

As I drove back down the M1 after my day there, my head was busy with numerous reflections on what I’d seen. I’m still mulling things over now, a few days later. There are quite a few quick-wins they can make to up standards even higher, and I love the fact that they are aware of this and so open to feedback on when and how to do the next few changes.

Ultimately though I come back to my usual test for a school: would I send any of my own girls there? Based on the 2016 Ofsted, I’d have said no. After my first visit there I’d have said “maybe.” Now I would say “yes.” Also, if I was looking for a school in the area to work in, I’d definitely check out QEA. I can’t wait to see what they do next, and to sort out another visit there sometime next year.