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Under-subscribed schools – What do you do when you don’t have enough pupils?

Callum Fauser finds out how the process of turning round an under-subscribed academy in Essex involved a dramatic rethink of student aspirations…

  • Under-subscribed schools – What do you do when you don’t have enough pupils?

What happens if you build a school but there aren’t enough students to fill it? That was the situation New Rickstones Academy found itself in several years ago.

It’s one of two schools in Witham, Essex run by the Academies Enterprise Trust – the other being the nearby Maltings Academy – and occupies an impressive three-storey building completed during the final months of the Buildings Schools for the Future programme.

By the mid 2000s, however, the school was facing major struggles. Poor behaviour and low aspirations for students, combined with a turnover of five headteachers within the space of seven years, had damaged the school’s local reputation to the extent that the pupil population dropped to around 500.

With the school designed for 800, it even became necessary for a time to effectively mothball the top floor of the building.

Postcode lottery

In 2015, Damian Lee had been working for six years as a deputy headteacher at Maltings Academy, specialising in behaviour and boosting student numbers.

As he tells it now, his decision to apply for the hitherto oft-vacant headship of New Rickstones was a straightforward one:

“I just felt it was the right thing to do, morally. It wasn’t right for us to have two schools in the town both working under the same umbrella, and yet have this postcode lottery deciding where pupils went.”

The schools are positioned at different ends of the town, with New Rickstones arguably having a more challenging intake that includes The Courts – a large housing estate with what Lee describes as the highest levels of deprivation in Witham, resulting in the school having one of the highest Pupil Premium rates (42%) in north west Essex.

Early on, Lee oversaw the introduction of a new behaviour policy, dubbed ‘Discipline with Dignity’.

One of its measures allows teachers to send misbehaving students into an outside corridor for a period of up to two minutes, after which the teacher explains to the student what’s wrong with their behaviour and how it needs to change, before encouraging them back into the room.

As Lee notes, “Teachers really earn their money by engaging with a child, building a relationship with them and making that child feel that they want to be back in the lesson. Nine times out of ten, it’s a successful approach.”


“I want the students at my school to be themselves, but I also want them to walk the corridors with a sense of purpose and respect. I feel what works is reminders, making them realise the errors of their ways when they misbehave. We’ll remind them that we don’t tolerate that sort of behaviour here and tell them not to do it again, before moving on.”

Damian Lee, head


A fresh pair of eyes

The school’s efforts at improving standards of teaching and learning, meanwhile, involved some difficult staffing decisions.

According to Lee, “You have to distinguish between those teachers who, if you give them the right tools, will become more capable and those who, even if given those tools, still lack the necessary pedagogy, subject knowledge or behaviour management skills to be effective. At that point, you have to manage the situation.”

This amounted to a period of significant staff turnover during Lee’s first year, affecting around a third of the school’s teaching staff.

Since 2018, however, besides one retirement, no other staff have left. In fact its ranks are set to grow, with the addition of four new teachers a year to help manage a sudden rise in students.

In light of the school attaining its best ever GCSE results in 2019, those leadership decisions certainly appear to have paid off. The apparent ease with which the school has negotiated the recruitment issue in recent years is interesting, though.

What’s Lee’s secret? “Having worked in the town for about 20 years, I’ve seen many great teachers come through here and Maltings, kept in contact with a number of them and tried to manage it as well as I can,” he says.

“My two deputies are a good example. I worked with one of them at Maltings for six years before they transferred here, because I was desperate to have them work for me at senior level. For the other position I specifically took on somebody I didn’t know; somebody who could view us with a fresh pair of eyes, which has worked out really well.”

Zone of creativity

Walking around the school during morning lessons in the company of deputy headteacher Kath Bellchambers, we observe a practical Y11 physics lesson taught by the school’s head of science, on how to calculate the speed of waves.

The attentive class is a small one, amounting to just 12, but as Bellchambers explains, they’re the school’s triple science group, due to study separate GCSEs for physics, chemistry and biology, while the rest of their year do double science.

We move on to a Y7 maths lesson, where we get a glimpse of one pupil’s immaculately presented workbook while Bellchambers talks us through the school’s assessment system, and how it utilises whole class feedback within a mastery flow approach.

Finally, we stop by the school’s impressive art department, or ‘Zone of Creativity’ as the sign above the department’s doors would have it.

To these eyes, it’s everything you’d hope an art department to be; walls barely visible beneath an array of impressive work by students, and a Y9 class in which students are quietly and assiduously creating artworks in different media while downtempo ambient music plays in the background.

Pedalling fast

It’s evident that New Rickstones Academy places a premium on mutual respect and empathy. Lee talks of wanting to see students initiate greetings when they encounter staff in the corridors and instinctively holding open doors for others.

“The reason that we work in education is to create well-rounded individuals who will hopefully go on to contribute in some way at a local level, if not globally.”

Lee says. “Of course, as a headteacher I’d be a fool to think good qualifications aren’t important, but those things go hand in hand.”

Considerable amounts of work has thus gone into the school’s vision and curriculum intent, a graphical representation of which be seen here.

The inner segments set out the school’s commitments to using the mastery flow model for its teaching, helping to develop aspects of pupils’ characters and broadening their perspectives.

Extracurricular activities intended to assist with the latter include an established annual visit to Auschwitz, plus trips to New York for the sixth form and a regular ski trip.

Students are also encouraged to suggest after-school activities they’re interested in, resulting in a chess club and a group dedicated to the Games Workshop hobby, among others.

Reflecting on the progress made, Lee describes how “I was constantly saying that we needed to pedal fast, because we were so far behind other local schools. We may now be one of the highest performing school in the area, but we can’t take our foot off the gas.

“We’ve got the students where we want them to be, but the development of staff and high aspirations for all to succeed – those will continue.”


Teacher voice

Sarah Webster, teaching and learning lead
“Though I’m the ‘figurehead’ of our teaching and learning programme, I’m on the same level as everybody else. I’m a head of department and teacher, so it’s not a case SLT telling us what we need to do. It’s us, the staff, sharing good practice and asking questions: ‘Here’s what we’ve done, why not try this?’ ‘What have you done and what’s worked?’ That’s the approach we have.”

Kate Cooke, science teacher
“Last year I had two female students who both got grade 4s in their mocks. After telling me in March that they wanted ‘More than this, miss’ they put in huge amounts of commitment – doing past exam questions every lunchtime, attending all of our ‘Super 6’ after-school study sessions for Y11. That June, they both came out with 7s – it was amazing to see what can be done with that level of dedication.”

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