Community, culture and CPD: One school’s journey to improvement


“Something that's been really important for me as a headteacher is seeing the talent that exists within,” says Nigel Youngman, headteacher of The Whitehaven Academy in Cumbria.

When Nigel joined in 2019, the school had been in special measures since 2016. Together with the Cumbria Education Trust, Nigel has been working to raise standards at The Whitehaven Academy across curriculum, resource and culture.

Part of this journey has been a commitment to continuous professional development (CPD), with 15 of Whitehaven’s staff – from school leaders to classroom teachers – taking a National Professional Qualification (NPQ).

The NPQs are delivered locally by Cumbria Education Trust who partner with Ambition Institute to deliver high quality professional development programmes to teachers and leaders in their schools and wider network.

Raising standards with CPD

“Cumbria Education Trust has a reputation for taking on schools in challenging circumstances, working with them and transforming them – that was certainly the situation for Whitehaven”, Nigel says.

Prior to the school joining Cumbria Education Trust in 2018, “the exclusion rate was at 23%, there were falling pupil numbers and results, and attendance was significantly below where it should be,” Nigel says, “There was a lot we needed to work on.”

One of the first areas the school targeted for improvement was the structure of teams responsible for leadership, pastoral management and curriculum.

Nigel explains that previously there was handful of people in charge of “an impossible combination and number of subjects”. Lessons were being led by non-specialist teachers, or supply teachers, which meant that pupils weren’t receiving subject expertise. “It is often said that a school is only as good as its middle leadership. Before we joined the trust, The Whitehaven Academy barely had a middle leadership team,” he adds.

The trust created a middle leadership team by hiring new teachers and leaders, such as Nigel, and upskilling staff in role through continuous professional development (CPD).

15 staff have completed an NPQ so far, including eight who have done an NPQ in Senior Leadership. These have supported staff to develop the ways they manage their classrooms and adapt to the new behaviour initiatives implemented by Cumbria Education Trust.

“The NPQs have been a driving force in giving us as professionals an opportunity to reflect on our practice,” Nigel says, “I think it's really important that we're all learners.”

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Encouraging progression for retention

“You could plug the energy and drive of our middle leaders into the national grid. They were hungry to learn and develop.”

In 2020, as schools across the country went into partial closure, Nigel says that continuing the professional development of his staff became even more important. So, Nigel and his team started ‘Learning Week’ – an opportunity for all staff at The Whitehaven Academy to engage with CPD.

The week has now become an annual event. Last year there was a roundtable where members of staff could listen to colleagues’ experiences of the NPQs. Staff were then encouraged to apply for any NPQs they were eligible for and interested in.

“We found this strategy really worked because the motivation came directly from their colleagues: it was Whitehaven colleagues saying, ‘this is how this specific NPQ has helped me.’”

“I think it’s really important with CPD that you open it up to your staff, and share with parents what is happening. It’s about having a learning culture for all,” he adds.

By encouraging the progression of staff through professional development, Nigel explains that teachers now aspire to stay within the school and to keep growing in their careers. “One of our best young teachers is somebody who joined Whitehaven as a supply teaching assistant. Similarly, there are other members of staff who have changed role and developed – that can be from one role to a very different role, as well as progression up through the leadership ladder.”

“I think it’s really important with CPD that you open it up to your staff and share with parents what is happening. It’s about having a learning culture for all."

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Building trust in the community

Creating a culture of CPD isn’t the only factor in the turnaround of the school. “At the heart of the progress of The Whitehaven Academy has been connecting with the community,” Nigel says. “Lots of pupils at that time were either school refusers, or in alternative provision historically. Most pupils hadn’t applied to be at Whitehaven, so you didn't have a positive culture.”

Whitehaven’s secluded location means that the local community is invested in the school’s outcome. The trust and school have worked hard to build their trust by investing in premises and initiatives to ensure that every pupil has the support to achieve their potential.

The school has experienced enthusiasm for the reading interventions and additional tuition it offers to its pupils: “Last year the challenge was persuading pupils to come: this year it's about managing all the pupils that are coming.” This willingness to learn is something which is new and celebrated at the school. “What we now have is an enthusiastic group of pupils and parents who are committed to the journey Whitehaven is on,” Nigel says.

Nigel can see how far the school has come. “The exclusion rate has reduced to 8%, Whitehaven’s attendance is now 0.3% above national expectations, the books are balanced and we are oversubscribed in both year seven and eight,” Nigel says. The school also celebrated an Ofsted rating of ‘good’ last academic year.

“It's really important to recognise that in those challenging times of Whitehaven there were some incredible professionals that were deeply committed and stuck it through. The colleagues I have here that were there in those times are gold dust because brilliant teachers work in failing schools.”

School improvement is an “ongoing process” but, together with his colleagues at Cumbria Education Trust, Nigel feels confident in the future of The Whitehaven Academy and the pupils they serve.

Go further

Learn more about how our National Professional Qualifications support teachers and leaders to keep getting better on our blog.

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