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Education: This is how you improve a school

by
20 September 2013

Changes to the number of lessons at a Church of England academy appear to be affecting educational results, Pat Ashworth discovers

New direction: St Aidan's principal, Catherine McCoy, with pupils

New direction: St Aidan's principal, Catherine McCoy, with pupils

HEY are trying to change the world at St Aidan's Church of England Academy in Darlington, County Durham, where the school operates in one of the most deprived wards in the country. It is a tall order, the assistant head, Stephanie Francom, says, but radical changes to the school day are proving to be one step on the long journey.

The secondary school, which has about 700 pupils, has endured hard times in the past, and was in special measures before converting to academy status in 2007. Students enter Year 7 (age 11 to 12) with below-average attainment, and many have poor literacy skills. Fewer than five per cent of their parents stayed on in education; there is a lack of reading, motivation, and aspiration at home.

St Aidan's moved into a brand new building in 2009, when it shed its former name and past history as Eastbourne School. OFSTED judged it in January 2013 to be a school requiring improvement in all areas, but commended leaders and managers for what had been achieved since the previous inspection. A new principal, Catherine McCoy, has been in place since January.

 

IT WAS Ms Francom's initiative to reduce the number of periods in a day from six to three, in September last year. Dividing the school day into two or three long lessons, instead of the average six, is a pedagogic idea. The argument is that it allows greater concentration on a subject, and reduced disturbance. But, so far, fewer than 20 schools around the country have put it into practice.

Ms Francom believed that the change might underpin the academy's Progress, Independent Learning, and Active Learning Programme (making children into independent learners ranks high on the school's list of aims). At St Aidan's, before a child asks the teacher for the answer, the mantra of "Three before me" requires them first to ask a friend, second to look it up in a book, or third to just sit and think how they could solve it themselves.

"Our children aren't very resilient, and that's what we're trying to get into them: that they can be resilient, and they can learn," Ms Francom says. "We know we're in for the long haul, but that's how we plan to raise standards in the school over a five-year stretch. Because if you can get them into Key Stage 4, they should be a dream to teach, and should get all sorts of qualifications, because they've got the learning to do it. That's what we're aiming for."

 

CLOSE observation of lessons throughout the school highlighted the problems that resulted from a six-period day. "It was clear that children were sometimes being left behind, and that they'd then wait a week for another lesson on that topic," Ms Francom says. "If they didn't pick up the thread where they left off, there was a gap.

"So we decided to go for the 110-minute approach; so that children have time to digest what they're doing, have far more time to be creative, learn in different ways, and can be engaged on more exciting tasks."

Now, after the daily "family time" and worship, the students go straight into period one at 9 a.m. Break follows, then period two, and then lunch. From Monday to Thursday, the afternoon is made up of one period of 100 minutes, apart from Friday, when there is an early finish to the school day, and the 50-minute afternoon session means that students can leave at 2.35 p.m.

Friday's 50-minute session is a round-up and reflection on the week for the students, who fill in their logs, and identify what they need to improve and aim for in order to start afresh on Monday.

 

THE ideology is perfect, and they're "getting there", but, in practice, it is a tough job, Ms Francom says. Staff in the humanities department, and those who were teaching practical subjects welcomed the proposed changes; staff in the maths department were the most apprehensive, but, when the changes were reviewed after a year, no one wanted to go back to the old system.

"We all do slightly different things, but we chunk our lessons into learning zones, and try to do five or six different activities during the session," Ms Francom says.

For those starting in Year 7, it is more like the primary-school day. Also more familiar is the fewer number of teachers they will encounter in a single day. "The fewer adults you have in your life when you're learning, the better you will do," she suggests.

All movement around the school takes place in the children's unstructured time of break or lunch; so students now get to lessons on time, she says. "We've worked well on that, and we're not tardy. People start their lessons on time, and get the full 110 minutes. And there's no time to be naughty in the corridors between lessons, because that time is your time.

"Sport also benefits from having break or lunch on either side. It now easily fits the government requirements, and there have been dramatic improvements in what can be achieved in the time. A 50-minute lesson could end up being 35, because they had to get changed. You'd always have children coming late from PE to the next lesson."

 

FOR the staff, their non-contact period is now long enough to achieve something. "Fifty minutes used to become 30 by the time you'd settled. Now you have a big chunk of time, and, with break or lunch tagged on as well, it can be more than two hours of time to really get things done. We're finding we are much more effective."

The quality of lesson planning has also improved, because of - and not in spite of - the more onerous nature of the task. "You have to think more," Ms Francom says. "You can't have children for 110 minutes and just wing it."

Students have been generally positive about the timetable change, although it was least welcomed, at first, by Years 10 and 11 (aged 14 to 16), who had had the longest experience of the six-period day. "That was the biggest battle. The Eights adapted very well, and the Sevens of course didn't know anything else. None of us question it now: it's routine for staff and students."

How do the students fare in longer sessions of the subjects they most dislike? "The 110- minutes lessons might have marginalised the naughties a little bit. If you're prone to be disruptive, then it's a long time to be disruptive," Ms Francom acknowledges.

"But lessons aren't boring, because the teacher can afford to be more creative. We've invested heavily in technology, particularly iPads, which people can book out; the students really enjoy that. We've bought a green screen, too; so they do French lessons while walking down the Champs-Elysées, for example, and we have a lot of learning that involves filming and role-play and talking."

The school operates on a two-week timetable, with a strong emphasis on maths and English, the two things identified as most needing improvement. For the lower school, the two weeks are very much a mirror image of each other; options for the older students in the higher Key Stages make timetabling a little more complex, but Ms Francom is satisfied that no groups have a bad week.

A full data analysis will show what impact the change is having on standards. "In truth, it shouldn't really impact until it's been in place for five years and the children have had it all the time," Ms Francom concludes. "But if we can make small gains, we'll be very pleased."

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