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The Conversation: Learning teams

Once it faced closure, but Thorpe Bay High in Southend, Essex, has turned its fortunes round. It reopened as a pioneering specialist vocational college, renamed Futures College. Jean Alder, its head, explains to Trevor Averre Beeson, how she did it

Q: When you joined Thorpe Bay High as headteacher four years ago it was in difficulties. Can you describe what it was like?

A: The school is an 11-16 age range and 50 per cent of students receive free school meals, so there are high levels of disadvantage. For a long period the school was in special measures and there were two attempts to close it. It was a very difficult period, but we have made important changes and it is now out of special measures and has greatly improved its exam results.

Q: One of your key innovations was to organise the school into learning teams. How does that differ from traditional arrangements?

A: The senior leadership team is made up of learning directors and each of them leads a year cohort of teachers. The subject staff covering the whole curriculum work as a team to the learning director, breaking the traditional subject-based, hierarchical arrangement.

Q: What made you move to this arrangement?

A: In a school like ours, with a challenging cohort of students and a variety of community and family issues, the old-fashioned arrangement just doesn't work.

Q: How do the students find the learning team system?

A: It works best in Year 7, where we have a fully integrated curriculum and just seven teachers teaching right across the board. The learning team is much bigger in Year 11 and the tutors also teach within the team. Students really like it. They feel part of a small school family, where everyone knows them and where they have a home base. They stay put; it's the teachers who move.

Q: It sounds like a radical idea and a great way of doing things. Are there any difficulties that it throws up?

A: It becomes more difficult to sustain a small team at key stage 4 because of option choices and the GCSE curriculum. We have to duplicate resources, giving teachers a moveable classroom each, and there are some tensions with subject leaders and their role.

Q: I imagine they feel marooned?

A: We describe subject leaders as the guarantors and the champions of subject knowledge and pedagogy and the monitors of the quality of teaching and learning.

Q: Clearly, overall it's had a huge impact?

A: Students feel more grounded and staff find the school is calmer. Everyone leads part of a small school, where they get to know each other well and they are not lost in a huge faceless comprehensive. It is clearly one of the main factors that has helped us out of special measures and improved our achievements.

Q: Can you be more specific about what this has meant for the school?

A: It has improved behaviour and allowed teachers to focus more on the individual student's achievements. It has also created a learning community where everyone talks about learning first.

The fact that students don't move around the school is also much more efficient, cutting down on opportunities to truant, get into trouble or damage property. It also means more learning time which benefits everyone. As a result, results have improved significantly.

Q: How does it compare with similar schools?

A: Our results have increased at a faster rate than similar schools and the improvement has put us in the upper range of similar school cohorts. It was also undoubtedly a factor that contributed to our removal from special measures.

Q: Do you have any advice for other school leaders interested in developing a similar structure?

A: I don't think this arrangement is right for all schools, so a careful analysis needs to be undertaken. We have worked with Edison Schools, who have supported us in implementing the scheme. That support is vital, plus having the right people implement innovation.

Trevor Averre-Beeson is executive head of Salisbury School in Enfield, north London

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