Combatting isolation in coastal schools

Oct. 21, 2015
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The Future Leaders Trust

with Dr Tanya Ovenden-Hope

This report examines why coastal schools struggle and how headteachers are turning them around.

Download a PDF of the report here.


Many coastal schools in England face unique challenges after decades of economic decline. As a result, children across large swathes of our coast are underachieving.

The Future Leaders Trust, whose mission is to raise the achievement of all children, regardless of background, has expanded from its roots in inner-city schools to become a national programme. The Talented Leaders programme in particular works with schools in coastal and rural areas.

We are not the only ones addressing these challenges. Recent research by Dr Tanya Ovenden-Hope and Dr Rowena Passy set out to identify the measures taken by headteachers to move their coastal schools towards an ‘Outstanding’ Ofsted categorisation. Its findings tally with our headteachers’ experience of how effective leadership makes a clear and positive impact.

The challenges faced by coastal schools are related to geographical, economic and cultural factors: declining industry, limited transport infrastructure, low-paid work and few opportunities. Coastal populations simply have fewer choices than many others. The sea has turned from the basis of local wealth to a barrier that restricts opportunity.

Most problematic is that these factors have an impact on how children see themselves. The heads in this report talk about how they have worked to change young people’s mindsets, to show them that they can have more choices if they can learn to believe in themselves and work hard.

Change of this kind is not easy, so it will always take time. However, the heads in this report show that determined and visionary leadership can bring people together – staff, parents and students – to achieve it. Headteachers must instil the concrete foundations of great teaching and good behaviour and grow the softer stuff too: relationships, trust, excitement, hope and a strong sense of community.

Many coastal schools have been neglected and many find it very hard to recruit the great people who have the drive, resilience and skills to achieve the difficult work described above. But these people do exist – seven of them are in this report – and we are looking for more of them as part of the Talented Leaders programme.

Despite much excellent work from leaders and teachers around England, there is a great deal to do before we can guarantee that every child will receive the excellent education they are entitled to. We believe that creating networks for school leaders to share good practice is one of the surest ways to drive school improvement more quickly, and this report is one way that we are doing so.

Coastal Academies (Ovenden-Hope and Passy 2015)

This publication draws on the findings of Drs Ovenden-Hope and Passy in Coastal Academies: Changing school cultures in disadvantaged coastal regions in England (Ovenden-Hope and Passy 2015). Their work began in 2010 as a longitudinal study of students entering a coastal school that had converted to academy status. This expanded to include five more schools, and all six became part of a broader piece of research into the practices that drive effective school improvement in coastal areas.

Challenges facing coastal schools

The schools in Dr Ovenden-Hope’s study all became academies as a result of poor student outcomes and the report begins by arguing that many coastal areas are characterised by high levels of deprivation, limited skilled employment prospects for school leavers, multi-generational unemployment and communities that do not see the value of education. Similarly, the schools in this report are all working with The Future Leaders Trust because their students need to achieve more.

Many coastal towns face particular challenges due to decline since the nineteen-seventies of long-established industries, often in labour-intensive sectors such as ship-yards, docks and fishing, and the service industries related to seasonal tourism.

Schools in these areas face similar challenges because of their shared socio-economic context. The Coastal Academies study found these are a combination of:

Educational isolation

Three schools in Dr Ovenden-Hope’s study had no local university to act as a natural destination after school. There had been none of the targeted investment and improvement programmes that inner-city schools have benefitted from over the past ten years, for example the London Challenge and engagement from large corporations with nearby headquarters.

Difficulties with staff recruitment

All headteachers reported difficulties recruiting staff. They attributed this to their coastal location, characterised by geographical isolation, poor transport links, limited employment prospects for partners and long commutes from affluent areas. It was not uncommon to only have one or two applicants for roles – or sometimes none at all.

Difficulty engaging students and families

Five schools reported problems engaging with students and families, citing child protection issues and a lack of motivation due to family members’ poor experiences at school. In areas with high levels of unemployment that sometimes spanned generations, many families failed to see the point of education.

Poor quality of teaching and learning

Headteachers reported poor quality teaching arising from a lack of accessible continual professional development, high rates of staff sickness, poor student assessment structures, poor data management, poorly trained staff in key positions and low staff morale.

Failing local primaries

Three academies reported low or variable standards in local primary schools. The smaller number of primaries in coastal areas means Year 7 intakes are significantly affected by low-performing feeder schools, leading to teachers having lower expectations of the entire cohort that negatively define students’ time in secondary school.

Change in politics and educational policy

Changes to performance measures, academy organisation, the curriculum, assessment and exams led to significant challenges for teachers trying to improve grades. These have a bigger impact when coupled with the issues described above.

Solutions for coastal schools

One of the findings of Dr Ovenden-Hope’s research is the need for a clear vision and strong leadership, with five headteachers speaking of the essential need to see the social and moral purpose of their work.

This is arguably true of all schools but in coastal schools, with the combination of challenges created by their location, excellent leadership and tightly-focused improvement measures are vital to change culture and raise student achievement.

The measures taken by headteachers and senior leaders to improve examination performance and students’ attitudes were built on changing school culture from one of low aspirations to fostering high expectations for teachers and students.

Engaging students with learning

Schools reported that for student outcomes to improve, it is not enough for students to attend and behave; they need to be engaged. Students were offered a range of opportunities such as educational visits to places of interest, projects with local businesses and reward trips.

Raising expectations

All headteachers spoke of the need to raise teachers’ expectations of their students and improve the quality of teaching. They did this by creating a sense of urgency about the need to raise standards; recruiting new dynamic teachers; developing staff; establishing systems for capturing accurate data; restructuring the timetable; and improving leadership structures.

Changing student behaviour

Student behaviour was improved through positive measures, such as involving them in leadership, giving them additional responsibilities and promoting good role-models. A strict new uniform code was introduced in most of the schools. Extra-curricular activities such as sports and university trips were introduced to raise aspirations.

Working with the community

The schools began working more closely with feeder primary schools, enabling a better transition into Year 7. One school assisted struggling local primaries by helping them recruit governors and supporting lesson planning. Local engagement was encouraged through activities such as Open Saturdays and establishing the school as a hub of local services.

Impact in coastal schools

These initiatives have been seen to work. Five of the schools in Dr Ovenden-Hope’s study converted to academy status before 2010 because fewer than 30% of students achieved 5+ A*-Cs GCSEs (including English and maths). Following the initiatives described above, all the schools met or exceeded the Department for Education ‘floor target’ for GCSE achievement in 2012-13.

Three significantly improved the proportion of students achieving 5+ A*-C GCSEs (including English and maths). Four were graded ‘Good’ by Ofsted at their last inspection with praise for teaching and learning; one of the two academies in special measures has now had this categorisation removed.

Three significantly improved the proportion of students achieving 5+ A*-C GCSEs (including English and maths). Four were graded ‘Good’ by Ofsted at their last inspection with praise for teaching and learning; one of the two academies in special measures has now had this categorisation removed.

Building on these findings, this publication brings together the work of seven members of The Future Leaders Trust’s network. They lead coastal schools around the country.

Having read Coastal Academies: Changing school cultures in disadvantaged coastal regions in England, they describe the measures that they have taken to improve their students’ outcomes.

Case Studies

Bassett Green Primary School, Southampton

Deborah Sutton, Headteacher

Bassett Green is in the centre of a large estate, where many families have lived for at least two generations. Southampton has a significant amount of seasonal employment from cruise ships, and jobs in the boat building industry have declined. Some of our parents are long-term unemployed or work in low-paid jobs; education is not at the forefront of their minds.

Basset Green
  • 49.3% Bassett Green Primary School - proportion of Ever6FSM pupils
  • 26.8% National average (primary) - proportion of Ever6FSM pupils

Working with the community

I began as headteacher in 2014. Historically our community has been difficult to engage, with attendance, punctuality and attainment all lower than the national average, and a high number of referrals to external agencies for safeguarding issues.

To overcome these challenges, I appointed two lead practitioners for vulnerable children and family support.

Our Lead Practitioner for Vulnerable Children acts as Child Protection Liaison Officer and brings years of experience as a former social worker. This frees teaching staff to focus on the quality of teaching and learning, and ensures that matters are dealt with swiftly, efficiently and with an increased confidence.

The Lead Practitioner for Family Support plays a proactive role in working with parents and carers who need extra support. She runs parenting courses which have been extremely popular, with recommendations flying around the playground! She also organises parent workshops on topics such as childhood illnesses, keeping children safe online and behaviour management. She works closely with external partners such as the school nursing team, Police Community Support Officers and a variety of charities.

She is often the first port of call for families who traditionally find it difficult to engage with education, and supports staff and parents in meetings about difficult issues. This year her role will extend to supporting Phase Leaders in delivering workshops to enable families to develop learning at home, for example phonics and maths techniques.

I cannot overstate the importance of these two roles in developing relationships with harder to reach families, and ensuring that the welfare and education of the most vulnerable in our society are kept at the top of our priority list. The importance of the Lead Practitioner for Vulnerable Children is shown by how many families she has supported, which runs into triple figures.

The impact that we’ve seen includes improving attendance and punctuality for the families we’ve worked with; a reduction in behaviour incidents; and improved attitudes to learning.

Our work has also led to earlier intervention for families, ensuring that multi-agency working is effective, and we’ve reduced the amount of time that SLT spend on safeguarding issues and at meetings, enabling more time to be spent on improving teaching and learning.

Great Yarmouth Primary Academy

Craig Avieson, Executive Principal

Our two-form entry school, located just 60-seconds’ walk from the beach, is situated in one of the most deprived communities in England. Great Yarmouth flourished thanks to the herring industry, but this has now all but vanished. Seasonal work and high levels of unemployment mean that many of our parents are not convinced by the power of education. This unavoidably affects how children think about themselves and what they can achieve in the future.

Great Yarmouth map.jpg
  • 65.6% Great Yarmouth Primary Academy - proportion of Ever6FSM pupils
  • 26.8% National average (primary) - proportion of Ever6FSM pupils

Raising expectations

When I moved to Yarmouth, I knew I had to work to address the low expectations and complacency that had developed in the community by changing the school culture and introducing four core values: High expectations, No Excuses, Always Learning and Positivity.

Shifting the beliefs of the staff and of parents – some of whom had received a poor education themselves – was the first task. I did this by showing them research about children who fail to achieve at primary school and the profoundly negative impact on their GCSEs and beyond.

Next, I showed staff that other schools in other deprived parts of the country are achieving outstanding results for their students. ‘How are they doing this?’ I recall asking my senior leaders. I answered this by letting them visit these other schools to see for themselves. They came back full of ideas.

Finally, I ensured staff were aware of some of the latest research on growth mindset – the evidence that we all have the ability to learn and develop, staff and students alike. Every Friday, my staff briefing focuses on the colleagues who have best demonstrated our core values that week. We celebrate publicly.

Changing student behaviour

We spent the next 12 months developing our core values with parents and students, initially talking about them, followed by acting them out, then highlighting and rewarding as children developed their awareness and understanding.

Once the values were embedded, we linked them to our high expectations of students and their behaviour, such as our new uniform policy and the introduction of 15-minute learning detentions if students are not in school precisely on time.

Core values are now in our classrooms, ensuring the pitch of lessons is high, student behaviour is exemplary and teachers are drawing on the latest research. As a result, Key Stage 2 achievement of children eligible for Pupil Premium is equal to that of other children, attendance is up, and Key Stage 1 results were the best in the school’s history. Ofsted inspectors reported that leadership is ‘Outstanding’.

What is evident is that coastal challenges can be overcome with the right mindset of school leaders and staff. As our students say, ‘Our core values are not just for school, they are for life!’

Meadow Primary Academy, Lowestoft

Nadia Paczuska, Headteacher

Lowestoft is at the end of the train line, a three-hour journey from London. As its fisheries and tourist industry declined, and later the oil and gas industry, the area has suffered – as have its schools. Meadow is one of 20 primary schools in the town; of these, 12 have been rated as ‘Inadequate’ or ‘Requires Improvement’. The community has put up with not-good-enough schooling for too long – I moved to Lowestoft from London because I want to show them that they deserve better.

Meadow map.jpg
  • 45.2% Meadow Primary Academy - proportion of Ever6FSM pupils
  • 26.8% National average (primary) - proportion of Ever6FSM pupils

Raising expectations

In 2013 and 2014 less than 50% of students achieved a Level 4 in reading, writing and maths at Key Stage 2, compared to over 75% nationally.

I became headteacher in the summer term of 2015. With the support of the interim headteacher and colleagues from REAch2 academy trust, I spent that term supporting teachers to understand the importance of improving the quality of teaching and learning, and the implications of continued poor performance. As a result a number of teachers left.

We faced an exceptionally challenging recruitment task. An advert in TES led to only one application from an unsuitable candidate, so we had to take a different approach. We needed to communicate the character of the school and the challenges we face – as well as the opportunities we have – to get the right people applying.

I placed an advertisement, inspired by the well-known World War I poster calling men to enlist, in three national broadsheets, and we tweeted the advert far and wide for three weeks. We also placed the advert in newsagents near teacher training institutions in London. I attended recruitment fairs nationally and emailed everyone in my network.

There were 155 applications. After shortlisting 15, we appointed nine teachers from as far afield as the US.

Working with the community

Meadow hasn’t been decorated since the nineteen-seventies. When I arrived there was only a 4ft fence separating our playground from the A12. The roof was condemned in 2011, which can prove challenging when it rains – though the Council plans to repair this. This lack of investment is not a recipe for a proud community and students that are excited to come to school.

This summer we were already in school running catch-up lessons for our new Year 6 students, so we asked members of the community to volunteer to come in and make the school a more inviting place to learn. We had a remarkable response.

This had the added benefit of getting parents into school. By giving the parents a sense of ownership of Meadow, we can encourage them to increase their involvement in their children’s education, which we know will help the children to achieve more.

Finally, we have established a new school culture based on four values, devised with a parent focus group: Aspiration, Courage, Creativity and Kindness. These help to focus the children and our wider community on what they can – and should – achieve.

Northumberland CofE Academy

Andrew Day, Executive Director

The Northumberland Church of England Academy is an all-through academy with six campuses in Ashington, Newbiggin and Lynemouth. The community, which formerly derived its income from mining and fishing, has been characterised by low levels of employment for several generations. Some of our students come from families with four generations out of work. In 2012 the largest employer in the community, a mining company, shut down.

Northumberland map.jpg
  • 51% Northumberland CofE Academy - proportion of Ever6FSM pupils
  • 36.8% National average (all-through schools) - proportion of Ever6FSM pupils

Working with the community

We wanted to help the community – many of whom have had negative experiences of school – to see education as a means of development for the next generation. We had to earn their trust, but with their support we are now doing more.

We encouraged the whole community to get involved in the school, establishing a Founders’ and Benefactors’ Day to get community members through the doors. Leading the way were high-profile figures – members of the royal family, bishops, eminent politicians, sportspeople and news organisations. Their visits to the academy show the children and the wider community that people care and want them to succeed. We also run forums, open evenings and one-to-ones between parents and staff to get them involved in their children’s education.

And it’s working. On one of our previously most challenged campuses 100% of reception parents attended the latest parents’ evening – part of a trend of increasing engagement echoed across the school, and across phases. Where parents do not attend parental events, we contact them by telephone or make home visits. Nearly 90% of parents now agree that the school works hard to meet the needs of their children.

Raising expectations

We have worked hard to transform the quality of teaching and learning, for example through new, rigorous standards for teacher appointments. All candidates must teach at least a ‘Good’ lesson prior to interview. Despite our remote location, as the academy’s reputation as a good employer grows, so recruitment has become that much easier.

But we also want to develop and celebrate the teachers we have. Teachers and middle leaders now take ownership of their own professional development. Over 40 staff have achieved professional qualifications and graduate degrees to develop their leadership and practice.

We raise aspiration through trips abroad; visiting speakers; celebrations of student successes; and trips to universities – recently three Year 9s went to Edinburgh and all returned wanting to become astro-physicists. In 2015, 51% of sixth formers went on to university – compared to only 27% four years ago – with one student going to Oxford and several others to Russell Group universities.

The message to the community and our students is the same: your background doesn’t matter, the only thing that counts is what you want to become.

Oasis Academy Immingham

Kevin Rowlands, Principal

I moved from Manchester to the small town of Immingham when I became Principal. Immingham grew up around a dock and its related industries, but this declined during the nineteen-seventies. North East Lincolnshire doesn’t have a big population and the town is over an hour on the train from the nearest city, Hull, so there are limited employment opportunities. This remoteness also makes it hard to recruit teachers, and it’s even harder to retain them.

Immingham map.jpg
  • 34.4% Oasis Academy Immingham - proportion of Ever6FSM pupils
  • 28.6% National average (secondary) - proportion of Ever6FSM pupils

Changing student behaviour

Ovenden-Hope’s findings in relation to student behaviour and expectations resonated with me. I found early success in improving our students’ behaviour – but it was not as simple as it seemed.

Three years ago, fixed-term exclusions were three times the national average but they have halved every year since then. Over the same period attendance improved from 93% to 96% with persistent absence down to 3% from over 10%.

In the early days, our approach to behaviour was a zero tolerance policy; we wanted pupils to understand that disrupting the education of others is not acceptable. However, despite lower levels of disruption, pupils still remained passive; some our most disadvantaged young people were behaving but they were still not thriving.

We evolved our behaviour policy away from ‘carrot and stick’ and towards building intrinsic motivation. We still have zero tolerance for mobile phones and social media abuse. But detentions and isolations have been removed and students are supported to engage with their education, building resilience and not allowing them to give up.

Raising expectations

Our aim is to encourage aspiration. We do this in a number of ways, including removing work experience and replacing it with an aspirational careers fortnight where students visit universities, attend lectures and complete a dissertation. The aim is to prepare them not for a low paid job, but for the next stage of their education.

This year we introduced a head boy and girl, complementing the student leadership opportunities already in place through the house system. We work with an organisation called Humanutopia, who have had a huge impact on students’ self-esteem and enabled them to develop their leadership abilities. This year more students are doing A-Levels at a nearby college, and choosing more aspirational qualifications. It’s a success to see our young people on a clearer pathway to university.

The change in our culture can be seen in the fact that students have told me that it is becoming cool to achieve, and to be seen as a leader. It’s been hard work and has taken several years, but this is the kind of change that I set out to achieve when I moved to Immingham.


Drs Ovenden-Hope and Passey’s work found – and the headteachers in this report have confirmed – that there are many challenges facing coastal towns and the schools that serve them. These are communities that grew up around industries that have declined or no longer exist, and they are now facing the consequences.


The determinate factors affecting coastal schools highlighted in this report are geographical, economic and cultural, and each of their negative impacts can be related to the notion of isolation.

Geographical isolation

Struggling coastal schools tend to be separated from large urban areas by longer distances that are exacerbated by poor public transport links, making it harder for students to travel to these destinations for cultural activities and work experience and more problematic for staff to commute or relocate.

Economic isolation

Many schools serve areas with limited employment opportunities, so many in the community have lower incomes without access to higher-paid jobs. This isolates students from the expectations and experiences that financial security brings, such as holidays, activities and luxuries. Partners of staff may struggle to find work.

Cultural isolation

Distance from urban centres and restricted opportunities combine to narrow students’ horizons. Many cannot understand how the academic culture represented in school is relevant to them and they isolate themselves from the opportunities offered to them.


The solutions offered by the heads in this report directly engage with each of these issues. Their work makes schools act as vectors of activity that replaces isolation with access.

Geographical access

Headteachers cannot build railway lines but they can reduce the impact of geographical isolation by taking students to important locations (universities, museums, historical sites) and bringing important artefacts to the students (public figures, touring events). They can extend recruitment activity (onto social media, using inspiring messages or targeting national training institutions) and work to raise the reputation of the school across the region.

Economic access

The impact of economic isolation is not about a lack of money per se but rather a lack of experiences accessed via spending. Schools reduce the impact of this by paying for or subsidising expensive experiences (clubs, activities and travel) and demonstrating that better jobs and economic situations are attainable (through relevant post-16 advice, university visits, and support from family liaisons).

Cultural access

Most of the heads talked about changing students’ mindsets about their own ability and about education itself. This includes instilling new cultural standards (often based on the school’s core values), giving opportunities for new ways of behaving (developing students as leaders, and improving teaching and learning so students see their own progress) and building new relationships between school and community (relationships with parents, using the school as a resource hub, and rallying local volunteers).

The case studies also show that the headteachers’ impact is the result of a strategic combination of all the above, and the driving force of a resilient and inspiring leader who brings people together for the benefit of the school’s children.

Talented Leaders

The Talented Leaders programme recruits exceptional school leaders and matches them with challenging schools – often in isolated coastal or rural regions.

In these areas young people’s achievement is significantly below the national average because schools struggle to recruit great headteachers. Too many students leave school without the qualifications that will give them choices and opportunities.

Talented Leaders headteachers are recruited from around the country. They are all exceptional heads and deputies ready for headship and motivated to take up new roles in the schools that need them the most.

They are selected in a process designed to identify candidates who possess the necessary level of skills, knowledge and experience needed to lead a school, drive sustainable improvement and deliver excellent outcomes for students.

These headteachers make a three-year commitment to their new school and can access a £50,000 Leadership Sustainability Fund to secure improvements. They become part of The Future Leaders Trust’s Headship Institute, a peer-network of heads working in challenging schools.

By improving their students’ access to outstanding teaching and enriching educational experiences, Talented Leaders are making a positive difference to the life chances of young people in areas across England.

This article originally appeared on the website of Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019, the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

Further Reading

  • Centre for Social Justice (2013) ‘Turning the Tide: Social justice in five seaside towns.’
  • Ofsted (2013) ‘Unseen Children: educational access and achievement 20 years on.’
  • Ovenden-Hope, T and Passy, R (2015) ‘Coastal Academies: Changing school culture in disadvantaged regions in England.’ Plymouth University and The Cornwall College Group.
  • Thomson, D (2015) ‘The pupil premium group in coastal schools.’ Education DataLab.

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