REVIEW OF SANDON MERIDIAN ACADEMY, STOKE ON TRENT
7-8 March 2017
Teaching and learning were observed in 20 lessons identified by the academy and several more in addition, including sessions visited briefly during learning walks. Meetings were held with groups of students from Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4, and the students’ behaviour was observed at the beginning and end of the day and during break periods. Discussions took place with the Principal, the four Assistant Principals, several middle leaders responsible for subjects, pastoral leaders and other staff with leadership responsibilities. A range of documentation was scrutinised.
- The school, then known as Sandon Business and Enterprise College, was inspected by Ofsted on 12-13 July 2016 and judged no longer to require special measures (to which it had been made subject following an inspection in January 2015). The school’s overall effectiveness, and outcomes for students, were judged to require improvement but all other aspects of the school were judged good.
- This review was requested by the Principal and commissioned by the Local Authority. The Vice Principal is currently on maternity leave and was not present during the review.
Effectiveness of leadership and management
- Leadership and management are good overall with an improving picture of strength and some emerging aspects of very high quality. These include the strategic vision of senior leaders and the enhanced use of school performance data. There is a larger than usual leadership structure with around 21 staff employed in positions of leadership. This brings with it the benefits of added capacity but also the potential for a lack of consistency and clarity around who is accountable for what. As a consequence there is evidence of both and the newly established tier of middle leaders are in some cases relatively new to their roles. This team is showing promise. The priority for the wider leadership team is to secure consistency in the middle leadership tier and to improve outcomes so they are securely good, and in particular to increase the proportion of students eligible for Pupil Premium that achieve in line with their peers. This is equally true of students with higher prior attainment.
- Leadership at the strategic level is both rigorous and visionary, and rests on a clear set of guiding principles. Leaders are driving school improvement well by converting these guiding principles into clarity of action with good attention to detail. The core senior team has students at the heart of what it does and in this it is supported by the extended leadership team. This is bringing high capacity for change. It is this quality that has changed the culture of the school to one of success. This achievement is recognised and respected by the students who see their Principal as ‘firm but fair’ and having their best interest at heart.
- Use of data is a strength of the school. This process is well managed across all aspects and the performance data available to all staff is both extensive and accurate. It involves routine assessment points, frequent moderation and multiple tiers of accountability making it impossible to duck responsibility for student progress. These data are used well by most leaders in the school. At times the extent of the data mitigates against producing simple and effective summary plans: the volume of performance data overwhelms the analysis and thus key messages can get lost. This is recognised by the leadership team who have plans to refresh the style and nature of school improvement planning and to begin the process of producing summative analysis documents. This is already happening, for example in both the evaluation of the impact of the spend on Pupil Premium and the analysis of behaviour logs, but these documents could be more evaluative and in summary form.
- The senior leadership team has both experience and expertise across its members although the extent of the roles and responsibilities of individuals varies considerably. Some of this is historic, where appointments were made and responsibilities devolved according to a different set of principles. That said, the school has undergone a leadership restructuring in recent years which is both effective and appropriate. Leaders and managers have generated very strong core documentation. This includes both the school improvement plan and faculty plans. The Principal’s reporting to governors is detailed and shows high levels of accountability. The senior team is about to establish a different format for the improvement plan which reflects the need to open up leadership practices without losing rigour. The Self Evaluation Form (SEF) is extensive, clear, frank and accurate. This is a document which holds integrity. As an indicator of the openness and desire to maintain full transparency, the school goes beyond many others in sharing plans and evaluations on its public website.
- The curriculum is broad, balanced and secure, and is well placed to respond to future challenges created by changes to the national testing and accountability systems. For example, the three pathways that students follow aim at stronger success in academic performance, and the expectation is that the vocational courses will also contribute to improved progress for all over time. There is a well planned programme of activities and enrichment and a very strong timetable of personal development activities to ensure students understand how to minimise risk, stay safe, and know British values. For example, on the day of the review the school had arranged a session designed to support students in their understanding of the risks of online bullying and avoiding potential for radicalisation and sexual exploitation. There is a good range of extra curricular activities.
- Governance is strong and effective. No external governors were met during this review but the governing body has established a Progress Board which meets regularly and has kept bureaucratic meetings to a minimum. They operate with one additional committee, for finance. They are an expert group which holds leadership in school to account via a tight focus on school standards. They have a strategic view of the school’s future and are ambitious for further growth.
- Middle Leadership shows promise and, as a team, middle leaders have many strengths. However, their effectiveness is also variable in terms of the quality of their monitoring of teaching quality and in improving outcomes in their respective areas of responsibility. This is true both in terms of levels of expectation (of students and colleagues) and the quality of self review. Some middle leaders are relatively new to role and are grappling with the changes to core curriculum content and assessment practices. For some, staffing changes in their teams are also recent, leading to some inconsistency in the implementation of core school policies (for example, in the award of behaviour rewards).
- This team is both providing and receiving some internal professional development in leadership although this is not yet fully formalised into nationally recognisable qualifications for many. Some are undertaking Future Leaders courses and others undertaking aspiring middle leadership courses to develop their strategic overview of data. Some pinpointed the need to observe and engage with excellent practice in other schools.
- The school engages already with the leadership in other nearby schools in terms of shared planning, observations and feedback methodology but could do so more. As the school improves it is now in a position to be more innovative and ambitious about how it approaches, for example, curriculum design and review, monitoring and the development of teaching. Currently there are limited opportunities for the senior and middle leadership teams to work alongside colleagues outside of the locality to experience differing practices. For example, the quality of teaching is generally monitored well but feedback tended to focus on teacher activity more than pupil progress. As a consequence there is an opportunity to further refine monitoring and feedback to all adults in the school, including teaching assistants and supervisors as well as teachers.
Quality of teaching, learning and assessment
- The school judges teaching, learning and assessment to be good and this is accurate. Taking account of the evidence of the impact of teaching over time as well as the practice observed, teaching and learning in most classes were good. They were outstanding in two of the lessons observed, and several more had outstanding features.
- Strong elements of consistency, developed during the journey out of special measures and subsequently, were apparent in the teaching across the school. The challenge now is to build on that strong base by focusing on raising further the quality of the students’ learning, so that it is outstanding in more lessons.
- One of the strengths of the teaching and learning was the positive culture in the classrooms. The quality of display across the school was notably good, creating a stimulating atmosphere, giving the rooms a pronounced subject-specific character and supporting the students’ progress through the provision of prompts and examples. Students came to lessons expecting to learn. Almost invariably they were attentive, complied with instructions and behaved well. Relationships between students and teachers were good. Classroom routines were generally efficient and most of the lessons were taught at a brisk pace. There were a few exceptions, however; in some of the weaker lessons (including, occasionally, those involving students of high prior attainment) the students were slow to settle to their tasks and worked with little urgency or intensity, and this was not challenged by the teacher. As a result the students did not learn efficiently and were insufficiently productive during the lesson.
- A feature of classroom management that could have been improved, even in some lessons that in other respects were good, was that the students were not required to ‘track’ the teacher and so some did not maintain eye contact. At times, the teacher needed to signal more clearly whether (s)he was talking to the whole class, a group or an individual, and specify the response required accordingly; a lesson in which this was done very effectively was in mathematics with a Year 8 group.
- The consistency of lesson-planning was another strength of the teaching. A common format was used, both for planning and for smart-board presentations, and the plans and presentations were often very detailed. They reflected the teachers’ awareness both of the students’ different starting points and needs, and of examination requirements. The similarity of approaches within departments indicated that planning had often been done collaboratively. At times, however, the plans were too detailed, with too many objectives, and so the pace became somewhat frenetic as the teacher moved rapidly from one activity to the next. A simpler approach, with a focus on one or two clear objectives, might have made for deeper learning by the students.
- The teachers’ knowledge of subject content was generally good, although occasionally it was weaker when they were working outside their own specialisms.
- Questioning, and the management of talk by students, showed both strengths and weaknesses. Students concentrated very well when the teacher targeted individuals with questions, as was seen in a Year 10 product design group and a Year 9 science class. When they were given opportunities to talk with each other, students often responded well; and when the teacher enabled them to respond to questions at length, individuals sometimes rose to the challenge outstandingly well, as seen, for example, in a Year 10 drama group. However, there was often room for improvement in the questioning. Insufficient use was made of challenging supplementary questions to extend the students’ thinking. Occasionally, teachers accepted called-out answers, thereby disfranchising quieter members of the class; more commonly, answers were taken only from volunteers, which meant that the teacher did not check the learning of those who did not volunteer. Even when the questions were targeted, the teacher sometimes did too much of the speaking (for example, unnecessarily repeating what students had said), and could instead have asked for responses from more of the students. Increasing the effectiveness of questioning was identified as a point for improvement by Ofsted and remains an issue for the school.
- Monitoring of the students’ engagement and progress during lessons, and systematic checking of their understanding, were similarly variable. In a Year 8 mathematics lesson, the students had to write answers on mini-whiteboards, which gave the teacher instant feedback (enabling her to re-teach those who were struggling), and then complete an ‘exit ticket’ demonstrating their understanding before they were allowed to leave the classroom, prompting one student to say: ‘at the start I didn’t realise how to do this but now I understand’. This practice was worthy of dissemination across the school. Where the monitoring and checking were less effective, the teacher tended to help individual students rather than checking the progress of the class as a whole.
- During discussions, students talked about the homework set for them, which had clearly been regular and worthwhile. Their books had generally been marked very well. Teachers used a consistent approach, which the students understood and to which they responded by improving their work. Suitable attention was given to spelling and other aspects of literacy, and the beneficial impact was evident in many of the books. Occasionally, however, when the marking was less regular, the quality of the pupils’ presentation deteriorated.
- The school’s arrangements for assessing the students’ progress were systematic and well organised. Suitable action had been taken to ensure that the assessments were accurate. The resulting data had been analysed comprehensively, disseminated to all departments and subject teachers, and used to track the progress of individuals, with interventions and support being provided for those identified as under-achieving. Teachers showed a detailed knowledge of the attainment and progress of individual students, and the students themselves demonstrated a good understanding of the level at which they were working, the improvement they had achieved and the areas on which they still needed to work. Parents received reports after each of the four ‘assessment rounds’ during the year, a good level of frequency, although they only had one opportunity per year to discuss the children’s progress with their teachers.
- The school has used a good range of strategies to improve the quality of teaching, learning and assessment, including peer coaching (currently received by 12 teachers), the sharing of good practice in ‘good morning teacher time’ and monthly professional development sessions. These have had a demonstrable impact in lifting the quality of much of the teaching to a good standard. Now would be an appropriate time to reflect on, and begin to implement, strategies to increase the proportion of outstanding practice. These could include both peer observation, and more extensive coaching (including for ‘good’ teachers) focusing on the effectiveness of the students’ learning and the teachers’ skills in aspects such as questioning and checking the students’ progress.
Personal development, behaviour and welfare
- This aspect of the school’s work is securely good and the provision serves the students well.
- Students are a credit to the school. They are well behaved and polite and welcoming to others, including adults. The entry and exit periods at the beginning and end of the day are well managed by adults. During lessons students are generally attentive and engaged and become enthused by challenge when it is offered. They are diligent and are developing resilience in their work. Most are ambitious, high achieving and responsible. They know and respect the mix of rewards and sanctions on offer. Some say they would like greater clarity about the Meridian rewards miles which becomes critical, they say, at Sports Day but not always during the year. Sports Day is a much valued and serious event loved by the students. As a testament to their work ethos and the support of adults there were lots of smiles around the school especially in lessons. Relationships with teachers are strong and appreciated by students. There was some minor off task ‘bubble’ in some classes and the learning behaviour of some students dipped when teaching quality dipped also, but this is now atypical. Some students betrayed a lack of self-confidence in speaking aloud and offering opinions and the school could do more to support them. They are very proud of their school and now wear the badge with pride. Their commitment to success is evidenced by the desire of some students to join the Raising Achievement Programme. Although initially designed to engage students at risk of underperformance, it now is a popular mechanism which gives students regular and constructive feedback, and so some who know they want the structure and self discipline of the programme ask to join.
- Students are given a range of responsibilities through the school council, peer mentoring and prefect systems, all of which are successful programmes. The students say that bullying has almost been eradicated. The school provides bully boxes and this support is welcomed: if you misbehave here, they say, you will get caught and the deterrents (detention, isolation and reflection) are effective and respected. There is good support from adults which is recognised and is helping to improve attendance. Students say adults know who they are and genuinely care about them and their safety and futures.
- Safeguarding is effective with good systems in place for appointment checks. There is a very comprehensive map of events and activities to promote safety and the students know the success of this and feel safe. The ways the school listens and acts on student views are developing well but are not yet fully established. They have opinions and views and are keen to express them but are not yet all given greater opportunities to take responsibility in terms of school development.
- Attendance levels are improving to national levels or slightly above but are lower for some groups. Improvement has been secured via a range of rewards and competitions. Punctuality and movement between lessons is very tight. Persistent absence is still relatively high. Exclusions figures show a recent small spike but this relates to a small number of students receiving multiple exclusions. In one faculty, detentions have spiked also but this is explained by a rigorous approach to ensuring that students attend the recently implemented reading sessions.
Outcomes for students
- The school continues to judge outcomes for students as requiring improvement. This is an honest, brave and accurate assessment. Despite the significant improvements achieved, the gaps between the achievement of different groups of students, and particularly the weaker progress of disadvantaged pupils, those of high prior attainment and those with special educational needs represent unfinished business for the school.
- The profile of the students’ attainment on entry to the school has varied: the prior attainment of last year’s Year 11 was average, whereas the present Year 11 came into the school with significantly below average attainment, as did the present Years 9 and 10. The prior attainment of the present Year 10 was closer to, but still below, average. The proportions of the students for whom the Pupil Premium is payable have increased over the past five years, and there has also been a recent increase in the proportion with home languages other than English.
- The outcomes achieved by students in Year 11 in 2016 showed significant improvement and were in line with those achieved nationally. Students of all levels of prior attainment made broadly average progress. The proportion who achieved the English Baccalaureate was above the national figure. However, there were significant variations in the results achieved in different subjects, with French and history among the subjects in which students did well and mathematics and science among those that were lower performing.
- The progress and results achieved by disadvantaged students improved but were still significantly lower than those of other students, overall and also in English, science and (particularly) mathematics. Pupils with special educational needs (but not statements), and pupils of higher prior attainment, also made less progress than other pupils from their starting points. Pupils of Pakistani heritage and others with English as an additional language performed relatively well.
- The progress of pupils currently in the school, on the evidence observed in lessons and in their books, is generally (but not universally) good. The senior leadership team is acutely aware of the need to achieve good outcomes and narrow the gaps in performance between different groups of pupils, and members are personally mentoring students (particularly disadvantaged students) identified for ‘raising achievement’ groups.
- For Year 11, the school’s predictions are understandably cautious, given the uncertainties surrounding the transition to the new GCSE grading system. Nevertheless, there were indications that the outcomes achieved may approach those achieved last year, although the students’ progress in mathematics remained a concern. Much was being done to support the students and accelerate their progress, including the provision of additional teaching in mathematics and science at the end of the school day. The school’s data indicated that there were still significant gaps between the progress of disadvantaged pupils, pupils of high prior attainment, pupils with special educational needs (but not statements) and other pupils: narrowing these gaps is a key priority in the period that remains before the GCSE examinations. In the case of pupils of high prior attainment, it is important that more achieve grades A* and A (or 7-9).
- In other year groups, the data, together with the other evidence seen during the review, suggested that the students’ progress is mostly good, although it is stronger in Year 10 and Year 7 than in Year 8 and Year 9. Disadvantaged pupils were making less progress in Years 7 and 8 and although their progress was closer to that of other pupils in Years 9 and 10, their attainment remained lower in those year groups. The relative progress of boys, and of students with special educational needs (but not statements), varied across the year groups but in some cases it was lower than that of other pupils. Students of higher prior attainment were making relatively less progress than other pupils in every year group, underlining the importance of a whole-school drive to raise their attainment.
- The school was implementing a range of initiatives to raise the students’ attainment in reading. Pupils in Years 7 and 8 were keeping reading logs, were reading in the library in one of their English lessons and reported that they were reading at home. Additional support was being given to those with low reading ages. The reading ages of the majority of the students in these year groups had risen in line with or faster than their chronological ages but substantial minorities, particularly in Year 8, had not made the expected gains, indicating that more needs to be done to build on the progress made so far. A stronger emphasis on teaching reading comprehension might be appropriate, alongside continuing encouragement to enjoy reading. The students enjoyed excellent access to the library and many were seen using it during break periods.
Key priorities for improvement
- Supporting the development of the middle leaders, including by enhancing their skills in analysing, understanding and using performance data and leading improvements in teaching and learning.
- Enabling senior leaders and other staff to visit outstanding schools elsewhere, to learn from their practice.
- Improving further the quality of teaching, so that the students’ learning is outstanding in more lessons, by increasing the effectiveness of questioning, monitoring the students’ progress and checking their learning.
- Narrowing the gaps in progress between disadvantaged pupils, pupils of high prior attainment and pupils with special educational needs (but not statements), and other pupils.
Andy Reid and Ceri Morgan