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In this series, academy headteachers and principals talk about how they are using academy freedoms to innovate and raise standards.
This week, Principal Ms Smita Bora talks about transforming children’s lives at Westminster Academy.
Previous academies in focus articles can be accessed from this page.
If you would like to share your thoughts on any of these, please visit the Department for Education Facebook page.
Westminster Academy is in an area of high social and economic disadvantage in Westbourne near Paddington, and over 50% of pupils are eligible for free school meals. Almost 90% of pupils don’t have English as a first language. Despite this, the academy saw one of the biggest increases in results in the country in 2012, with 75% of pupils achieving five good GCSEs or equivalent including English and maths, up from 46% in 2011. Westminster Academy was also judged to be outstanding by Ofsted in February this year. The academy is sponsored by The Exilarch's Foundation, founded by Dr Naim Dangoor CBE.
When children arrive at our school, often part way through the year, their skills in reading, writing and maths are well below average. Alongside this, they very often don’t have the kind of life skills that they need to fulfil their true potential once they leave school and go out into the wider world.
Despite many of them coming from challenging backgrounds, I want our pupils to have the kind of education that not only ensures that they have a fantastic academic grounding, but also that they can emerge from our school with all the other skills needed to succeed in life. We work hard to give our pupils the absolute belief that they can be a success.
We absolutely could not have done this if we had not been an academy, with the freedoms that come with academy status. For example we personalise learning to every single child – so they get an education tailored to their particular needs and a curriculum that suits them. When a pupil joins the academy, we will look at their reading, spelling and numeracy levels and then adjust their timetable accordingly to provide extra support and plug any gaps in their literacy and numeracy skills.
A big part of our success has been down to our fantastic staff. I have been able to recruit some outstanding teachers, including a number of Teach First teachers who have made a real difference. It can be a tough job turning around the prospects of many of our pupils, but the key message that our teachers keep at the forefront of their thinking at all times is “you are changing lives”.
When interviewing potential staff, I make clear that they are going to have to work extremely hard at the school to achieve success, but that the rewards are immense. We have been able to attract a calibre of staff who want to take on a challenge and make a difference. The quality of the staff we have really shines through in the performance of our pupils. As an academy we are able to make professional development payments to staff to help them to develop, or to reward them for taking on more responsibility.
As part of preparing pupils for the world of work, we work with around 200 local businesses. In year 10 or 11, pupils spend three periods a year doing internships for one day a week, and we regularly invite representatives from businesses in to the school to talk to pupils.
We are constantly looking to see where we can improve and where we can use the freedom that we have as an academy to innovate and provide new opportunities for our pupils. For example we are working towards including the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) 21st century competences into our curriculum for all pupils. These competences cover learning, citizenship, relating to people, managing situations and managing information. At key stage 5, we have introduced an International Baccalaureate diploma programme and its vocational equivalent. This gives the pupils much more depth and breadth in their learning, rather than restricting them to picking three subjects to study at the end of key stage 4.
In the past, few pupils from the school would even have considered higher education. Now our pupils are going off to great universities to study for degrees in areas like science and engineering. One pupil is studying Business with Mandarin at the University of Manchester and is already attracting the interest of potential employers before she has finished her degree.
Our governors and sponsors The Exilarch's Foundation, have played a key role in the success of the school and their advice, guidance and expertise have been invaluable. I meet the Chair of Governors, Jeremy Witts, with sponsors David and Judy Dangoor, regularly and they are hugely supportive.
I am clear that we have only been able to prioritise learning in the way that we have because we are academy. As Principal I have absolute freedom to do what I feel and know is best for my pupils. In the past, there was often an insistence that a certain methodology had to be followed, or that a barrier had to be surmounted in a particular way, irrespective of the circumstance of the school. This threw up unnecessary complexities. That has all gone now and we are able to concentrate all our energies on doing what is most important – ensuring our pupils get the best possible education, in and out of the classroom.
Ms Smita Bora
Principal, Westminster Academy
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