Trip Report: Queen Elizabeth’s Academy, Mansfield

At PTE we like to visit schools up and down the country. We feel it’s important to get a feel of how schools work in certain areas, what unique challenges they face, and how they are doing great work in their own way. In turn, we want to highlight some case studies that show things that we’ve learned about how to run a great school, and what facets of that are replicable across England.

The school:

Queen Elizabeth’s Academy is an 11-18 secondary school in Mansfield, part of the Diverse Academies Learning Partnership multi-academy trust. Following decades of underperformance and slipping in and out of special measures, it was re-brokered to DALP in September 2016.

A former grammar school, there are over 400 years of heritage within the building and the grounds still maintain an air of grandeur which cannot help but inspire its pupils. Names of former head teachers and Head Boys & Girls have been engraved on the walls of the main hall since 1910.

There are currently 570 children on the roll, with a capacity of 1100. The school has a Progress 8 score of -0.97, whilst 28% of their children got 5 or better in their GCSE English and Maths last year. 50% of the children are recipients of the Pupil Premium.

The area:

The academy is set within an area of significant deprivation.It serves wards which are among the 20% most deprived wards in the country (English indices of deprivation 2015).

When considering the deprivation measure of education, skills and training, the Academy’s catchment area falls into the 10% most deprived areas nationally. The surrounding areas of the academy have low levels of educational attainment – 13.3% of the population have ‘no qualifications’ – significantly higher than the national figure of 8%. Furthermore, 11.6% of children live in households that are ‘workless’ (NOMIS 2016), and in the month of March 2017 there were 473 crimes reported within a 1 mile radius of the academy.

Queen Elizabeth’s Academy serves a largely deprived and complex demographic of families, and these issues are concentrated even further in some of the local wards where 34.7% of people over 16 have no formal qualifications (compared to 25.3% across Nottinghamshire).

Within 5 miles of the Academy 8.9% of people of working age have never worked or are long term unemployed, compared with 4.4% across Nottinghamshire.These figures indicate that children from these communities face significant barriers to their learning.

The people:

Neil Holmes was tasked with leading the school through its improvement journey as Executive Principal, having already led significant school improvement at Holgate Academy. He asked Helena Brothwell – who kindly led our tour and answered our questions below – from the Education Directorate at DALP to be the new Principal.

Q & A

How did you seek to make an immediate impact in the school?

Neil and I spent the first term getting to grips with just how broken the systems and the relationships within the school were.Students felt let down by invisible, weak leadership and staff felt bullied and down-trodden.We had a lot of work to do to bring the love back into the building and we set to work on this immediately.We removed the fingerprint clock-in machine for staff, re-wrote the timetables to ensure that the curriculum was fit for purpose and staff were teaching within specialism where possible, and we set about talking and listening to students, spending as much time with them as possible and improving their experience, one little thing at a time (opening the field at lunchtime, launching rewards evenings and social events such as discos etc.).

It took two terms for us to build trust and fix some of the major issues within school.A clear behaviour pathway and reward system was vital and we were relentless about uniform standards.

At the end of the second term we introduced the idea of a knowledge-based curriculum to staff.We needed something which would give us all the impetus to move forward together and align everyone around one vision.This would radically change the way things were done in every classroom, I was nervous about how it would go.

We put out a lot of reading material, we did a lot of discussion around it, we explained the rationale and why we felt it would benefit our context so well.I expected a difficult sell, but I was delighted by the response from staff.They loved it!

We had a term to plan, and the leadership team had a term to train the pupils.We linked it to a direct instruction teaching model, and we knew that low level disruption in classrooms needed to be almost eradicated for this to have the impact we needed.

Through regular, repetitive, clear assemblies, we began to raise the status of teaching staff within the classroom.We made it explicitly clear what we expected from pupils, even down to what to say in response to a challenge – ‘Sorry miss/sorry sir’.

This was a dramatic turning point for building relationships between staff and the leadership team, and staff and students.Boundaries were redrawn and it was made unashamedly clear that teachers teach, students learn – no grey area.In the classroom the teacher is the expert, full stop.

In Sept 2017 we launched our knowledge-based curriculum and a new, fresh uniform.It was transformative.

What do you do to maintain pupil and staff wellbeing?

We believe that there can be no child well-being without staff well-being.

We have worked hard to reduce unnecessary workload.We have centralised shared detentions, only 3 data drops per year (down from 6), we removed lesson plans from the agenda and re-wrote the feedback policy to include live marking & group marking, and removed the requirement that staff record when they have given verbal feedback.

We reduced subject comment reports to once per key stage and parents’ evenings to a 5.30pm finish with a catch-up option for parents whose shifts/working patterns clash.

We allow staff to have 1 hour of cover per term to watch their child in a sports day or in a play, or go Christmas shopping, this is covered internally so staff reciprocate for each other.

Student well-being is focused around recognition of their success and we focus on ‘grit’ as something we admire and celebrate.

What have you done to curb bad behaviour?

We have had an interesting profile in behaviour incidents since we started.Staff would say that behaviour got worse after the first term of our leadership, but I would say that this was the students waking up from a passive existence and they started to rebel against firmer boundaries.Then when the knowledge-based curriculum started, students initially struggled with the increased challenge academically and by period 6 they were tired out, they would do almost anything to get out of the room and into isolation where they could recover!

They gradually built a resilience to the advanced expectations and we tightened up the systems even further in term 2.We introduced The QEA Way staff handbook which explicitly shares a common approach to everything from duty, how to challenge a pupil’s behaviour to protocol on entering another teacher’s classroom.The consistent approach combined with key classroom routines have ensured that staff and students have a common language which is just part of who we are and what we do.It answers the question ‘How are things done here?’ – a key point made in Paul Dix’s book When the Adults Change, Everything Changes, which was instrumental in our thinking.

This has had a dramatic impact.Low level disruption is rare in classrooms and the teacher is leading the learning with authority and with support from the leadership team.We think that we have turned a real corner this term, and we are now implementing another round of ‘tightening’ of systems after Easter, including banning mobile phones, using SLANT and a focus on oracy.

How important is the focus on knowledge in the curriculum to everything you do?

This is essential. It is our USP – we promote it as ‘grammar-style teaching for everyone’ and it fits with our grammar heritage.I have found it to be very popular with students, staff and parents alike, and it has helped us to recruit the right staff for us.We recently had a candidate withdraw from an interview because I sent her information on our knowledge-based curriculum and Direct Instruction – that is fine, I would much rather discover we were incompatible at the interview stage than later on, because the debate has already been had.We are not prepared to waver now.Incidentally, the candidate who was successful had only applied because of the knowledge-based curriculum.

We have shared our approach with parents and because it is distinctively different to the nearby schools; it gives us an edge which we are proud of.We have found that all staff can articulate our philosophy very well, and this is paramount to its long-term success and it is the reason we know it will work, because the staff team own it.

How long do you think it will take to have the school where you want it to be? What are the next steps to getting there?

We are quite ambitious with our goals; we have told staff and students that we believe that we are currently ‘Requires Improvement’ but that we will be ‘Good’ by September. That will be 2 years from ‘Special Measures’ to ‘Good’, and that will be down to the hard work and determination of the staff and students.We are certainly on the right trajectory to meet that target and we are confident that we will achieve it.

We have an agreed Direct Instruction format for lessons as follows:

  • Knowledge retrieval : quizzing, chanting, etc
  • I do : New knowledge delivered by the teacher
  • We do : Teacher models the concept
  • You do : Student applies knowledge.Teacher live marks.
  • Questioning to assess understanding –

Our staff are pretty great at the first two sections of the lesson, and we are spending this term developing our skills at modelling using visualisers and ‘thinking aloud’ strategies.Staff are working together in triads to develop these strategies.

Our next focus is to be on 3D curriculum design, and we are looking to invest significant time and resources into developing a curriculum which truly embeds learning, whilst learning from the best already out there.