Improving pupils’ literacy is a no-brainer. Ensuring children and young people are both functionally literate and able to access the curriculum are good things that all schools, teachers and parents can sign up to. The problem is that not all children and young people are. As a consequence, they struggle at school and may decide that success and belonging can be found in other pursuits, sometimes leading them into criminality.

Blackpool is an area of extreme long-term disadvantage. Of the ten most deprived areas in the whole of England, eight are in Blackpool. The town is predominantly White British. Improving educational outcomes in Blackpool is the hardest of the hard miles. Many children start school well behind their age-expected development. Poor speech, communication and language skills, limited vocabulary and life experiences – some primary children have not been to the beach let alone the countryside – all make reading more difficult, particularly comprehension and inference. This has a knock-on effect: more time for literacy leaves less time for other subjects.

Witnessing domestic violence, substance misuse in or around the home, poor mental health, overcrowded, inadequate and cold houses and the daily struggle to put food on the table affects too many of our children and young people. Education in Blackpool has a far greater social dimension than in some other areas of England.

Stephen Tierney
Stephen Tierney

Blackpool is an area of extreme long-term disadvantage. Of the ten most deprived areas in the whole of England, eight are in Blackpool.

An ambitious set of aims were set out in the original project that have helped focus and maintain momentum.

Addressing the challenges of the new GCSEs

During the annual review of our summer 2017 examinations results, heads of departments repeatedly mentioned pupils struggling to understand the questions being asked in the new GCSEs. Concerns were also expressed about the demands of the new GCSE syllabi. These concerns resonated with comments from primary phase senior leaders about the demands of the Key Stage 2 Reading Test, the previous year.

So I started an extended period of thinking, reading, reflecting and planning how we might significantly enhance the reading capabilities of all our pupils. Partway through the process, Blackpool Opportunity Area approached me about extending the project that was beginning to emerge in the other Blackpool secondary academies and the Pupil Referral Unit (PRU).

The Blackpool Literacy Project

By September 2018, all of the secondary academies in Blackpool and the PRU had contributed to and signed up to the plan. Importantly, we had Right to Succeed – part-funding the project and bringing considerable knowledge and project management expertise – and GL Assessment as key partners.

The funding plan submitted to the Blackpool Opportunity Area Partnership Board was for a two-year initial roll-out. The training of literacy and evidence informed leads at a senior leadership level in each academy and the PRU was key. The time for these senior leaders was the biggest expense. The first term was spent on training and planning high-quality implementation. Interventions, which started small and grew over time, only happened in most schools in the second term.

An ambitious set of aims were set out in the original project and they have helped focus and maintain momentum. These aims were to:

  • Improve the decoding skills of students at Key Stage 3
  • Enhance vocabulary acquisition
  • Increase the amount of time students read
  • Develop, implement, test and embed a process for the reading of text within subjects
  • Develop, implement, test and embed a systematic improvement of Key Stage 3 Literacy (Reading) and the use of evidence-informed practice
  • Develop schools’ ability to undertake a Response to Intervention approach, matching intervention to identified need
  • Improve students’ social and emotional development

Each aim was linked to a particular evaluation tool – mainly GL Assessment’s NGRT, Progress Test in English (PTE) and the Pupil Attitudes to Self and School (PASS) attitudinal measure. We were particularly interested to see if there was a correlation between improved reading abilities and wider pastoral/attitudinal outcomes.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the near 12-month planning process. Too many projects fail due to poor planning, which leads to poor implementation, poor monitoring and an absence of any evaluation. It’s the kitchen sink approach to school improvement: if we just keep throwing enough things at the problem we will solve it.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the near 12-month planning process. Too many projects fail due to poor planning, which leads to poor implementation, poor monitoring and an absence of any evaluation.

The early signs, particularly for those schools that had more stable staffing or good implementation, are very promising.

Results so far

Not everything went to plan. There is always a level of turbulence working in the most challenging areas. Inevitably, people were promoted, fell ill or went on maternity leave, which meant that we needed to repeat training. Changes to senior staff meant the new person had to get up to speed without the benefit of training. An adverse Ofsted inspection blew one academy totally off course.

The early signs, particularly for those schools that had more stable staffing or good implementation, are very promising. NGRT Average Standard Age Score progress for Years 7 and 9 students showed an increase in four schools – ranging between 3-5 points – maintained the expected progress in three other academies and only fell in one. Unfortunately, the latter had struggled to retain its senior project lead, so implementation was erratic. It has now appointed an experienced practitioner from the Trust to lead literacy development.

Staff surveys show a significant increase in the academies’ prioritisation of literacy and in teachers’ beliefs in their self-efficacy. The next challenge is to provide support to teachers in disciplinary literacy within their own subject areas. And anecdotally, it seems the steady, consistent leadership and management of the project is rubbing off on the way schools are operating. Throwing kitchen sinks may well become a thing of the past.

Stephen Tierney's ideas for a successful Key Stage 3 Literacy Project roll-out

  1. Appoint a leader with the authority to make the decisions needed to get the project up and running and maintain its momentum. This person needs to be in place 9/12 months before the start date.
  2. Form a small project team of committed people who can identify the key problems that need to be addressed. Start to get other key partners on board. GL Assessment, CUREE and Lexonic (Sound Training), among others, were all companies we engaged at an early stage. Getting Alex Quigley on board to lead the literacy training and act as a critical friend proved very powerful.
  3. Build in evaluation from the outset. Keep it simple and straightforward. Start by getting a baseline. GL Assessment’s NGRT is a well-designed and robust assessment tool. All pupils were assessed in the first half term of the 2018 academic year using the NGRT. We were also interested in whether enhanced reading would have a wider impact on the curriculum and whether enhanced reading capability (literacy) would have a positive impact on pupils’ attitudes. For these, we also baselined pupils using GL Assessment’s Progress Test in English and Pupil Attitudes to Self and School attitudinal survey. With these tests now being repeated annually, Blackpool is beginning to develop a longitudinal database across a range of measures. The literacy plan also had more qualitative elements – pupil case studies, staff questionnaires – to ensure interventions were being correctly implemented.
  4. Build significant capacity within the organisation to ensure the project is implemented well. Too often projects have significant amounts of funding for external consultants with no thought given to the capacity needed to implement the project on the ground. We built in circa £24k per school to release a senior leader for two days a week to act as a Literacy and Evidence Informed Lead. Some schools decided to split the role. We always hold meetings when lessons are not timetabled so full attendance is pretty much guaranteed.
  5. Include substantial professional development for the senior leader from each school. We identified staff’s limited knowledge and their views about literacy as an early problem. The academies were required to commit to significant whole-school training of staff. The Research School at St Mary’s Catholic Academy, alongside Alex Quigley, led on the Education Endowment Foundation programmes for Literacy & Implementation; Philippa Cordingley from CUREE led on Response to Intervention; GL Assessment and Lexonic led a number of training sessions. There is no significant literacy development in the classroom without substantial professional development in the staffroom.
  6. Finally, don’t think a project will run itself. Right to Succeed provided the crucial element of project management. This included regular meetings with senior leads, updates and task management, identifying issues at an early stage, keeping people true to the main aspects of the plan but tweaking them when needed and maintaining momentum and focus.

Keep it simple and straightforward. Start by getting a baseline. GL Assessment’s NGRT is a well-designed and robust assessment tool.

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Ongoing assessment of your students’ reading allows you to identify any gaps they may have - and our New Group Reading Test® (NGRT) is an ideal starting point. NGRT is a standardised, termly assessment that reliably measures reading skills against the national average, and it can be used alongside other assessments to pinpoint where support is needed and demonstrate the impact of your interventions.

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