Research School Network: Understanding disadvantage – a town-wide approach to improving literacy A collective approach to boosting literacy


Understanding disadvantage – a town-wide approach to improving literacy

A collective approach to boosting literacy

Simon Cox, Director of Blackpool Research School, reflects on understanding disadvantage in his context.

Think of Blackpool and you’ll no doubt think of donkey rides on the beach, kiss-me-quick’ hats, and the famous illuminations. But step back from the Promenade, and Blackpool is an area facing significant social disadvantage. It is the most deprived local authority nationally, with eight of the ten most deprived neighbourhoods in England located in the town. This provides a challenging context for Blackpool’s schools; a context which needed leaders to collaborate, and to collectively go to greater lengths to support those in need.

Diagnosing need

Blackpool Secondary Heads Group, meeting regularly and with representation from all schools, initially identified literacy as a priority issue for Blackpool’s young people. Children who struggle with reading are at a significant disadvantage in every one of the GCSE examinations they take.

GL Assessment’s New Group Reading Tests were used town-wide to diagnose this as a significant area for improvement. Children’s results showed that the majority of Blackpool secondary schools were working with children with below average reading abilities, and that our town had four times the number of pupils in the lowest performance band compared to national averages.

Coupled with below average GCSE outcomes across all subjects, and the recognised importance of reading and vocabulary on attainment across the curriculum, the group of headteachers had confidence that the focus area had been correctly identified.

For Blackpool, closing the disadvantage gap meant closing the literacy gap.

Leaders were mindful of previous unsuccessful attempts to lead change across Blackpool, which too often had a short-term focus on rapidly improving GCSE outcomes and Ofsted grades. This work would focus on the long-term, with effective implementation, high-quality sustained professional development for teachers and leaders, and evaluation built-in.

Four core areas sat at its heart

1. A common agenda

The shared goal of improving literacy was agreed by all schools at headteacher and CEO level, and backed up by a commitment from all Blackpool secondaries to include this as a whole-school priority.

Critically, while the initial focus of the project would be establishing effective interventions to tackle gaps in pupils’ literacy. The ultimate goal was sustainability: to develop a culture of reading across Blackpool schools and change classroom teaching to ensure evidence-informed literacy instruction – focusing on explicit vocabulary teaching, disciplinary reading, and writing – would be embedded.

2. A shared measurement system

Everyone across the project agreed on what success should look like, and used the same system for measuring progress. This included a suite of assessments conducted annually, with very high completion rates, allowing a shared language around assessment to be developed.

This also provided rigorous and externally validated data sets on which schools could make decisions related to intervention. In this way, all schools had a measurement tool to evaluate the impact of the programme and to make decisions about the programme’s future direction.

3. Continuous communication and collaboration

Communication is a cornerstone of the project. This is important, as programmes which incorporate practical social support, and that provide regular prompts and cues to Participants, are more likely to lead to longer term impact.

Communication included regular face-to-face project board meetings, supportive visits by the project team, and regular email communication. Schools reported that the opportunity to bring together literacy leaders from across the town to collaborate was invaluable, and has created support networks which have continued to this day.

4. Investment in professional development

We seized the opportunity to implement a rigorous programme of professional development, designed to increase knowledge and understanding of the evidence attending secondary literacy. Coupled with developing understanding of the wider use of evidence to support school decision making, and the evidence supporting teacher professional development, leaders were better equipped to then effectively disseminate their own knowledge to their wider school teams.

The three main successes of the work to date have been:

  • Rigorous and meaningful use of data: This has allowed a sharp focus on identifying those pupils in need of support and intervention, identifying what this intervention should look like, and affording a more joined-up approach to literacy, behaviour, and SEND
  • Raised profile of reading and the regularity with which pupils now actively engage in reading challenging texts across Blackpool secondary schools
  • Close collaboration with other schools, including an open and honest dialogue around schools’ challenges and successes

Young people who leave school without good literacy skills are held back at every stage of life. The work being done across Blackpool is shifting the narrative, and is providing pupils with a passport to a better future.

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