What are the secrets of successful schools?
Some schools are popular because they score highly on the exam league tables. That is a simple enough equation. But there are schools that have pupils lining up for other reasons, whether that be the social mix, extracurricular activities, building and grounds, or perhaps something less tangible, such as the school’s philosophy.
We spoke to the headteachers of some of the most oversubscribed, nonselective schools in England to find out the secrets of their success.
‘Success is about small class sizes’ – Steve Morrison, Kingsdale Foundation School.
The school is genuinely diverse. We have children from the most difficult, challenging estates in Peckham to the richest areas of Dulwich. Anyone can come here. The majority of places are given according to a random lottery whereby names go into a hat. We provide free transport from year 7; we don’t want kids travelling more than an hour to school.
For us, success is about small class sizes with, on average, 20 pupils per class. It’s a real selling point of the school. We also have the largest atrium in Europe. It’s a bit like a cathedral space. It affects how people relate to each other. When it rains, you don’t have to run and hide or sit in stairwells. There’s a lot of glass, so you can see what’s going on.
There is something here for everybody. We offer free one-to-one provision for music, art and mathematics. It costs us tens of thousand each year, and it’s not something that we have to do, but these things matter. Every year, we take 350 students and staff to France for a week. Why? Because it makes a difference to the children. It builds their relationships.
The overwhelming majority of the children want to be in the school. If we say ‘it’s not working for you’, they will say they don’t want to hear that. They know this is a school where people have been recruited by Manchester United, been in the Olympic squad, or gone to Oxbridge. They want to be in the same class.
‘We have our own working farm’ – Mark Thomas, Brymore Academy.
We are a state boys boarding school. We have about 200 day pupils and 130 boarders. Our intake is regularly in the bottom 1% of the country in terms of achievement when they arrive, but they go on to make excellent progress.
We have our own working farm with a dairy herd, beef herd, pig herd, ewes and poultry. The boys get up at 6am and go and milk the cows. It’s the same after school. We also have a one-acre walled garden where they can grow their vegetables. The boys work at the school and they have duties. We do other subjects, but it’s a very practical curriculum and because of that they make a lot of progress. If we put extra English or maths classes on after school, they all turn up, even the day pupils. They’re just used to hard work.
A lot of parents with boys who have struggled at primary school see us as a solution to helping their son make progress. There’s a belief that, if you’re bright, you shouldn’t be doing practical courses, there’s a stigma, but I think that’s rubbish. I would say about 50% of the boys go on to a vocational pathway, often engineering and land-based qualifications, and others that go on to A-levels and university. We don’t chase exam league tables, we do what works for the boys.
‘We’ve made a mobile phone-free environment’ – Gerald O’Connor, St Augustine’s Catholic High School.
Children feel secure when there are boundaries. We’ve made this a mobile phone-free environment. When a child arrives at school, they pop their phone into a magnetic pouch for the day and when they leave the magnetic release allows them to get it out. This one action takes a whole lot of social pressures off the table for the children, so they’re not dragged backwards by a plethora of things, such as social media. It’s been phenomenal. It’s literally changed the behaviour of the children. The number of behaviour incidents went down and there’s been a noticeable improvement with staff relationships. It allows us to focus on the here and now.
In my mind, success is about high expectations for all the students. You only get that if you’ve got visible leadership that’s present throughout the school day. A member of our leadership team pops into every lesson, every day to check the children and the staff are OK. It builds relationships with the students. We’re also fairly unique as we take them at age 14. It gives them that sense of direction.
‘Even after they’ve left we check in on them’ – Hans van Mourik Broekman, Liverpool College.
We were a fee-paying school with a long history in the city and, in 2013, it became possible for people to go here on a non-payment basis. We have a beautiful 288-acre campus with great facilities. How many schools have a classics library? Pupils can be in a play, join the combined cadet force, do all their tasks for a Duke of Edinburgh award, and play Saturday morning sport fixtures against other schools. We’re attractive to people who want school to be more than just lessons and going home.
Since we converted to non-selective academy state school status, all sorts of things have happened. The school is more ethnically diverse than the city of Liverpool, we’ve seen an enormous acceleration of pupils eligible for pupil premium and in looked-after children and a massive increase in pupils with health and care plans.
We work hard to make sure that every pupil has a good next step. No matter what the outcome at GCSE or A-level we do everything we possibly can to give them a good path. Even after they’ve left we check in on them.
‘It’s very much like Harry Potter’ – Susie Burden, Fulston Manor School.
We are a non-selective school in a selective area. We centre the school around a traditional house system, it’s very much like Harry Potter. It’s certainly competitive – we have inter-house sport competitions and a cup at the end of each term. It’s about being part of a bigger team.
We try to be as comprehensive as you can in a selective area. It does make it an interesting position to be working in. The most academically able children in the area go to the grammar schools rather than to Fulston. For the past two years, our progress score has not been as high as we would’ve liked. It’s for a multitude of reasons. For example, we had a year group that was pretty challenging, but we’re working to improve it.
The measure of our success is that the children are leaving school with a good future ahead of them. We have very high admissions numbers for the next cohort, and we’re still heavily oversubscribed. I think locally people know the school for all of its traditions and beliefs and that’s what makes people choose it. They have a sense of what future their children will have.