School improvement

21st-Century learning saved our deprived school

Rescuing Richmond Academy from poor performance meant ditching ideologies and trying something new, explains Rachael Howell

Rescuing Richmond Academy from poor performance meant ditching ideologies and trying something new, explains Rachael Howell

4 Feb 2023, 5:00

The famous saying that ‘insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’ helps to understand the journey we have been on to rebuild teaching and learning at Richmond Academy. I only wish that I had fully grasped this earlier in our journey.

When the Stour Academy Trust arrived at Richmond Academy (the eighth most deprived school in Kent) in January 2017, the school had never achieved a ‘Good’ grading from Ofsted and it was apparent very early on that its problems were endemic. Aspiration, hope and trust were in short supply, and I was frequently met with variations of “well, this is Richmond, what do you expect?’ 

Meanwhile, behaviours were extreme, engagement was non-existent and attendance was extremely low. Provision was poor for all children, SEND support was barely existent and parents were rightly angry.

Since then, we have developed a more acute understanding of what it means to say that deprived schools have a tougher journey to ‘Good’. But at the time I thought I knew what to do, so we did all the things you would do. We appointed the right staff, put a curriculum in place, a behaviour policy, raised expectations, invested in resources, professional development and the environment.

It took two years. We hit many setbacks, and things got worse before they got better, but by 2019 all the children were in classrooms, behaviour was stable, exclusions were falling and we had a strong and stable staff. Notably, we had a headteacher who was strong enough to captain the ship and resilient enough to weather the storms. Before Helen Evemy, Richmond Academy had had 14 headteachers in 10 years, and it was easy to see why.

But the school still wasn’t good. We weren’t making enough progress at the required pace. That’s when doubt set in. Strong captains, stable ships and capable crews were forging forward in other schools, but not here. Our children were in classrooms, but engagement and enjoyment were low. They did as they were told but only because they didn’t want to lose privileges. They did their work, but they were only motivated to finish and not to learn. 

So we decided to be bold and embrace change. We developed a vision that would challenge the dominant traditional ideologies and better prepare our children for the 21st century workplace. That risk has paid off.

We started by purposely redesigning our classrooms to create developmentally sensitive settings. Our children struggled to sit still, to listen for long periods and to not talk to their peers – so we stopped asking them to. Our only non-negotiable would be learning. 

We provided classrooms where children could move freely, built in space for collaboration and designed learning to actively promote collaboration. We don’t mind if they stand, bounce on a ball or sit on a beanbag – as long as they are learning. 

We planned for the intentional deployment of technology to help us deliver personalised learning and remove barriers for all children, especially those with SEND. Our children do not have exercise books; They all have access to pen-enabled devices.  

Technology has allowed us to provide alternative ways for children to share their learning and receive feedback. They can now share their learning through Green Screen, Flip and Minecraft, and our teachers can leave voice notes and screen recordings when marking.

We stopped giving identified resources to children with SEND and made them accessible to all. We stopped differentiation and started adapting. More importantly, we teach the children to adapt for themselves – a skill that will take them much further than year 6. 

And then things happened. Our children began to positively engage, regulate their own behaviours and enjoy learning. Richmond Academy became the first primary in Kent to be awarded Microsoft Showcase Status and achieved its first ever ‘Good’ rating from Ofsted in late 2022. 

George Bernard Shaw said: ‘Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.’ Schools like Richmond Academy need leaders who can change their minds, because doing the same thing over and over again just isn’t working.

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