In recent years it has been recognised that schools in coastal regions in England have significant difficulties addressing the disadvantages peculiar to the areas they serve. These challenges include “declining industry, limited transport infrastructure, low-paid work and few opportunities. Coastal populations simply have fewer choices than many others” are the finding in a recent report by Dr Tanya Ovenden-Hope.
The impact that these factors have on the aspirations of communities battered by the vagaries of social and economic injustices often leads to low levels of confidence in most institutions, including educational, to effect change. However, there has been a volte face in the way in which these schools, struggling in circumstances that appear hopeless, are to be developed and challenged. There is no need for any school or any community to languish in the doldrums of socio-economic disadvantage. Education has to be at the heart of the transformation.
When I was appointed to my role, my governors charged me with the ensuring that the Northumberland Church of England Academy (NCEA) was “a catalyst for change”. That charge is one that the entire community has taken on and we are beginning to see the results of our efforts.
Some of the challenges schools in coastal communities face in being catalysts for change are, according to Dr Ovenden-Hope’s report: low aspirations, staff recruitment, engaging parents and students, local schools, political and educational policy changes. To a certain extent the NCEA was faced with all of these issues in varying degrees.
We challenged those issues with a strong vision, based on a Christian ethos, which believes that every child can succeed irrespective of background. There should be no barriers to success and schools should work to seek solutions. We worked with the community, with our politicians, with our sponsors (The Diocese of Newcastle and The Duke of Northumberland) to raise the profile of the Academy and to ensure that people took an interest. We established traditions – if we had done it for a year, it became a tradition.
We transformed the buildings, invested millions in new, state of the art buildings on three sites and refurbished two other campuses. We established an academic ethos with high expectations and ambition that anyone can succeed. We introduced programmes that build experiences, broaden horizons, establish a sense of community and service, including the Combined Cadet Force, the Duke of Edinburgh Award, trips abroad and regionally; we employed an artist-in-residence; invested heavily in music education; developed youth social action opportunities such as Meals-on-wheels, charitable fund-raising (over £40,000 raised for charitable purposes in 2014/15).
We concentrated heavily in recruiting the best staff possible and then invested in their professional development. We have worked in partnership with the northern universities (Durham, Newcastle and Northumbria in particular) to build capacity, develop leadership courses, do action research on what works, introduced bespoke Masters’ programmes. All of this means that what the children experience in the classroom engages, excites and challenges them and they want to be in school. Our attendance levels have improved year on year. Our behaviour has improved immensely – we have some of the lowest rates (if not the lowest rate) of fixed and permanent exclusions in our county.
Much of what has had to be achieved is about setting the highest expectations and an unbridled passion that change is possible and that all can achieve.
The outcomes that we achieved in the Summer 2015 were the best in the Academy’s history and our children are impressive young people. The journey has only just begun, but perhaps some of the sentiments expressed by inspectors in our recent Ofsted report will give you a flavour of what makes me proud to be part of this great expedition in education.
“This is an academy in which relationships are a strength and a culture of respect, care and tolerance permeates every aspect of its work.”
“Learners thrive in the calm and orderly environment. They, and their parents, are proud to be part of the Northumberland Church of England community of care.”
[Ofsted: September 2015]
In the immortal words of The Carpenters “we’ve only just begun”, but it goes on to talk about “sharing horizons that are new to us”, perhaps not quite within the sentiment of the song itself, but the message could be transformed to reflect the journey that we are on. The waypoint is excellence and it must be filled with expeditionary learning brimming with excitement and expectation.
Andrew Day is the Executive Director at Northumberland Church of England Academy