Research School Network: Rising from the Ashes … Ashington Academy Alicia McKenna, Director of Research and Training takes a look at the meteoric rise of this North East comprehensive school.
Rising from the Ashes … Ashington Academy
Alicia McKenna, Director of Research and Training takes a look at the meteoric rise of this North East comprehensive school.
by Shotton Hall Research School
Historically, the town of Ashington has had relatively high levels of poverty. The decline of the coal mining industry had a significant impact on the town’s economy. Job losses, especially in heavy industry, led to high unemployment rates and contributed to poverty in the area. The percentage of pupils qualifying for the pupil premium in the academic year 2022 – 2023 was 33.1.
In 2017 Ashington Academy was ranked 138 out of 155 schools in the North East, with a whole school P8 score of –0.79.
Fast forward to 2023 and Ashington Academy is now the best performing secondary school for progress in the North East with a P8 score of +0.80. It is in the top 5% of schools nationally for disadvantaged progress, and, out of 3500 secondary schools in England, Ashington Academy is 90th for disadvantaged gap: a true phoenix!
So … what have they done?
I met with the leaders from Ashington Academy to find out what has happened in this former mining community.
At Ashington Academy a huge amount of work is done to work out what ‘disadvantage’ means for each of the pupils. Pupils are not simply labelled and handed over to classroom teachers. Early diagnosis is essential. Leaders and teachers at Ashington Academy do not make assumptions about disadvantaged children, but instead use a range of strategies to diagnose their needs early on in their school journey. The pupils themselves are at the forefront of everything and some of the most valuable insight comes from discussion with the pupils and their families, as well as with the teaching staff who work with them every day. Teachers use formative and summative assessment intelligently to identify gaps in knowledge and misconceptions. All of this information is held centrally on their ‘PP database’ and is used to determine the most appropriate plan of action for the child. Will high quality teaching close these gaps? Does the child need a targeted intervention? Are there wider pastoral issues to be addressed?
Will high quality teaching close these gaps? Does the child need a targeted intervention? Are there wider pastoral issues to be addressed?
There is no ‘blanket approach’ to how disadvantaged or indeed non-disadvantaged pupils are catered for at Ashington Academy; the approach is far more nuanced. If you’re here for a silver bullet, there isn’t one. Leaders here maintain that real school improvement is made up of many conversations, questions, and decisions over a long period of time.
Ashington Academy is truly evidence- informed. There is a strong culture of using evidence to inform decision making. Leaders in the school know their context and their community well. They are committed to using ‘best-bets’ in every aspect of school life. Leaders use trusted sources such as the EEF and the work of the Research School to inform their strategy.
It was clear that a lack of background knowledge was a real barrier for their pupils, so the implementation of a knowledge rich curriculum was a key focus. Leaders were also keen to ensure excellence in teaching and learning and this was achieved through a long-term plan for high quality professional development. Teachers have a deep understanding of the science of learning this and this is evident in every aspect of school life.
Following the post-pandemic return to school, many disadvantaged pupils were reading below their chronological reading age and leaders were keen to create a culture of reading, both in and out of school. Diagnostic assessment was key to ascertaining the particular reading needs of struggling readers, enabling leaders to select and design the most appropriate reading interventions for pupils. Alongside this, much work was going into oracy, particularly the fluency with the use of explicitly taught tier 3 vocabulary, in the context of disciplinary knowledge. This work was followed by much professional development around the use of high-quality disciplinary texts to enhance the curriculum, engaging staff in strategies such as pre-teaching important background knowledge, chunking texts and repeated reading of parts of texts which contained ‘core knowledge’, supported by efficient formative assessment to check understanding.
Perhaps most importantly, all staff have incredibly high expectations for all and this applies to all aspects of school life. Being disadvantaged is not an excuse. Pupils experience academic rigour, a broad curriculum and excellence every day. Where there are barriers to learning, these are swiftly identified so they can be overcome. The success seen at Ashington Academy is undoubtedly a reflection of a dedicated and passionate staff, who care deeply about the life chances of their learners and the long-term difference that strong educational outcomes can make.
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