When I joined the school now known as Bishop Young Academy in 2017, it had been in Special Measures for two years. Fixed term exclusions were five times higher than the national average. Attendance was significantly lower than the national average, and student outcomes were among the lowest 5% in the country.

Behaviour in lessons and in the corridors was poor. There was little in the way of support for the most vulnerable children, and nothing in place to support students with SEND. It was very much a case of us having to virtually rebuild the school from scratch.

Rather than adopt a ‘sticking plaster approach’ and throwing everything at our Y11 results, however, we decided to lay the foundations for what would hopefully be years of success for the school and its community.

Student outcomes

Bishop Young Academy is located in an area of Leeds that has high deprivation. It’s a wonderful part of the city, with a wonderful community, but also a tough area.

One of the first things we did was initiate a full curriculum review, and took the brave step – considering our student outcomes – of taking time away from core subjects and giving it to PE and the arts, to ensure we had a broad and balanced curriculum at both KS3 and KS4.

We wanted to give all students opportunities to take part in music, art and PE lessons, and put in place a broad range of extracurricular activities.

We also began to offer visits abroad, including an Italian ski trip for 55 students and a trip to Barcelona. Broadening our students’ horizons in this way was an important part of the jigsaw.

In that first year, however, our student outcomes didn’t improve as much as we’d hoped. It was a case of holding our nerve – we knew we were doing the right things. Subsequently, though, we did see a significant improvement in students’ behaviour.

Fixed-term exclusions went from being five times the national average to being below the national average, alongside a 70% reduction in the number of students being removed from classrooms due to poor behaviour.

There were far fewer instances of poor behaviour in corridors and at breaktimes – in part because students and staff alike were more polite, and because the students were now frequently involved in meaningful activities during lunchtimes and after school.

Investing in character education

As school leaders, we also had to focus on the quality of teaching and learning, which we set about doing in a systematic way. We developed a consistently high level of teaching and learning, so that students were getting more good teaching more often.

It was a combination of these factors that ultimately resulted in our improvements, but it was only in year two, in 2018, that this translated into a significant leap in student outcomes. We saw a 0.5 improvement in Progress 8 over the previous year, and our improvement trajectory has continued at pace since then.

In some ways, our vision has remained consistent from day one. We’ve always set incredibly high standards in terms of the basics – uniform, behaviour, manners – but what’s changed as the quality of teaching and learning has improved, is that we’re now in a position where we simply expect the very best from our students in terms of their contributions to their learning.

We’ve since reached a position where we’re being asked to support other schools in certain areas. From a SEND offer that was previously almost non-existent, we’ve now developed a really superb offer for students with SEND and other vulnerable students, and are supporting other schools both within the trust and further afield to achieve the same.

Beyond that, we’ve placed a particular focus on SEMH and wellbeing, for both staff and students. Our wellbeing programme for staff is embedded into everything we do, with the result that staff absence is low – we’ve gone from spending over £300,000 a year on supply teachers to less than £20,000 – and retention is high.

We’ve invested heavily in staff CPD, and through appointing people who are passionate about working with disadvantaged students and making a difference, brought about positive changes in our staff culture.

Alongside that is a multi-layered approach to the support students receive within the classroom. Teachers fully understand the needs of every child, and will plan how to meet those needs through high quality pastoral support.

It sounds simple, but we’re investing in our students and their character, and showing them the ways in which we genuinely care for them.

Creating a character curriculum

It was during the second year of our improvement journey that we began to develop our own character curriculum, as we felt it was important for us to really get to know the students and what made them tick.

Using intelligence we’d gathered over the previous year from real-world observations, school data and figures pertaining to the local community, we identified those areas we’d need to focus in if we wanted to develop our students’ character.

We knew, for example, that a significant proportion didn’t do very well in exams because they lacked self-esteem. It sounds counter-intuitive, but if they actually made an effort to succeed in an exam but failed, then that would be ‘their fault’. If they didn’t bother to try, then the fault would lie elsewhere.

Out of this work came the Bishop Character Curriculum, which seeks to support students in developing the following: Benevolence, Integrity, Self-fulfilment, Health and happiness, Oneness and Perseverance. That runs like a thread through everything from our academic curriculum, down to our extracurricular offer and PSHCE provision.

Every student across all year groups has a pathway throughout the school year, along which they have to meet certain challenges.

In Y7, for example, the students’ challenges include having to speak in front of at least 150 other students, as part of an assembly or in a similar context. There’s an emphasis on taking students out of their comfort zones, because that’s when they’re most likely to develop those character traits.

Parental engagement, Covid-19 and other barriers

Throughout the pandemic we’ve done as much as we can to keep in contact with our students and their families.

In the first half term we completed over 5,000 welfare checks involving phone calls and home visits. We also had a number of support and teaching staff volunteers come in on specific days to carry out food drops, deliver work parcels where needed and help distribute DfE laptops.

To ensure we can provide a strong remote learning offer, we’ve seen to it that every child has received an appropriate device they can use to access remote learning. We’ve then utilised Microsoft Teams to deliver a combination of live lessons and other forms of remote learning to meet specific needs.

We’ve tracked our engagement levels very closely – the families of any students found not to be engaging would be contacted by phone the same day, and if we didn’t get an answer, we’d arrange a home visit.

It’s easy to presume that students aren’t engaging in remote learning because they can’t be bothered, but that’s often not the case – there can be other barriers, so we’d be going out, identifying what those might be and putting plans in place to overcome them. Otherwise, we’ve continued to deliver what we usually would – just remotely.

We’ve been pleased with the offer we’ve been able to put in place, and gratified with the uptake from students, as well as the support we’ve received from parents. But it’s certainly not been easy.

In numbers

  • Established: May 2017, upon joining the Abbey Multi-Academy Trust
  • Location: Seacroft, Leeds
  • Student population: 730
  • Staff: 100

Mental health stigmas

Emily Kempthorne, vice principal for inclusion, safety and welfare, breaks down the school’s distinctive wellbeing offering for staff

At Bishop Young Academy, staff wellbeing is just as important as student wellbeing. The introduction of specific wellbeing roles, such as our SEMH and Wellbeing lead and Mental Health First Aiders, has been instrumental in raising the profile of mental health support within the Academy.

The addition of wellbeing as a specific agenda item in all meetings has ensured each member of staff has access to regular wellbeing check-ins. Calendared ‘wellbeing weeks’ – where staff are guaranteed to not have any meetings after 3pm, data deadlines or internal observations – has allowed time to be dedicated to stamping out the stigma surrounding mental health, and provided staff with opportunities to build relationships, try out new activities or the chance to simply spend more time with their families.

Staff voice has been instrumental in evolving our offer, with a ‘You said, We did’ approach. The introduction of ‘Wellness Wednesdays’, with a specific focus on wellbeing and mental health strategies, keeps the conversation constant and loud. Staff can access bespoke training, as well as signposting to external agencies and referrals to professional counselling.