Imagine walking into a school where the leadership of the school greets you; students dressed in uniform; student and teachers who greet you everywhere you go; students and teachers don’t have any textbooks; teachers don’t have allocated work desks/spaces; students, teachers and parents have a combined social area; interactive whiteboards have been replaced by apple TVs because they are not interactive; and teachers and students totally engaged in their learning.
We had the opportunity to experience such a learning environment on our recent tour to Bolton, England – known as the ESSA Academy – an innovative secondary school within one of the toughest areas of the UK.
And add to this, the school has improved its performance significantly over the past four years as a result of the approach taken – moving from the bottom ranked school in their region to being the third highest over this period.
“Once again we have seen a rapid rise in standards with results reaching remarkable levels. In August 2013, we hit outstanding GCSE results once again with 98% of our year 11 students achieving 5 or more A*- C grades. Nationally, GCSE results have declined as grade restrictions imposed by the Government Regulator attempted to maintain standards by increasing the marks required to achieve higher grades from previous years. Despite this Essa Academy has bucked the trend and increased its results. This is a remarkable situation.”
The school is situated in the challenging area of Bolton, near Manchester where there are numerous nationalities (46 actually) attending, with the majority of these (80%) coming from the deprived areas of the UK as a result of available cheaper housing within the area. Under the inspiring leadership of a strong principal and leadership team, ESSA has centred all its conversation on three imperatives:
- Everything we do is because it is the right thing to do.
- Everyone deserves the right to learn in an equal environment
- All will succeed
Under such imperatives, the school has three key focus areas:
- building the social capital of all involved
- personalising learning for every student
- building the capacity of all staff.
As principal of ESSA Academy, Showak Badat, explains the real passion that he as broght to the academy and the community of Bolton.
“It was over 36 years ago that my father wasn’t going to send me to this school. That is when my vision started and it was pure luck that I managed to move on in my life; pure luck that I got interested in a particular curriculum area; it was pure luck that I was inspired to be creative in one particular area; and this lead me to think about my professional practice when I finally became what I wanter to become – chemistry teacher. It was to eliminate this idea of “luck”, and to empower people within the community.”
While we saw the new school facility, the teaching and learning approach undertaken by ESSA was developed by the leadership team well before this facility was built. The new building was certainly not the driving force for the philosophy developed by the school, nor the improved student outcomes. However, when one walks into the place, one can’t help be impressed by the central social area; the three D production studio and theatre; the spectacular central courtyard; the open, creative use of space; and the friendly nature that such a facility promotes. You feel welcomed, and at home – an element greatly needed within the Bolton community.
Driven by their core focus around engaging young people in their learning, the school went about developing a curriculum that was centred on the development of “individual learning journeys”:
“We believe that there are many routes for you to work towards the SUCCESS we have committed to, when we say ALL WILL SUCCEED, We don’t think that these routes are single journeys, rather they are made up of multiple journeys, with students playing a key part in choosing the paths they take along the way.”
The implementation of these journeys is strongly supported through the use of personalised technology devices that provide and support learning – both teachers and students have access to their own ipads and other personalised devices they use in all their classes.
Check out the following video clip to gain an understanding of the school philosophy: ESSA SChool Video
ESSA is an academy within the UK education system. As an academy they link with an external partner, and have the freedom to innovate and raise student standards. (For more information on the academy approach click on the link “Academies”)
The specific focus of ESSA has been on the use of youth friendly technologies as a way to engage, and then support, the learning of every student within the school. Both teachers and students are using ipads as their central tool in developing and providing learning across the school. The school also utilises the iTune University portal for uploading an extensive array of class lessons and resources thus allowing for students to access their learning at anytime and from anywhere. For the first time this year, the school hasn’t allocated any textbooks – rather the staff has uploaded all the curriculum and learning programs on to the schools iTunes University portal. A range of support resources (static, podcasts, videos) for each learning area have also been uploaded to the portal for students to access. This then allows students and teachers to access such resources, along with student work, anytime and anywhere.
While the ESSA Academy is required to follow the recently released national curriculum they have been able to be creative in ensuring that their curriculum remains focused on the individual student – they have utilised the Queensland “Productive Pedagogies” framework as a basis for their planning and delivery. The curriculum provided throughout the school is not necessarily different to any other school, except for two main reasons:
- the way in which they deliver the curriculum; utilising the range of personal technologies that young people utilise in todays world from podcast, web based resources, interactive online discussion, utilisation of the iTunes University; all focused on personalised learning.
- The provision of the “normal” curriculum within the first four days of the week and allowing for each Friday to be freed up to allow students pursue an area of interest (referred to as the E5 – enrichment activities). These activities are generally provided by facilitators, who are generally not teachers, who have a skill, or knowledge, to share with the students.
Practically the curriculum is provided through a “three-block” approach each day thus allowing for greater depth to be provided in each learning area. Such an approach has also allowed the school to cut down on wasted time that eventuates as a result of shorter timetable arrangements – the school calculated that with the change in program structure, they were able to utilise the saved time in supporting the Friday E5 program and not cut back on anytime relating to classroom learning. “If we do things for the right reason, so long as we can show the differences we make, then it is the right thing to do.”
While the school would admit that it was difficult to get all staff to embrace the moral imperative identified by the leadership, and to implement the learning approach identified in the early days. With a significant investment in professional learning for all staff, they are all now embracing the approach. The schools leaders would suggest: “We instil belief in people. How do you change a staff – you cant change behaviour but you can change belief…change the belief, you can change behaviour. This professional learning is an ongoing support mechanism and it operates across two key areas:
- one day at the beginning of each year is set aside to allow the whole staff to meet together, reflect on the schools purpose and focus, as well as supporting the formation/strengthening of relationships across the total staff.
- With the way in which the student learning program is now structured each Friday, staff are all involved in ongoing professional learning while the students participate in their enhancement programs.
The outcomes of such an approach in supporting staff across the school has been recognised by the leadership team as having a significant impact on the learning outcomes achieved over the past two years.
One of the key contributors to the learning improvement being achieved within ESSA is the strong student voice and leadership approach they have implemented. There are numerous levels where students can be involved in contributing to the development and operation of the academy. These levels include:
- Strand Council: is a forum of students who interact with the staff, and comment on classroom teaching and learning at a subject level.
- ESSA Ambassador: a privileged role which involves representing the school to visitors or travelling the world to present the ESSA school alongside school leadership team.
- Senate Member: anyone can be a member of the senate and their focus of work is based around student issues such as uniform, social activities, etc.
- Prefect: is a small group of students who are recommended by staff, then go through an interview and are then involved in meeting with school leadership on a regular basis providing a student voice at a school leadership level.
- Head Students: elected by the students to be the “head students” of the school.
Across all these areas of student voice, there is a high expectation that students are involved in meetings, forums and discussion both during school time and outside school time. Students also have the opportunity to be involved in a number of the student voice programs. They are recognised for their involvement in these areas with the presentation of a “badge” which serves as a symbol of their student voice role. All in all, visiting ESSA Academy challenged many of us in relation to the strong culture of improvement that has been developed within the community predominantly based on the key areas of student engagement in learning; a strong focus on youth friendly technology use throughout learning; and a focus on the ongoing development of all their staff.
As a result of the exceptional success of the learning approach undertaken in ESSA Academy, along with the growing support from the community, the academy in in the process of establishing a primary school to be added to the secondary school, thus resulting in the development of an All Through School.