On a recent research trip to the UK, I had the privilege of visiting Ash Grove Academy in the north-west of England and hearing how this school has turned around its students’ academic performance.
Ash Grove Academy is a primary school on the outskirts of Macclesfield in Cheshire, in a community that faces the challenges of social educational disadvantage. When Kevin Simpson began as principal in 2009, the school was about to close, with a school population of just 60 children and only 10 per cent of students passing year 6. Just one year later, Kevin and the school leadership team had turned their students’ academic results around with 70 per cent of year 6 students passing at the end of the school year. In 2013, the school achieved an 'outstanding' status as determined by the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (OFSTED). The school is now part of a Multi-Academy Trust (Aspire Educational Trust), a Research School with the Education Endowment Foundation and a National Teaching School where teachers are trained.
In February, I was fortunate enough to visit and see the school’s work in action.
What this incredible change demonstrates is the impact of a true instructional leader such as Kevin - aware of the curriculum and how each child can progress their learning for continuous growth as substantiated by evidence. In listening to Kevin, I understood why an instructional leader could have a large impact on students’ outcomes, as evidenced through the ground-breaking study led by Professor Viviane Robinson of the University of Auckland.
The questions were flying out of my mouth, with an endless drive to determine ‘the how and why’ of Ash Grove's impressive teaching and learning journey. The school's progress highlighted two key aspects:
- A relentless focus on using evidence of students’ learning to drive the teaching and;
- The use of evidence to inform practice.
Kevin is now the CEO of the Aspire Educational Trust. He said to me:
‘Research underpins everything we do.’
The Evidence Cycle
The evidence of students' learning is drawn from a meeting with each teacher every six weeks. At these meetings, the teachers show evidence of students’ progress (e.g student voice, parent voice, Teaching Assistant voice, tracking and monitoring systems and observational assessment and samples of students’ work) that are aligned with the 17 key objectives set out by the national curriculum for each year level. The students need to demonstrate each of the key objectives within three separate pieces of work to have this count as the objective being met. As Megan Dixon the Director for Literacy said, ‘how do you demonstrate progress, the teachers are asked to show me the evidence’, it is ‘assessment for learning.’
The use of the UK Teaching & Learning Toolkit by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has helped the school to decide what are some of the key approaches that they could implement within the constraints of Ash Grove’s limited resources. Peer tutoring and one-to-one tuition were chosen as low cost approaches known to improve student progress. Peer tutoring has an impact of five months’ progress for a low cost to implement per classroom, while one-to-one tuition has the same impact although it comes with a substantial cost.
For the peer tutoring, the team intentionally match year six students with year 2 students. If a year 2 student is struggling with writing they are paired with a year 6 student who is excelling in writing. Using a peer tutoring approach the school has seen significant improvement in the students’ learning outcomes.
Evidence in Practice
One-to-one tuition is used when a student is identified as not meeting the next key objective within the six weekly progress meetings. As soon as this occurs, the parents are notified and the child is provided with one-to-one tuition to address the specific learning need. The teacher will then look for evidence of this learning for the next sixth weekly meeting. One of the key phrases that Megan uses to help teachers examine their practice is to say ‘You are effective if the kids go from here to here’ within a no blame culture of team work.
In their role as one of the EEF’s Research Schools Network - a network of schools who support the use of evidence to improve teaching practice - the leadership team provide professional development to other schools. They are currently running six courses, with three provided free of charge to the profession. For example, with the EEF’s practice guides they are translating working with these materials on site with schools. The schools conduct an audit of their use of teaching assistants, then work with the schools to develop a plan of next steps based on the audit and evidence. Ash Grove Academy is working hand-in-hand with the EEF to help build the capacity of other schools within their academy and throughout the surrounding areas, to help others turn their struggling schools into high performing schools.
During my visit, I was welcomed into the classrooms to see this evidence in action. I could see that high expectations are held for each student, regardless of their background and prior learning attainment. I could see students progressing through their work at different rates and skills while being skilfully scaffolded by their passionate teachers.
The classroom walls and corridors of the school were full of examples of students’ work. There were also reminders on the walls of important elements of the school ethos of being reciprocal, resilient and resourceful.
Another initiative Ash Grove Academy has introduced is connecting with a local business to provide breakfast for all children. Breakfast and lunch is provided for students from prep to year 2. The lunches are wholesome to help overcome the lack of nutrition that is common in areas of disadvantage. Students recognised as eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) are also provided with lunch in the higher year levels (as provided within the FSM policy).
In my professional life, I have never been so inspired as I was when visiting Ash Grove Academy. The persistent and passionate attention which Kevin, Megan and the school leadership team give to the students in their care is aspirational. They are evidence-informed and driven to ensure that every student is continuously making progress.