‘What ifs’ from the SCIL Study Tour? #SCIL11 – Part 3 | Three comprehensive schools in England

In parts of England a young person’s educational future is determined by an exam taken at age 11. It will decide if the student attends a grammar school or local comprehensive for their secondary schooling and traditionally, the whether they get to university and the status of that university. We visited four comprehensive high schools that are working hard, and succeeding, at providing an excellent education and opportunities for these students.

You can imagine how many of these students feel on that first day of Form 1 – perhaps their siblings had attended a grammar school or their friends succeeded in securing a place and they didn’t.

What if a school wedded rigour and relationship? Ravens Wood School, Bromley

What if a school is willing to think differently about what they do? Hugh Christie Academy, Tonbridge

What if there was a structure of schools within a school? Leigh Technology Academy, Dartford

1. What if a school wedded rigour and relationship?

Ravens Wood School for Boys (and girls in the 6th form) is a comprehensive secondary school with an outstanding success rate for student achievement. They recognise that the essence of school is relationship and it is a base station for learning. The school is recognised by Ofsted as being in the top 10-15% – officially an ‘Outstanding’ school.

The culture is: you are here to learn

The ethos is that we are each in this together as:



Ladies and Gentlemen

Working with other local schools, independent reviewers grade staff against an agreed set of standards in a drive for improvement. Every staff member is externally accredited every three years. There is a strong focus on the use of data to measure student improvement and assessment for learning.  A key element is that students are leading their learning and student voices are heard.

In summary Ravens Wood success is attributed to:

  • establishing clear standards and goals, for both student achievement and teacher professionalism
  • target setting
  • the focus on everyone is a learner and learners learn from one another
  • senior students tutoring and coaching younger students
  • a coaching model for improving teacher practice and student learning
  • sharing best practice and mentoring to maintain standards
  • faculty to faculty review through their ‘Learning 3s’ professional development process
  • celebrate and reward staff

All activity at the school asks:

What worked well? and Even better if…

2. What if a school is willing to think differently about what they do?


Hugh Christie Technology School is located in Tonbridge, Kent. Like many schools in the UK, the principal is seeking to do more with less because of the current national financial situation. The principal and staff are committed to providing the best education possible for their students. The school sends many positive messages so the students will grasp future opportunities.

One unique aspect of the school is that it has acted on data about adolescent sleep cycles, as noted in this article in The Guardian

There are few more powerful urges than the teenager’s need to stay under the duvet when the morning school bell goes. Jon Barker, headteacher of Hugh Christie Technology College in Tonbridge, Kent accepts this and goes with the flow. So, on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays his [6th form] pupils start lessons at 11.30am – because research suggests that teenagers’ brains work better if they get up later. “Their punctuality and attendance has improved, their questioning and answering is better because they are more alert and the pace of lessons is often much quicker,” Barker says.

The school adopts the regular school day on a Friday, because who wants school to finish at 5.30pm on a Friday. For 6th form there is no school on Thursdays. This enables them to catch up with school work and gain employment. There is a different feel for the seniors int he later classes – it becomes a senior space and staff are more relaxed. It also frees up school specialist spaces for greater flexibility throughout the day.

The school has achieved excellent GCSE results, attributed to the project-based learning for seniors and the subsequent transportability of skills. There has been a deliberate program of moving teachers away from didactic teaching, to help seniors students have choice about their learning  and work within the ‘handcuffs’ of the English system. Each Thursday afternoon the school day concludes for all students at 1.40pm and there is 1.5 hours of staff PD every fortnight. Providing serious time for PD has had a huge impact on the quality of the teaching and learning at the school.

What if there was a structure of schools within a school?

“The Leigh is one of the highest achieving state comprehensive schools in England and we want to become the best – a centre of excellence for education.”


Based on a strong research framework Leigh Technology Academy believes that learning and community can be optimised within a smaller school of about 350 students. The school has developed four colleges – Chaucer, Darwin, Da Vinci and Brunel, with a strong pastoral focus and vertical grouping at reinforce cross-age relationships.

The four colleges are located on the same site, with a healthy rivalry for cross-college events.

This approach is borne out in the results. In 1997 it was considered a good result of 25% of the students achieved 5 GCSEs. In 2011 it was 95%.

Vertical form groups of about 20 students meet for 30 minutes each day. The most effective teacher for any young person is one that is only a handful of years older (positively and negatively).  The emphasis is on a smaller community, transferring to a broader community. It isn’t unusual for a 17 year old to be talking with and advocating for an 11 year old.

The project-based learning model helps to make students feel successful when they think they are a failure. The school is working toward ‘organic’ integration across the curriculum – 3x maths and 3x science on the same level.

In summary the school’s identifies the following key attributes:

  • A small schools model
  • Vertical Tutoring – students  meet each day as a tutor group
  • Personal Tutoring and the development of each student’s emotional intelligence
  • Strong community, national and international partnerships
  • Large group teaching
  • Innovative use of ICT




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