Schools with large numbers of poorer pupils say they have boosted progress scores by installing new leadership, tighter behaviour rules and reaching beyond the school gates.
Data consultant Ed Cadwallader looked at schools with above-average proportions of disadvantaged pupils in exam years to see which schools have improved the most since 2019.
In some schools, up to 74 per cent of pupils were disadvantaged. The national average is 27 per cent.
The top 10 schools include eight academies, one foundation school and a free school. So how did they do it?
Several schools had new leadership pre-pandemic. Terry Conway became headteacher at Norham High School, in north Tyneside in September 2019 when the school was in a “really rocky position” with just 295 pupils.
Nearly three quarters of its exam cohort this year was disadvantaged – but its Progress score moved from -1.26 in 2019, to 0.38 in 2023. This is the largest jump among the 10 schools.
Conway scrapped underperforming subjects such as GCSE physical education and design and technology. He added GCSE drama, which didn’t exist even at key stage 3, and increased the lesson time in maths, English and science.
“From my appointment I made it clear what had to change and how it would change,” he said. “I had non-negotiables, but these were wrapped up in care and understanding. It has been a real team effort.”
Natasha Carman, principal of Moor End Academy in Kirklees, helped lift the school out of a “really bad place” of poor behaviour and high staff turnover in 2017-18.
Last year, 44 per cent of its year 11s were disadvantaged, but Progress moved from -0.21 pre-pandemic to 0.77.
She said the curriculum “wasn’t right for the vast majority of pupils”, with almost the whole cohort entered for the full English Baccalaureate.
Many pupils lacked specialist teaching in modern foreign languages in key stage 2, meaning their starting points were “variable”.
Just under a quarter entered EBacc last year, compared to an average of 39 per cent.
Citizenship is now a core part of the curriculum in key stage 3 and every child does GCSE history or geography.
Matt Tate took over in 2016 at Hartsdown Academy in Kent, where some children start the school with an average reading age of seven.
Pupils in key stage 3 are now taught by two main teachers for 20 hours a week, one teaching literacy-based subjects and one teaching numeracy-based. In the remaining five hours they access the rest of the curriculum.
The schools Progress 8 has climbed from -1.45 to -0.4. The school has 68 per cent disadvantaged pupils.
Many schools also say new behaviour policies have improved classroom learning.
The Halley Academy in south London brought in a centralised behaviour policy to become a “warm, strict school”, with, said headteacher Ben Russell, “real buy-in and support from students and parents”.
“It’s about disruption free learning and creating a climate of excellence for all children, irrespective of their starting point.”
Moor End has a new planner-led system where if children receive eight “comments” in a week for bad behaviour, it can lead to a day in seclusion and learning through live-stream lessons.
Carman said this “supports pupils in self-regulating their behaviour”.
Sue Jones, the executive principal at Charles Read Academy in Lincolnshire said the “biggest thing” was ensuring disruption-free learning.
The school’s Progress 8 score has risen from -0.43 to 0.6.
Going beyond the school gates
But Jones said because it was a non-selective school in a selective area, some pupils lacked confidence. “It’s so important to build up their self-esteem that they are worthy and can do as well as others”.
Schools Week has widely reported how schools are stepping into a public services void, providing basic items for struggling families.
Norham’s Conway said it provided food technology ingredients free. The school uniform was also “poverty proofed” with an embroidery-free £27 blazer.
Year 11 students at Fulham Cross Academy, in London, get taken on a “heavily subsidised” English, maths and science residential in January.
“It’s really setting them up on that path to revise so they are not leaving it until the last minute,” said executive principal Sally Brooks. The school’s progress 8 score has risen from -0.93 to 0.02.
Ark Greenwich Free School in south London provides free music lessons and Duke of Edinburgh places for children receiving pupil premium.
They are also prioritised for parents’ evening as part of their “pupil premium first” strategy. The school’s Progress rose from 0.18 to 1.11.
Rhys Spiers, its principal, said: “Our process isn’t rocket science, there’s no silver bullet here but it’s delivered with precision.
“What we are seeing anecdotally is pupil premium [children] who are happy and confident and they’ve experienced a really broad and balanced education.”