Bright future for City Academy
September saw 11-year-olds across the country begin their secondary school careers. All of us will be familiar with the mixed feelings of excitement and trepidation that come with that first day. But new students at City Academy will have arrived with a spring in their step following the inspirational achievements of the school’s recent graduates. We spoke to the school’s Principal, Jon Angell about the school’s recent success and what new pupils can expect in the near future…
This year students across England, Wales and Northern Ireland had to rise to the challenge of taking on new GCSE exams.
This meant a lot of uncertainty for teachers and students alike and both had to work hard to prepare for an exam system that still remained relatively unknown.
However, in Bristol, schools did particularly well and pupils scored above the national average.
City Academy showed one of the highest exam improvement rates in the city, with 53 percent of its students achieving 9-4 in English and Maths – an incredible 10 percent increase on last year.
“We have had a fantastic set of results – our best set of results,” said Jon. “In the past three years we have continued to improve dramatically and we are becoming a school of choice again.”
This year, 180 year 7s have joined City Academy – the largest group that the school has had for many years.
As with most other secondary schools, the first day sees the year group go in on their own to settle in and to help those who might be nervous.
Jon begins with an assembly to welcome them, before the students meet their tutor groups – known as ‘learning families’ at City Academy. They then get their planners, timetable and uniform and from 11:20 onwards it’s straight into lessons in order to get them used to the routine.
“The new year 7s will have some fantastic opportunities to help them decide what they want to do with their lives,” said Jon.
“Our vision is to give children the opportunity to choose to go to university if that’s what they want to do and choose a career that changes the world – we have had students leave here who have changed things on a national scale.”
He pointed to one former student that had worked with education charity, Integrate, and helped to get national policy over female genital mutilation changed.
Investment over time
However, the recent success at City Academy has been hard fought for. In January 2015 the school was managed by a different Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) and had been put into special measures by Ofsted. The trust in charge of the school had decided that it would move out of education and called upon fellow trust Cabot Learning Federation (CLF) for assistance.
CLF provided a range of support measures, one of which was to second Jon – who was Principal at John Cabot Academy at the time – to provide assistance to City Academy’s two interim heads.
“It soon became clear to me that this place had so much potential – the staff were brilliant the kids were brilliant and the facilities are amazing,” said Jon. “The more we were here the more we thought why shouldn’t City Academy join Cabot Learning Federation?”
Jon was appointed as Principal in March 2016 and in June 2016, City Academy became part of CLF.
He explained that the recent excellent results the school is seeing now are in-part thanks to the investment that it has made in its pupils over time:
“In the first year we were able to do a lot of improvement work that had long-term benefits. We looked at the curriculum that the younger students were doing. We didn’t rush things, which is what you might feel that you need to do when a school is in special measures.”
He explained that one of the benefits of working in a MAT with primary and secondary schools was the ability to look at a child’s entire school journey to understand what they have learned and what they need to learn in order to succeed at later stages.
Furthermore, CLF principals are given a lot of autonomy over their schools and this gives them the chance to try out new ideas and share the experience of what works and what doesn’t. The trust’s schools do share similarities where good practice has been developed or where standardisation supports learning. So for example, a number of years ago all of the trust’s schools moved to the same exam board, making it easier to manage and for teachers from different schools to work together.
Jon explained that one of the biggest challenges of the new exam system is knowing where the grade boundaries are.
“We had very little material to prep the kids with – that was challenging,” explained Jon.
“Now we have something to base predicted grades on. We are also more prepared as we understand the style of question and what to expect from the questions.”
The new questions are more challenging than ever and include a lot of content that would have previously been in the A-level exams. Coursework has now been almost entirely removed – this has been welcomed by teachers as it gives them more time to focus on teaching knowledge and skills.
However, the new curriculum is focused on academic subjects as these are easier to measure on the Progress 8 system. For Jon, this has been a big change and not one that necessarily benefits all students:
“If you are a child that doesn’t engage in that sort of work and wants to do more skills-based stuff then it’s very difficult to find qualifications that are sensible for a school to deliver that are going to engage students,” said Jon.
“Absolutely, children should have the opportunity to do academic subjects that stretch them – but what you are seeing is creative subjects being driven out of the curriculum.”
In order to help pupils achieve their ambitions, the school gives them opportunities to engage with activities in the community. The school is involved in the Bristol Works initiative, which helps find work experience places for pupils. It also takes part in UWE’s Future Quest programme, which aims to make university an option for those students that show potential to attend in areas where higher education participation is lower than expected.
The school will also be running learning activities in tutor groups and will be extending the school day by one hour for year 11.
City Academy also has a strong focus on reading and literacy, as poorer inner-city areas tend to have lower literacy levels among pupils. The school is running a new programme called Accelerated Reader in which each of the books in the library has been assigned a level. Pupils do a test and are assigned a level that is achievable, but still a challenge. They choose a book, read it and then do a test on the computer to prove that they have read it correctly.
Pupils score points for reading books and when they score enough points they go up a level.
“It also counts the number of words so you can get competitive about it,” said Jon.
“You start getting word millionaires! So it engages the students, while in the meantime we are getting a really good idea of which students are at their reading age, who is improving and who needs more support – so we can use our resources far more effectively.”
He explained that literacy helps pupils in all aspects of their education, giving them the confidence to read what is being written on the board, what is on their worksheet and ultimately, what the exam questions says.
“We talk about attainment mobility,” said Jon. “If you want to go to university then you need to get three qualifications at post-16 and so you need to get 4s and 5s at GCSE.”
“To achieve that we need to make sure that as many of our students are getting four or five in as many subjects as possible. So for example, by getting a 7 or 8 in physics you are already well-prepared to go on to take it at A-level, which means that yes, you can go on to university – that door is open to you.”
Jon explained that the school’s approach is driven by its three values: grit, pride and team spirit. Team spirit, because employers are looking for good team players – sometimes this is even valued over actual skills. Pride, because kids from the inner city often don’t feel this, but they have a lot to feel good about. And grit, because sometimes you’ve got to work hard to get through things in life.
“We want our kids to win in life – that’s doesn’t mean beating people but we want them to look around and think that in the game of life they are winning. Their wellbeing is good and they are comfortable.”