Sixth form leadership in the school system

Sixth form leadership in the school system
Date28th Aug 2023AuthorJayne Clarke and Louise AstburyCategoriesPolicy and News

This chapter first appeared in SFCA's collection of essays and case studies, Sixth Form Mattersand is re-posted here to reach an audience who may not have read the original book.

Oldham Sixth Form College (OSFC) has a proud history of working in partnership, both with our local schools and with broader stakeholders, including the government’s Department for Education, the Sixth Form Colleges Association, the local council, and other sixth form colleges. Given the need for improvements in educational outcomes in Oldham, and the transformational impact that education can have on young people’s lives, we took steps in 2016 to formalise aspects of this work through a successful application for Teaching School status and the establishment of our multi-academy trust, The Pinnacle Learning Trust, in partnership with The Hathershaw College, our very close secondary school partner. OSFC was awarded Teaching School status in June  2017 and our Trust was established in September of the same year. We took these steps in order to enable us to work more closely with other schools and colleges within the policy framework at the time. The college’s mission has always been an inclusive one, focused on transforming the lives of young people in the local area. Whilst there was no particular urgency for OSFC itself to academise, it has brought a range of benefits to the college and our partners within and beyond our trust and enabled the achievement of this mission (now reflected in the trust’s vision and values) with a broader group of schools and therefore students. Having always had an ambition to work as a family of providers covering all phases of education, we were delighted to welcome Werneth Primary School in 2019, and we look forward to Broadfield Primary School joining us in Spring 2023.
Oldham was identified as an Opportunity Area in 2017 and the work of OSFC was identified as one of the ‘strong foundations’ on which the government’s Opportunity Area delivery plan was built, given students’ exceptional progress, including for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and above-average progression rates to higher education. OSFC, via our Teaching School, led a support programme for six secondary schools locally between 2018 and 2020, providing professional development and support, based on evidence-informed practice which was already in place at the college. This included supporting students with metacognitive strategies, and a range of teaching and learning practices based on cognitive science, such as those now detailed in Education Endowment Fund (EEF) guidance and evidence review reports. 
As Opportunity Areas were established, EEF Research Schools were introduced to provide local schools with easy access to ‘best bet’ educational practices, based on research evidence, in order to improve social mobility for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. OSFC was invited to become an Associate Research School, working alongside the Oldham Research School. This has proven a very successful partnership, reaching large numbers of schools and covering the full range of EEF guidance reports such as those related to literacy, implementation planning and professional development, in addition to bespoke support across all phases of education. OSFC has subsequently been awarded full Research School status from September 2023. Working as part of  the Research Schools Network has provided a range of opportunities for staff within and beyond our trust to provide professional development locally and beyond, all of which is to the advantage of colleagues individually and most importantly to students within the college, our trust, and beyond, through the wider implementation of evidence- informed approaches.
A large part of our designation and success as a Research School can be attributed to our approach to college (and school) improvement. We have provided an example of this below.
In accordance with the best practice outlined in the EEF guidance report, ‘A School’s Guide to Implementation Planning’, we focus on a small number of priorities which address a particular need or ‘problem’ when developing teaching and learning practices for our own college or for schools we support. Around 2015 our problem was: ‘How do we support students to remember more of what we teach them?’ which led us to considering retrieval practice and spacing, strategies which were only just entering the mainstream teaching lexicon.
Since 2015, we have been developing and building both teachers’ and students’ understanding and strategies in this area, but metacognition goes much deeper than just retrieval practice. It is critical that we develop students’ metacognitive knowledge and regulation in order for them to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning strategies and thereby become effective learners. This led us to our 2017 ‘problem’: ‘How do we help our students become effective independent learners?’ Some of these ideas and examples are illustrated in an EEF blog ‘Building study habits and revision routines’. This case study illustrates our Science department’s approach to modelling the process of effective study habits through a five-stage process comprised of ‘consolidate, learn, assessment, feedback, action’. The guidance report, and the Cognitive Science Review mentioned previously, illustrate how complex and multifaceted metacognition is, and it was important to develop a thorough understanding of each recommendation to enable staff to understand the interrelatedness of the different facets.  
This interrelatedness brought us to the connections between self-regulation and the role of technology, and our designation as an EdTech Demonstrator School in 2020 and subsequently a Google Reference College in 2022. In training staff on effective modelling, we provided a visualiser for every classroom. In supporting students to be self-regulating and independent learners, we developed an integrated use of Google Classroom and Google Sites to ensure that learners had access to high quality materials, modelling in videos, and retrieval practice activities. This included providing all staff, and more recently all students, with their own device. 
We have adopted the same approach across our trust in identifying a problem and exploring potential solutions. This year, our primary school is working on the question ‘How can we adapt the curriculum for inwardly mobile children by focussing on the key concepts and knowledge they need to progress?’ leading us to explore working with schemas and spacing of content as particularly important strategies identified from the EEF’s Cognitive Science Review. We are in the early stages of this work, spending our time in the ‘explore’ and ‘prepare’ phases of implementation planning to ensure that any practices we adopt have the best chance of success.
Other examples of our work across the phases in our trust include subject knowledge support provided by the OSFC science team to our secondary colleagues when the new GCSE specifications were introduced in 2016; content that was previously part of the AS Level specification was incorporated in the new GCSE curriculum, so sixth form teachers were well-placed to aid the transition. 
We have also trained curriculum leaders in all three phases in evidence-informed curriculum leadership, via programmes we also offer across two local authorities. Colleagues from within our trust have valued being able to work with others in the same phase through these programmes, but have also learned a great deal and gained a wider perspective through sharing experiences within the trust. There is a more informal and open approach in discussions within our trust compared to sharing with colleagues working in other phases outside the trust, as we have regular contact and a shared ‘mission’. Another example of effective working across the phases is the establishment of our ‘reading buddies’ scheme, wherein OSFC students are trained by our Primary head to deliver effective one-to-one guided reading sessions, which they have then delivered to primary and secondary (Key Stage 3) pupils. This support has been valued by all involved, providing OSFC students with valuable skills and experience to enhance future university or other applications. 
We are continually learning, refining, and improving our practices, and this is a key factor in securing and sustaining improvements as identified within the EEF’s guidance on implementing new research- informed practices.

Top tips

To others looking at developing or making improvements based on our experiences, we would recommend the following:

  • Be clear about what it is you are aiming to achieve, and why.  We have talked about the development of OSFC and our trust and given an illustration of embedding metacognition and other practices based on cognitive science. Both were and are long-term commitments requiring careful consideration and regular review. 
  • Effective and regular communication about your plans and actions is vital to success.
  • Don’t rush…successful and sustainable change takes time and needs to be built on firm foundations, clear understanding, and positive relationships 
  • Be flexible and willing to adapt or completely change your practices. This has applied to both the development of our trust and more specific improvement strategies.

Further reading

Our 2017 ‘problem’ was: ‘How do we help our students become effective independent learners?’ Some of these ideas and examples are illustrated in the EEF blog ‘Building study habits and revision routines’.

EEF also published a case study illustrating how this was approached by our science department, and also has some useful questions for senior leaders.

Jayne is Executive Principal/CEO at The Pinnacle Learning Trust, which currently comprises Oldham Sixth Form College, The Hathershaw College and Werneth Primary School. Louise is Trust Professional Development Director and Research School Lead at The Pinnacle Learning Trust.

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