A Thought Piece by Fuzel Choudhury 10 October 2019

It has been yet another phenomenal year for Heartlands Academy in Birmingham, with the academy achieving a fantastic Progress 8 score of 1.46 at key stage 4. This makes Heartlands the sixth best secondary school in the country for progress according to the DfE’s latest figures.

Progress 8 is a measure of the progress children make between the end of primary school and the end of secondary school and is based on pupils’ performance in eight qualifications. Heartlands has surpassed last year’s Progress 8 score of 0.61, which was already significantly above the national average, and led to the academy receiving a national award for outstanding progress at the Schools, Students and Teachers (SSAT) Network Educational Outcomes Awards earlier this year.

This year’s score of 1.46 means that students at Heartlands Academy have achieved on average one and a half grades higher in every qualification than other similar students nationally.

The academy’s incredible achievements are all the more impressive given its location in Nechells, where unfortunately more than two thirds of children grow up in poverty.

Fuzel Choudhury, Regional Education Director for the Midlands and previously headteacher of Heartlands, tells us just how they did it, giving us his four top tips for success.

We’re delighted with this year’s Progress 8 score as it reflects the hard work of our staff and students. For me, the key to our success has been consistency. We haven’t done anything drastically different to what we did last year, and that’s because I’m a firm believer in only doing a few things, but doing those things exceptionally well. In my experience, some headteachers fall into the trap of trying to deliver too many strategies and, as a consequence, don’t deliver any of them well enough.

1. Focus on your staff

When headteachers talk about getting the culture and behaviour right in a school, they are often referring to the students. My philosophy is that if you get the culture and behaviour of your staff right, the students will naturally follow. If you want to set high expectations for students, you need to make sure that you’ve set high expectations for staff first, because ultimately as a team you need to constantly model for the students.

At Heartlands, I introduced a coaching programme for staff which has been a huge factor in our success. Every period, five days a week, my senior members of staff and I carried out learning walks.  When we then met as a senior team, we were then able to identify outstanding practice, as well as highlighting colleagues who may need extra support. We then worked with those members of staff to develop a collaborative coaching plan for them, supporting them to improve. This is a continuous process and still happens every week of the year regardless of the stage the school is at on its journey.

By focusing so closely on staff and helping to strengthen teaching and learning continually, we are able to improve the quality of teaching right across the board.

2. Have high expectations

Heartlands Academy is in Nechells, the 16th most deprived ward in the entire country. If a child is from a disadvantaged background, or they come from other challenging circumstances, we have to be sensitive to that and ensure that we are providing the relevant support to meet their needs.

But what we won’t do is use a child’s background as an excuse for underperformance. I get annoyed when I hear people say, “these children are disadvantaged, so we can’t expect them to have the same attitude to learning as other children.” We will never break the cycle with that mindset. I have very high expectations of all of our students, no matter their background. When you have those high expectations, students achieve.

3. Keep it simple

My first few weeks at Heartlands were all about stripping everything back and getting standards and behaviours right. With those foundations in place consistently, we were then able to get into our classrooms properly to coach and support our staff.

It can often be tempting when you hear about a new initiative that sounds impressive. You may want to take that back to your academy and implement it straight away. But when you do that, you dilute the impact of the strategies that you’ve already got in place. You have to stick to your vision and carry it through the year, without falling victim to initiative overload.

For me, it’s about doing a few things really well. One of the reasons that expectations and standards at Heartlands are so strong is because we keep our message simple and consistent: everyone knows what I expect, how we’re going to deliver it and the outcome that we’re going to achieve.

4. Have a shared vision

I think a lot of people assume I am lucky to have such a strong team around me. But it’s not luck, it’s what good leaders do: they develop and maintain strong teams. You have to ensure that all of your staff are on board and that they share your vision, and within that you can then support them to be the best that they can be. For me, if a staff member is not on board and doesn’t share the vision, I don’t want them on my team however talented they are. At Heartlands, we support anybody who shares our vision and who puts the students first.

It makes me so proud to look around at the team at Heartlands. Every single one of our staff members is as passionate about those young people from Nechells as I am, and I couldn’t ask for more.