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'It's not terribly normal round here'

For a Liverpool academy, personalised learning has been the key to coaxing reluctant learners into class. For our occasional series on turnaround schools, Meabh Ritchie reports on a management team that likes to do things a bit differently

For a Liverpool academy, personalised learning has been the key to coaxing reluctant learners into class. For our occasional series on turnaround schools, Meabh Ritchie reports on a management team that likes to do things a bit differently

At a recent parents' evening at North Liverpool Academy, Nigel Ward was approached by one of the pupil's parents. "He came up to me, laughing and holding out his hand to shake mine, saying: `You've done very well'," says Mr Ward.

So far, so unremarkable. But five years ago, the very same parent was at a local meeting arguing against Mr Ward's proposal to set up the academy and saying that it would never work.

"He now has three children at the school and is very committed - he comes to every parents' evening," says Mr Ward, who is chairman of the North Liverpool Academy Trust, the school's sponsor, and also its chair of governors.

As well as the renewed support of parents like this, and the community, the academy came top of the league tables this year for contextual value added (CVA) and achieved a 100 per cent pass rate for both A-level and GCSE. The sixth-form was rated outstanding by Ofsted and all the sixth- form students who applied to university were accepted.

These achievements are no mean feat considering North Liverpool Academy's position when it opened in 2006. The school was an amalgamation of Anfield and Breckfield community comprehensives, both of which took pupils from Everton, one of the most deprived wards in Liverpool. There was strong opposition to the formation of the academy from the community - so much so that the original sponsor pulled out of the project after receiving death threats.

At the time, both school communities were suspicious about merging, says Ken Tudor, former deputy headteacher at Anfield and now in the same post at the academy. "Anfield thought Breckfield was a less desirable area - at the time it was having gang trouble," says Mr Tudor. "Breckfield only had 200 kids, so parents and pupils there were worried about becoming part of such a big secondary."

The opening day of the academy in 2006 marked an upturn in its fortunes, however. Some of the pupils who turned up had previously only made a fleeting appearance at secondary school.

"We sent letters to every child on everyone's register," says academy head Kay Askew. "Staff were saying; `Gosh, I haven't seen him or her for three years'." These pupils struggled to get a grip on how the pupil-teacher relationship might work, she adds.

"We did a lot of `my turnyour turn' - it's my turn to speak now, and when I finish speaking, then you can talk'," says Mrs Askew.

From the outset, the head and deputy shared a vision for what the school should be and worked all hours of the day and at weekends to try to make it a reality. For the first few years, that meant focusing on behaviour, says Mr Tudor. "We were in the corridors all the time, reinforcing zero tolerance for bad behaviour. It was knackering."

The additional work took a heavy toll on family life: "It took my wife a bit of getting used to, as I had been planning to wind down towards retirement," he says. "But then she understood how energising it was for me. When I met Kay and saw her enthusiasm and relentlessness, I thought I had found a kindred spirit who shared the same idea as me: that our job should be about doing the absolute most we could do for the kids."

In 2009, the school moved from the old Anfield building into a new pound;40 million site. Alongside behaviour management, one of the first tasks the senior leadership team decided to address was creating an intensely personalised curriculum for those children who needed it. This is the only way to accommodate some pupils' varied and specialised needs, says Mrs Askew, and it allows them pupils to build a strong relationship with one specific teacher.

For example, the travel and tourism teacher has two Year 9 girls in her classroom all the time, even if she also has a class full of A-level students. The pupils stay with the same teacher all day because they were finding it disruptive to move between subjects and classrooms.

"If that's where they feel secure and safe - with that teacher, in that subject - then that's what happens," says Mrs Askew. "But of course through that they get their literacy and everything else. Until they build their confidence."

Another pupil, with epilepsy, was having a difficult time dealing with his symptoms and felt that he had no control over his condition. "He was happy doing art, so we put him there for about five or six months," says Mrs Askew. "He was highly successful - he did fabulous stuff that he could have contributed to an A-level. Then when he was feeling a bit better we said, `Do you fancy a bit of computing? A bit of English?'"

The reason the school leaders felt this intensely personalised curriculum was necessary owes much to pupils' previous academic attainment levels, not to mention their experiences outside school.

North Liverpool Academy's catchment area includes Everton, which has the highest levels of unemployment and deprivation in Liverpool. This is where 11-year-old Rhys Jones was shot in 2007. From the outset, senior management brought in knife arches and set up a confidential helpline so that pupils could feel that the school was a safe haven.

In educational achievement, the area has consistently underperformed compared with the rest of Liverpool and the national average: 29 per cent of Everton pupils achieved five A* to C at GCSE in 2010, compared with 53 per cent for Liverpool and for the UK as a whole.

Pupils arrive at the academy with attainment levels at key stage 2 significantly lower than the national average. A high number of pupils have also been identified with special educational needs and 30 per cent of all pupils have a statement. But regardless of their background or previous attainment, the school motto is "a place for everyone".

Another key to the academy's turnaround has been its diversification of exam courses beyond GCSEs and A-levels.

"For the first time, kids who had never achieved anything before had completed part of a GCSE equivalent," says Mr Tudor. "Soon even the trouble-makers wanted to get a piece of that."

However, attention was also focused on pupils' social and emotional skills. "The first year was really about building the self-esteem of the kids and their confidence," says Mandy Doyle, head of drama and social and emotional aspects of learning (Seal).

"We wanted to make them feel that they could achieve because that wasn't there when we started. Even after the first year there was an improvement and that has continued to develop."

Bringing in a house system allowed pupils to compete for prizes based on behaviour among other things, and staff were intent on building a culture of aspiration in the academy - something that was recognised and praised by Ofsted.

The senior management team talk in glowing terms about their teachers and credit them for the school's success. Most staff are aged under 30 and when the school opened, many were teaching BTEC courses of which they had little experience.

Many NQTs have stayed on at the school and there are abundant opportunities for progression. There is an emerging leaders' group for young teachers who want to progress into management and CPD is delivered from within the current staff.

"It encourages you to be brave," says Ms Doyle. "If someone is telling you that you're doing well and asks you to share your expertise, that gives you confidence. It is really good for the staff."

Having grown up in Anfield, Ms Doyle is more aware than most of the perception of the academy in the outside community and how much it has changed.

"When I tell people where I work I always get a positive response - `That's a good school, that is'," she says.

After pledging his support for the academy back in the early 2000s, Mr Ward was also sent what he calls "unpleasant" letters, but unlike the first sponsor he was not deterred and spent his time trying to woo the community.

"The way I saw it, Liverpool was the poorest city in the UK (at the time) and Everton was the poorest part of Liverpool," he says. "I just thought that if any children needed a world-class education, the children from this community did. While the label of "academy" is evocative, this is a community school run by Kay and her team."

On any given day at North Liverpool Academy, there might be a group of elderly ladies getting their hair styled by pupils, the school bell might be the latest Dizzee Rascal or Beyonce track and the student parliament might be meeting with a politician.

"It's not terribly normal around here," admits Mrs Askew. But she believes this is the only way to cultivate a culture where children want to succeed and to accommodate each pupil's needs. If the most recent exam results and Ofsted report are anything to go by, this unconventional approach has worked.

Tips for success

- Stick to the knitting: don't do the things that aren't going to make a difference to the children.

- Get quick wins through appropriate courses which help make the kids competitive.

- Take on specialist staff who can look after specific areas so that nothing falls through the cracks - for example, we have someone dedicated to community cohesion.

- Use data on pupils' previous attainment and specific background so that you can tailor teaching and learning to pupils' needs.

- Have fun.

Kay Askew and Ken Tudor.

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