How can secondary schools enhance literacy and improve GCSE outcomes?

Bernadette Kaye explains how a pioneering borough-wide initiative and a laser-like focus on reading led to rapid progress for disadvantaged KS3 students at her Blackpool school

South Shore Academy is a smaller than average 11-16 high school serving some of the most deprived communities in Blackpool. It’s in one of the top 10 most deprived wards in England, with over 50% of students living in the most deprived areas nationally and with over 70% of its students receiving free school meals. Transience is high. Student turnover in the last academic year was 23%, with 9% of children being new to the area, though the intake remains predominately White British (83%) and more male (55%) than female.

Over the past few years, trustees and governors have worked hard to give children a better education. And that hard work has paid off: the school improved from ‘special measures’ to ‘requires improvement’ in its latest Ofsted inspection, with indicators such as personal development rated ‘good’.

Nevertheless, teachers and leaders at the school realised that more needed to be done. They understood that pupils’ poor literacy skills often got in the way of learning. So they enthusiastically signed up to the Blackpool KS3 Literacy Project when it launched 18 months ago. Bernadette Kaye, an English teacher and the Assistant Head, became the literacy lead for South Shore.

We’re seeing fewer exclusions, in part because children find the curriculum much easier to access now literacy has improved.

When Ofsted came in recently, we were able to demonstrate our whole-school approach to reading and we could show them it was a focus in every class that they went into.

Identifying the problem

Before the project could get underway, teachers wanted to know how they could best identify the children who were struggling and what specific issues they were struggling with. This is where GL Assessment’s New Group Reading Test (NGRT) came in. It was used to ascertain the baseline scores for 400 of 11 to 14-year-olds and to help teachers understand what the data meant.

“Before a single assessment was taken, teachers were shown exactly what their tests would measure, and the depth of insight they would bring,” says Bernadette. “GL Assessment’s support was invaluable. We could immediately uncover the issues students were experiencing in literacy and shape the right interventions.”

What the data showed

The NGRT results, which showed standard age scores for every child and how they compared to their peers nationally, painted an alarming picture. “The data uncovered the fact that a lot of our students struggle with reading and that 24% of them were in the lowest NGRT reading performance band (stanine 1), compared to 4% nationally.”

The school also used the results to highlight the link between literacy and academic performance in every subject. In common with secondary colleagues elsewhere, many teachers at South Shore weren’t fully aware just how vital a role literacy played across the curriculum. “We hammered the data to understand the correlation between NGRT and GCSE results and used case studies in maths and science, for example, to demonstrate the link between literacy and subject performance,” Bernadette says. “For many colleagues it was a light-bulb moment.”

There was already a perception among her colleagues, she says, that the new GCSEs had made literacy challenges greater for schools like South Shore, which in turn helped the KS3 project. “That awareness allowed greater buy-in from colleagues in different subjects because they realised that students needed literacy help to tackle the new exams.”

We are so impressed with NGRT that we have introduced it to our family of primary schools, so we should have a much richer set of data when those children eventually arrive in South Shore.

Of all the Blackpool schools involved in the KS3 Literacy Project, South Shore has witnessed some of the biggest improvements in reading in Years 7 and 9.

The road to improvement

Of all the Blackpool schools involved in the KS3 Literacy Project, South Shore has witnessed some of the biggest improvements in reading in Years 7 and 9. And Bernadette attributes staff buy-in and intensive CPD as two of the crucial reasons for that success. “We did a lot of hearts and minds work with the staff early on in the project so they really understood the changes we were proposing.”

But she also says the school deliberately focused on a couple of areas rather than having a multiplicity of changes. “First we changed the culture of the school. Class teachers used to feel they had to make sure students had enough to eat first thing in the morning or were dressed properly and so on. It was very well intentioned but it didn’t get students thinking straight away.

“Now, while we still provide that level of pastoral support, we have made sure that it isn’t the responsibility of the teacher. We’ve said to the staff, ‘The school will take care of the pastoral needs of those children who need it; your job is to get them reading as soon as they come into class.’” Students now spend 20 minutes each day in daily form reading, with those with the lowest scores getting tailored phonics support, too.

The second area South Shore concentrated on was the teaching of reading in all subjects. “We have gone from having virtually no textbooks in the classroom – and relying on simpler, non-contextual handouts – to ensuring that each child has a high-quality textbook in every subject.” Students are no longer spoon-fed chunks of de-contextualised information, Bernadette says, but are trained how to skim, scan and access material in textbooks.

One of the earliest discoveries the school made was that students lacked the subject-specific literacy they needed to access the curriculum. “We realised they were getting breadth but little depth. So the reading materials we now give them aim to give them a deeper understanding. If, for instance, they are studying the Holocaust in Year 8, we will give them The Diary of Anne Frank to read at the same time. Everything is much more joined up than it used to be.”

The results

The results have been impressive, with students in Years 7 and 9 improving by the equivalent of almost half a GCSE grade in a single year. “When Ofsted came in recently, we were able to demonstrate our whole-school approach to reading and we could show them it was a focus in every class that they went into,” Bernadette says.

The children have responded incredibly well to the programme, she says. “They are so proud of the progress they have made and can’t wait to tell visitors how much they have learnt.” And so have the staff: “Everyone is really happy. We’re cautiously awaiting the next set of results but our staff and students know how hard they have worked.”

There have been other benefits, too. “Attendance has improved and truancy has declined, probably because there is now a much more predictable routine. We’re also seeing fewer exclusions, in part because children find the curriculum much easier to access now literacy has improved.”

Bernadette also believes that the increased stability and pride the programme has brought to the school has had a tangible effect on staff turnover. “Two years ago, our staff turnover was approaching 50% – 24 colleagues left out of a teacher population of 56. Last year only seven teachers left – and I think our new literacy programme is a big reason for that. In fact, we are so impressed with it that we have introduced the NGRT to our family of primary schools, so we should have a much richer set of data when those children eventually arrive in South Shore.”

The results have been impressive, with students in Years 7 and 9 improving by the equivalent of almost half a GCSE grade in a single year.

Less is more. Do one thing really well and stick with it. Blackpool has been intervened with and tampered with for so long that it actually makes a refreshing change to stick to an initiative and see it through.

The future

Bernadette and her colleagues aren’t planning on making any major changes just yet. “We will only embed progress if we stick to what we are doing now – we don’t want to do anything new yet. In a school like South Shore, just sustaining progress is an effort.”

She points to their continued use of teachers reading directly to the class as an example. “At some point we will try independent reading programmes as students progress. But at the moment too many of them need adult role models to get started because they lack the capabilities to read independently.”

Bernadette has some advice for schools with a similar literacy problem to South Shore: “Less is more. Do one thing really well and stick with it. Blackpool has been intervened with and tampered with for so long that it actually makes a refreshing change to stick to an initiative and see it through.”

She emphasises once again the contribution of colleagues: “Staff CPD and staff buy-in are vital. To get a secondary school teacher who has never read a book in front of children to sit there and read has been hugely beneficial not only for students but for staff, too. Now they understand that because they are doing that they don’t have to spend so much time doing other things – like chase attendance.”

Bernadette’s top ten tips for improving literacy throughout a school

  1. Ensure you know the nature of the problem. Do you know how your students compare nationally, which need support and what that support should look like?
  2. Make sure staff are on board with any changes. They need to know why literacy is so crucial and what it means for the teaching of their subject.
  3. Emphasise that literacy is a whole-school endeavour. It is not the sole responsibility of any one department.
  4. Sweat the data. Use it not only to measure progress but also to identify and diagnose potential problems.
  5. Less is more. Make one or two big changes and stick to them.
  6. Read first thing. Get children into the habit of reading as soon as they start school in the morning.
  7. Invest in quality textbooks. Teach children how to get the most out of them and don’t rely on handouts.
  8. Encourage subject literacy. Introduce reading materials into each subject that acquaint children with specific subject vocabulary and concepts.
  9. Invest in staff CPD. Colleagues have to know what the data is telling them and where students need to be supported or stretched.
  10. Walk don’t run. To be sustainable, progress has to be properly embedded, so don’t introduce students to material they can’t fully access.

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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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Natasha Cartwright

We offer a broad range of training and support options, to help you get the most out of your assessments and build a complete picture of your students’ strengths and needs. We also have a dedicated Assessment Insights team to assist you in making the best use of your assessments. Natasha, our Secondary expert, is on hand to answer any questions from talking through what your data is showing you to which reports are most useful for your school’s needs.

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