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The Conversation: Schools within schools

Samuel Ward School in Haverhill, Suffolk, has created its own mini-schools, with impressive results. Headteacher Howard Lay tells Trevor Averre Beeson how he did it.Q: Your school is highly popular and successful, with good GCSE results, upper quartile outcomes, specialist status and very good value added results. How do you go about making a good school better?

A: We wanted to find a transformational model that everyone would benefit from, something that would restructure the school but also meet all the statutory targets, league tables and workforce agenda issues.

Q: What did you focus on?

A: We decided to work towards the schools-within-schools model that a number of US schools and some UK academies have gone for. We are a smallish 13-16 school with about 660 students, so it was easy to focus on each of our three year groups (9, 10 and 11) being, in effect, separate schools.

Q: How does that differ from the usual school arrangements?

A: Instead of each year being simply divided into tutor groups, we focused on one of three specialisms, so Year 9 staff are based in the technological arena, Year 10 creative and cultural, Year 11 humanities. Each specialist mini-school has its own "head" (assistant headteacher status) and all activities, meetings and special events combine pastoral and academic staff, so there is no longer that old-fashioned divide.

Q: How does that have an impact on staff other than teachers?

A: Each specialist school-within-a-school has its own support team of admin staff, behaviour support, advanced skills teachers and learning mentors. So each head has a complete staff to support them.

Q: What benefits does this bring?

A: It has led to far greater consistency in dealing with students' learning opportunities and in managing their behaviour and personalised learning agenda. It has also generated great teamwork while giving each "school" its own distinctive ethos and culture.

Q: So you almost don't have a job?

A: Obviously it allows me time to give strategic direction, monitor outcomes and hold the schools accountable for their progress. I think everyone feels liberated by the new structure, which has been in place for about 18 months.

Q: What do the students think of this new arrangement?

A: Students took to the idea very well. They like the sense of family that comes from our small schools and they greatly contributed to the special ethos built up in each. The schools create much greater stability and much less movement. Students really value the consistency and routine and the feeling of it being their part of the school. Parents felt the same way and we have had really positive support from the community as the project has developed. I think, because teachers in each school have really got to know the students well, it has created a greater sense of security.

Q: It must have generated some problems or met with resistance?

A: I can honestly say that it has been welcomed by every group of stakeholders. It required a lot of planning, training and support, particularly in the first 12 months, but now it's really flying.

Q: And the recognisable outcomes?

A: Exam results moved up this year by 7 per cent, having remained static for a while, and our pupils' attainment of 5 A-star to C grades, including maths and English, have improved too.

Q: If you did it again, is there anything you would do differently?

A: I would have started years ago to ensure that it was really embedded.

Q: Would you recommend the model to other schools?

A: Without a doubt. It has improved the school's ethos, behaviour, learning and outcomes, and really done the business with the workforce agreement, which means that teachers are focused on exactly what they should be - learning.

TAB: Thanks for speaking to me. I'm quite sure that a lot of heads of successful schools know that they could still do better, but don't know how. You have found a model that improves behaviour and learning, allows teachers to teach, hits the workforce agenda and at the same time helps improve teamwork, motivation and exam results - a win-win solution.

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

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