You might think your school is good, but are you good enough?
Stephen Black, Principal, Ballymena Academy

Delivering success for Ballymena Academy

High-achieving school in Northern Ireland uses Kirkland Rowell Surveys to underpin a continuous school improvement programme.

Stephen Black, the Principal at Ballymena Academy, a co-educational Voluntary Grammar School in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, is a staunch believer in the power of benchmarking.

“Our school has long had an ethos of providing pupils with the very best education it is possible to deliver,” he says.  That ethos pervades everything the school does, including how the school leadership thinks about achievements.  Seeing the pupils do well is not enough:  Mr Black wants to be sure they achieve the most they can in their time at Ballymena Academy.  “But how do we know if we’re doing as well as we can?” he asks.

Measured by exam results, Mr. Black and his team look to be doing a sterling job.  In 2014, 99% of pupils taking their GCSEs achieved 5 or more grades A* to C.  At ‘A’ Level, 84% achieved 3 A* to C grades – the best performance in its 175-plus year history.

“But exam results are just one measure of a school’s success,” says Mr Black.  The school aims to provide a nurturing environment, where pupils can flourish.  “You can’t measure success just on exam results,” he adds.

Developing the whole pupil

Ballymena Academy’s leadership team wants children to develop intellectually, spiritually and morally.  “We encourage participation,” says Mr Black.  The school has an active sporting curricula but its attitude to participation goes far beyond team sports by getting pupils to enter young entrepreneur competitions, for example.

To assess how well the school is faring in non-academic aspects of developing its pupils, it has long championed the principles of self-evaluation.  Not least, Ballymena Academy has been using Kirkland Rowell Surveys, the UK’s leading provider of parent, pupil and staff surveys.

It uses the results to benchmark how its stakeholders feel about issues such as the school’s attempts to encourage community spirit, develop potential and give pupils confidence.

“It important that we take on board the views of all members of the school community”, says Mr Black, “and show stakeholders that the views of parents, pupils and staff are an essential component of delivering the best possible education to the school’s children.”

“We see ourselves as a community school, serving the local community.  If you’re going to have a complete picture, we have to see how we’re serving pupils, parents and staff and ascertain what their perceptions are.”

Informing school improvement

“A number of the nearly 3,000 state and independent schools use Kirkland Rowell Surveys to identify the key issues they should focus on.  But the intention is not to create a document for the Inspectorate, but one that informs the school’s continuous improvement plan,” says Mr Black.

In its latest set of surveys, Ballymena Academy parents reported high levels of satisfaction: 96% of parents rated the performance of the school as “good” or “very good”.

Pupil voice

It also takes the views of pupils very seriously.  The school has a very active Pupil Council, so Mr Black has not been surprised that the pupil results did not throw up anything unexpected.  “Even so, the stakeholder surveys provide pupils with an anonymous channel for feedback.”

That gives the school the confidence that the results they get are a genuine reflection of pupils’ views.  For example, the school was aware in the past that there had been a concern over facilities.  Through repeated use of Kirkland Rowell Surveys, Mr Black and his predecessor, Mr Hassard, have been able to monitor how improvements have been received.

“The outcomes of these surveys guide us in where we place our attention,” says Mr Black.  “By comparing results between surveys, Ballymena Academy can keep a close watch on trends.”

When looking at perceptions, scores can be broken down by gender and year group, allowing Mr Black to drill down into the data and keep an eye on any differences that could indicate something unusual.

Parental opinion

The ability to segment children by year group is particularly useful when it comes to parental surveys, as parents’ priorities often change as their children progress through a school.  At Ballymena Academy, developing moral values was more important to parents of young children rather than older ones.

Differences in priorities can also be seen with parents of Year 12 and Sixth Form pupils who place a far greater emphasis on careers advice than parents of younger children.  While this may not be a surprise, without the ability to detect the precise shift in parental attitudes as their child progresses through the school, it would be easy to overlook the importance that parents place on specific areas.

Benchmarking against ‘similar’ schools

The ability to benchmark against other similar schools also helps Ballymena Academy evaluate how it is progressing in attempts to be the very best.

“You might think your school is good,” says Mr Black, “but are you good enough?”

Mr Black and his team can see how stakeholder perceptions match up across various issues.  For example, in its 2013 parental survey, 83% of parents felt the school encouraged their children to adopt a healthy lifestyle.  To put that in perspective, the average score in similar schools was 61%.

When making comparisons in the past, Ballymena Academy has benchmarked itself against similar schools from across the UK.  But now, Kirkland Rowell Surveys have become the first to be able to offer benchmarks against similar schools from Northern Ireland.  So while Ballymena Academy has always compared favourably to selective schools in the UK, it can now see how it scores in relation to Secondary Schools in Northern Ireland, too. Working closely with Kirkland Rowell, Ballymena Academy has helped develop the facility for schools in Northern Ireland to now see results mapped against ETI quality indicators.

School-specific issues

Kirkland Rowell Surveys include a set of questions based on the issues that have been shown to be the most pressing for stakeholders.  But the surveys can be supplemented with questions on issues of a particular interest to that school, for example, Ballymena Academy has been able to use this feature to evaluate parental awareness of its child protection procedures.

“We actually engaged fairly early in this and we’ve been doing it for some years.  From the outset, our Vice-Principal, Mr Richard Ross, worked closely with the team at Kirkland Rowell Surveys to shape it to be relevant to our school,” says Mr Black.

“Being able to set our own questions is a positive boon,” says Mr Black.  “It allows Ballymena Academy to pick up on points that are of specific interest to the school leaders.”

The end results of these efforts are clear: the top two reasons that parents chose to send their children to the school were:  its academic standards and because the school has been recommended to them by their peers.  Engaging with parents, listening to their views and providing feedback on their strengths and areas for development have helped to drive its reputation, as not only an excellent school, but one which has an established culture of self-evaluation.


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