Robertsbridge Community College

Our Journey

The College is in a rural village setting reflecting all the aspects associated with a rural economy, including farming, food production, blacksmithing/forge, village shops, and an internationally renowned producer of bespoke cricket bats and sporting equipment. The village, with around 2600 residents, dates back to 1176 and is served by a station on the main railway line between Hastings and London passing through some major towns in Sussex, and the A21 trunk road.

The College is an oversubscribed, fully comprehensive 11-16 secondary school with 735 students on roll. The College’s popularity has grown noticeably in the last three years, especially where families indicate it as their first preference. The College serves a large geographic area, made up of a mixture of rural villages, small urban towns, and seaside locations. Over a third of the student population live in areas of social deprivation, such as Hastings and St Leonards, characterised by low levels of literacy, high unemployment, and higher than average proportions of people with additional needs.

Currently, around 24% of students are eligible for Pupil Premium and 18% are eligible for Free School Meals. The proportion of students with additional needs is approximately 28%, and increasing.

Over thirty Kent and East Sussex primary schools feed into the College at Year 7, which we support through a specific focus on transition. Post-16 provision in local towns is diverse, with a wide range of options for students to choose from, including grammar schools, local sixth forms, further education colleges in Hastings and Bexhill, and apprenticeships. A comprehensive careers education and guidance programme (CEIAG), which begins when students join the College in Year 7, helps to ensure that uptake of post-16 options is excellent.

In 2020, the College opened a specialist mainstream SEND Facility for twelve students with Autistic Spectrum Condition and Specific Learning Difficulties (i.e., dyslexia). This Facility is currently full, which is reflective of the popularity and reputation of the College amongst parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities. Students within the Facility are supported to attend mainstream lessons as much as possible, accessing a full curriculum leading to appropriate GCSE qualifications. The Facility building acts as a hub for these students, within which they are supported through targeted interventions, small group teaching, therapies, a sensory room, and a team of specialist staff.

Where it began

Following several years of instability, leadership change and interim leadership, the College began a period of profound organisational change in January 2019, with the appointment of the current Headteacher. Whilst the College had a stable and experienced staffing base, staff at all levels had previously not been given the opportunity to reach their full potential. The environment was largely compliance-led, with too little attention on the impact and efficacy thereof. Leaders had not had sufficient development over time, and consequently their impact on the quality of teaching, learning, and the curriculum had been inconsistent, sometimes ineffective. The quality of teaching varied across the College, and pockets of excellence had not been harnessed to enhance the practice of others. Departmental practice had been allowed to develop independently, with little uniformity, collaboration or commonality of language and approach. Added to this, the curriculum offer was very narrowly focussed on EBacc GCSE courses, thereby failing to adequately meet the needs of all students, and not responding to the changing demands of incoming cohorts. Implementation of the curriculum lacked structure and coherence, resulting in a lack of sufficient support, stretch, and challenge to enable students to achieve their best. Because the College had previously had a positive reputation and successive positive Ofsted inspections, staff did not all recognise or appreciate the need for change.

A key starting point was clarifying and aligning the vision so that there was a clarity of purpose and buy-in across staff. It was also necessary to reduce workload for staff by stripping out ineffective and unnecessary systems and procedures, thereby creating the capacity and space for change. Staff wellbeing and workload reduction continues to be a priority.

Over a period of 18 months, from July 2019, the leadership team spent a significant amount of time working with subject leaders (the wider leadership team) to ensure that the intent for the curriculum is clear and the curriculum model is designed to foster a love of the subject rather than designed to simply promote teaching to the exam specification. The staff meeting and CPD cycle was remodelled so that wider leaders could work with teaching teams to ensure there was a clear understanding of the intent. To support wider leaders, this followed an iterative process through which we modelled, rehearsed, and then implemented. Some subject areas required further time to identify the key pedagogical content and knowledge, and this was supported as it was felt important to protect the disciplinary nature of each subject.

Each subject now has a clearly defined intent, with curriculum maps that outline how learning is sequenced and developed across the learning journey. National curriculum content underpins the curriculum model, and our timetable is maximised to ensure that each subject is an area of expertise, taught by passionate subject-specialists. Our desire is that students enjoy the subject as much as the teacher does.  Wider curriculum opportunities have been mapped out to promote cultural capital, and cross-curricular links have been explicitly identified. This documentation is published on our website thereby making it easier for parents to support their child’s learning. This is a reflective process, and the curriculum is therefore not yet a finished product.

In 2020, the curriculum model began transitioning from a two-year Key Stage 3 to a three-year model. Class sizes have been reduced by shifting from a five-form entry model to six teaching groups across all year groups, which necessitated adaptations to the staffing structure. This process has required some reshaping and evolution of the curriculum offer in Year 9 to support the start of GCSE courses for those students in Year 10. The new curriculum structure ensures that Key Stage 3 students enjoy a broad and balanced curriculum from Year 7 to Year 9, including a rotation of subjects in Year 9 to assist students in making better GCSE option choices for Year 10. In Key Stage 4, students are now able to select four rather than three option subjects to sit alongside the core subjects, choosing from a wider range of subjects than previously available. To better meet the needs of our students, option subjects now include a mixture of traditional GCSE courses, alongside carefully chosen EBacc, vocational courses, and more challenging courses such as statistics and further maths that help promote ambitious progression to Key Stage 5. Our structure is flexible so that menu of courses available is tailored to the profile of the cohort.

To support high-quality teaching, a research-informed approach to pedagogy was implemented during 2020. Staff receive ongoing training in our ‘Learning Loop’ to ensure that the best lessons include opportunities for students to become actively involved, while enjoying their learning, and sustaining their acquisition of skills and knowledge over time. This approach is not yet fully embedded, and students are still developing their confidence in being able to articulate their learning and describing why they are learning what they are. In the strongest areas, students are proud of their work, and this shows in their books over time. In some areas, specific attention is being paid to addressing lower expectations of students which in turn results in work of a lesser quality being produced.

The focus of the wider leadership team has now shifted to the quality of implementation of the newly defined curriculum, with quality assurance processes looking for evidence of how the curriculum intent is reflected in teaching, students’ work, and students’ ability to recall knowledge through conversations about their learning. Specific emphasis is being placed on how knowledge translates across subjects. Triad-based quality assurance mechanisms have been implemented and strengthened, with a focus on the key things to look for when assessing which subject areas had secured knowledge-based sequences. As expected, some wider leaders have really grown in confidence and expertise through the development process, but for others it has been a slower process. In some subject areas, there are specific action plans in place to support the focus on key areas needing attention.

To better meet the needs of our students, time has been spent working with staff to ensure that there is a more secure understanding of the unique needs of the individual, especially those with additional needs. Our aim is that there should be no limiting options for students, and we therefore do not allocate students to different pathways in their curriculum. The previous model in which students were streamed into sets for their lessons has been replaced with one which adapts to the unique profile of each cohort. In core subjects, teaching is predominantly in mixed-ability groups, supported by a hybrid approach made up of a combination of one or two sets based on ability, and the rest of the cohort in mixed ability groups. Specifically, for core subjects, all are mixed ability except in Maths and Science in Years 8, 9 and 11 where the hybrid approach is in place. For all other subjects in all year groups, classes are taught in mixed ability groupings.

Another key initiative from the beginning of 2019, was the transition from a focus on negative behaviours to a climate in which a co-constructed set of pro-learning and pro-social norms defines the way in which the College operates. Students and staff were involved in creating our ‘Great Learners Charter’, through which we have collectively identified and agreed key social norms that exemplify what great learning looks like in the classroom, how we will interact with each other as a school community, and what our non-negotiable set of rules are to keep everyone safe and happy. Implicit in this charter is that we value and take responsibility for our learning and that we are not afraid to make mistakes. The new approach to relationships and behaviour is relationship-focussed, with coaching conversations a central feature. This replaced the previous system of detentions and isolations. Professional trust ensures that staff have the space to use their emotional intelligence in response to the unique profile of each student. Coaching conversations are supported through staff CPD and an expanded pastoral structure.

Looking ahead

Staff training has included close consideration of previous assessment process which had led to weak and unreliable data. This has required stripping out of poor practice, and a renewed focus on live, in-the-moment, feedback supported by astute use of questioning to elicit responses. Anderson’s taxonomy provides a framework within the Learning Loop to support staff in their planned use of probing and stretching questioning. Teachers are encouraged to move around the classroom and gather feedback, stimulating students to rework their responses as part of the learning rather than relying on copious amounts of post-lesson marking of work. This is an area of development that will eventually improve the quality of learning. A focus beginning in the 2022/23 academic year will be on evolving the College’s approach to assessment, moving away from calendar-based assessment points using GCSE grades to learning-based assessment. Wider leaders will be working on identifying threshold concepts and key points of assessment that will be unique to their subject and their curriculum map. From this we aim to design a system in which assessment is subject-specific and explicitly linked to the knowledge and skills being taught.

A current project is the development of a more comprehensive literacy, reading and oracy strategy for the College. All students were tested for Reading Ages in March 2022, revealing that around 20% of students across the College have reading ages 2½ or more years below their chronological age, with 13% more than four years behind their chronological age. The data showed that the reading age gap is more pronounced in Years 10 and 11, but not insignificant in other year groups. Alongside this data, our own screening and the SEND profiles of students, suggests that around 16% of students are at risk of dyslexia. Our own observations and knowledge of students points to students in general displaying poor vocabulary knowledge, including subject-specific vocabulary, students lacking inference skills, and phonological knowledge gaps being present for some. Additionally, students sometimes have difficulty retrieving information from texts. When reflecting on the skills profile of teaching staff, it is also apparent that staff lack some of the skills necessary to address the diverse literacy needs of our students. Within the College, there had previously not been an embedded culture of regular reading for pleasure either. Analysis suggested that the reading lessons, originally part of the English curriculum, were not having the desired impact.

As a starting point, we have created a research-informed three-tiered intervention approach, consisting of a universal literacy offer as part of quality first teaching, targeted intervention, and specialist input. Weekly ‘Critical Thinking Tasks’ within Learning Mentor time stimulate subject-specific conversations in response to topical articles in the media. Reading and oracy are promoted through these Critical Thinking Tasks, and there is a carousel approach to enable students to make links between subjects and topics. We are trialling the explicit teaching of vocabulary with targeted groups of students, as well as reciprocal teaching methodologies. Specific groups of students were selected in the first instance to build staff confidence and skills levels prior to offering specific strategies to then embed across teaching for all students. This will be supported by ongoing CPD for staff. Additional approaches that are being trialled are ‘Bedrock Learning’ to build vocabulary in all year groups, and ‘Read Write Inc’ to address phonics gaps in Year 7. Over the summer, we will be reinventing the school library as a ‘Reading Café’ which will open in September 2022. The aim is to place a focus on reading, with opportunities for students to build their reading capacity  

A project team is working alongside an expert external consultant to develop a robust strategy and action plan for literacy, reading and oracy. Members of the project team will be visiting other schools considered to be examples of best practice in these areas which will in turn inform our own strategy. Additionally, learnings from projects such as ‘Voice 21’, reading fluency ‘Herts for Learning’, and ‘Fast reading’ from Sussex University will be included.