Blackpool school's amazing turnaround

Stephen Cooke, principal at Unity Academy, Blackpool, celebrates being rated 'good' by Ofsted with pupils
Stephen Cooke, principal at Unity Academy, Blackpool, celebrates being rated 'good' by Ofsted with pupils
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A Blackpool school has gone from ‘bottom of the pile’ to being widely praised for turning its fortunes around.

Unity Academy in North Shore, which was on the brink of special measures just four years ago, is now rated as one of only two ‘good’ secondary schools in the resort.

With just days left for parents to choose a destination for primary school leavers, headteacher Stephen Cooke said: “It’s massive. We had staff in tears.

“Some people have worked at the school for 20 years and feel they have always been told how it’s bottom of the pile.

“For them it’s such a massive achievement, and they feel it personally.”

The North Shore school, in Warbreck Hill Road and run by the Fylde Coast Academy Trust (FCAT), was subjected to a two-day inspection by education watchdog Ofsted, which has praised its ‘transformation’.

“Good, strong leadership has improved the school well since its previous inspection in June 2015,” lead inspector Mark Williams said.

“As a result, all key areas of the school’s work are now good.”

Teaching, behaviour, attendance, and results have all improved, and Blackpool North and Cleveleys MP Paul Maynard said all those involved should be proud.

He said: “Over the past 10 years I have witnessed Beacon Hill change into Unity and develop as a school. I’m delighted to see progress has been recognised.

“I congratulate all the staff for the immense hard work they have put in.”

And Blackpool Council’s school boss, Kath Benson, added: “This is a fantastic result and is a clear sign that education is on the up in Blackpool.

“Ensuring young people throughout Blackpool get the best possible start in life is of paramount importance to the council, and we are delighted to hear the improvements of another school have been recognised.

“Raising aspirations of all Blackpool children is one of the main objectives of the school improvement board, which is why it continues to improve and sustain education across the resort.

“This is another boost to the town after the wonderful news that primary school results at key stage two in Blackpool are above the national average across all performance measures.”

Children at the school, who can start at in the attached outstanding-rated nursery at two and remain there until they are 16, were treated to ice creams on Friday, while staff have been told to expect a surprise after the half-term break.

The school has a ‘Vision 2020’, the year it next expects to be inspected, with staff eyeing Ofsted’s top ranking of ‘outstanding’.

To help pupils improve their reading, ‘drop everything and read’ sessions will be held once a week, and see youngsters read aloud with their classmates for 20 minutes, something which had been stopped, Mr Cooke said.

And teachers will be working to improve handwriting, which the headteacher said is becoming a lost art thanks to living in the digital age.

He said the school’s ‘good’ rating was deserved, and said: “If you think about education in Blackpool, particularly secondary, in the last few years it has not been great.

“This is proof that, actually, things are good. This is something to shout about. I want every single school in Blackpool to be good or better. ”

But Mr Cooke, who said Unity may have been put in special measures had Ofsted visited when FCAT first took over, stopped short of promising the school could deliver ‘outstanding’ in just three years.

“I wouldn’t like to say,” he said. “It’s crystal ball gazing. I would like to think that’s what we are striving to do.”

Standards are ‘rising across the school’, and teachers’ expectations of pupils are ‘now much higher’, a team of inspectors found.

Pupils behave well and believe and respect the school’s motto of ‘In Unity we succeed’.

The report added: “There is no complacency. The success leaders have brought about demonstrates strong capacity for further improvement.”

The school should now focus on giving children more time to practice reading and to work independently, overhaul the approach to teaching handwriting, and make sure the most gifted youngsters are being consistently challenged.

The school was praised for spending the money it gets from the government wisely, and for the way it teaches youngsters about the modern world.

“Not only is the curriculum, coupled with improvements in teaching, leading to pupils making better progress, it is equipping them well for life in modern Britain and the wider world,” Ofsted said.

“Pupils in Year Four, for example, consider carefully the fairness of children their own age having to go to work and lacking basic amenities while those in different parts of the world enjoy what may be considered luxuries.

“Such mature thinking, evident from the youngest children in reception to the young adults in Year 11, highlights well the school’s success in promoting pupils’ spiritual, moral, social, and cultural development well.”

The Fylde Coast Academy Trust (FCAT) is a collection of schools – or a ‘multi-academy trust’ – which said it aims to share good ideas and drive up standards. It is led by ‘sponsor academies’ Blackpool Sixth Form and the outstanding-rated Hodgson Academy in Poulton. The schools help each other cover staff absences, and share some back office functions such as human resources.

Ofsted has noted improvement at every FCAT school it has visited.

Collegiate High School and Bispham High School were both handed Ofsted’s worst ranking of ‘inadequate’ before they merged under FCAT and became Aspire Academy, which recently moved into new premises in Blackpool Old Road. It was given a rating of ‘requires improvement’ after its first inspection.

A number of areas that need to be worked on were pointed out, but bosses had ‘improved the culture and ethos since the school’s opening’, Ofsted said. “This is a school that continues to improve,” it added.

Montgomery High School in Bispham was put in special measures in 2014, two years after becoming an academy and a year before being taken over by FCAT.

Last year, officials boosted its rating from ‘inadequate’ to ‘requires improvement’, and said all aspects of the school had improved.

Senior teachers were praised for now having a ‘no excuses culture’ and providing a ‘strong, clear direction’.

Beacon Hill High School in North Shore was ‘satisfactory’ in 2010, the equivalent of ‘requires improvement’ now, and later became Unity Academy under FCAT.

In 2015, the school was inspected under the new classification, and was told it needs to improve in a number of key areas.

It is now ‘good’.

Hambleton Primary Academy (outstanding), Mereside Primary School (good), Westcliff Primary School (good), Garstang Community Academy (outstanding), and Westminster Primary Academy (formerly Claremont (good)) have yet to be inspected under FCAT.

Gateway Academy hasn’t been visited by inspectors since opening in 2013, while FCAT’s 10th school, the Armfield Academy, has not yet opened. It is set to take its first pupils next September.

Turning schools into academies, some forcefully, has been a hotly-contested issue, with Ofsted inspections offering some of the earliest evidence of whether they have gone forwards or backwards.

Blackpool no longer has any high schools under local authority control, though reports following Ofsted visits have shown some progress.

Aspire Academy now ‘requires improvement’, after its two precursor schools were branded ‘inadequate’.

Highfield Leadership Academy was rated ‘inadequate’ before being controversially taken over the Tauheedul Education Trust. It has not been inspected since.

At a public meeting held by concerned parents in 2015, then chairman of the Highfield Residents Action Group Richard Hayden said governors were given the choice of becoming an FCAT school instead.

He said: “The governors said they analysed exam results, and schools they represented had not improved significantly in the two years FCAT had been in charge.”

Montgomery in Bispham has come out of special measures since becoming an academy, as has South Shore Academy, while Unity is now ‘good’, alongside St Mary’s.

St George’s in Marton is the only secondary school in Blackpool to have noted a fall in Ofsted rating since converting.

It was told it requires improvement in January, after being rated ‘good’ in 2014.

Mr Cooke said he doesn’t believe Unity could have made the progress it did if it was not an academy.

He said the ability to share ideas of what works and what doesn’t with other schools in the trust has helped, while he was also able to rapidly replace an outgoing teacher with a replacement from sponsor academy Hodgson.

“People have been waiting for it to go wrong; to say I told you so,” he said. “We would not be where we are without academisation.

“It has given us the licence to make choices we might not have been able to make under local authority control.”

Labour’s Blackpool South MP Gordon Marsden said trusts with a number of academies can benefit, but said he believes single-academy trusts can struggle financially.

He said: “Their ability to make connections with other schools in the area makes them more effective.”

Conservative minister Tory MP Paul Maynard added: “Blackpool has seen a significant amount of change in school governance over recent years, that has required a degree of focus on structure rather than pupils.

“I welcome the fact now the situation has stablilised attention can be put on improving standards, which is the point of academisation. And I welcome the improvement being seen in schools being inspected.”

Headteacher Stephen Cooke, who took up his role earlier this year after previously being deputy head, said the school has started to encourage good behaviour, attendance, and success, rather than just punish those who fall out of line.

Detentions and exclusions are still used to tackle bad behaviour, but every lesson now has a star pupil, while prize draws are also held. Pin badges are also given out, while those with more than 96 per cent attendance allowed to skip the dinner queue.

“Every school has those sanctions, and they will for infinity,” he said. “But we turned it on its head by encouraging students to improve.

“You won’t see them being shouted at, we will talk through what has gone wrong and how we can fix it.

“Children are children and make mistakes and get things wrong. It’s becoming increasingly common that schools start to think this way.”

All pupils are now given free breakfasts, Mr Cooke said, while those who don’t have the internet at home are given access at school.

A reading catch up programme has also been launched.

And work is also being done to involve parents more, which Mr Cooke admits is a challenge across the town, and social events are now being planned to outline the school’s next move.

Tony Nicholson, FCAT’s chief executive officer and the former headteacher at Montgomery, said: “The whole FCAT family share in the pride and delight of this terrific outcome for Unity.

“We took over the school when it wasn’t in the greatest shape and it has improved steadily and consistently ever since.

“The academy leadership, teachers, and support staff, working alongside our FCAT central team, have transformed Unity into the vibrant, purposeful and successful school it is now.

“As an all-through academy, Unity now provides solidly good education for children from two to 16.”