An award-winning Pupil Premium school

Written by: Emma Lee-Potter | Published:
Outdoor learning: Pupils from Northern Saints during one of their Outward Bound expeditions (Image: Northern Saints School)

Earlier this year, Northern Saints Primary School was named a national winner at the Pupil Premium Awards 2016. Emma Lee-Potter finds out how this Sunderland school uses its Pupil Premium funding to raise aspirations and outcomes for pupils

When Steve Williamson embarked on his teaching career 25 years ago he never dreamed that his job would one day involve snakes, chickens and jumping into the icy waters of Lake Ullswater.

Mr Williamson is now headteacher of Northern Saints CE Primary School in Sunderland, which was named as a winner at the 2016 Pupil Premium Awards in May this year.

Northern Saints, where 50 per cent of pupils are eligible for the Pupil Premium grant, was one of two joint national winners in the key stage 2 category of the awards, which celebrate schools that are making “a real difference in supporting their disadvantaged pupils”.

Mr Williamson, his 58-strong team and the school’s 517 children were delighted to be honoured for their achievements in raising pupils’ aspirations and improving their life chances.

The team’s success was particularly notable because Northern Saints is a relatively new school, formed in 2013 from two predecessor schools. When Mr Williamson arrived in 2009 one school had been languishing in special measures for two years. After turning the school around in an impressive 10 months he became executive head of the second school, which before his arrival was one of the worst 200 performing primary schools in the country.

“It wasn’t easy but it seemed like a natural progression to pull the two schools together on the larger site,” said Mr Williamson. “The diocese and the local authority put in a substantial amount of money to refurbish the new school and develop it into what we call ‘a co-constructed learning environment’.”

The children were involved in planning the new school right from the start. They were not impressed, for instance, that the staff had their own staffroom so Mr Williamson and his team created a “communal hub” instead.

The school also built a spacious community library, decided to keep chickens (the children collect the eggs each day) and transformed a series of former storage rooms into learning hubs that can be used at playtime, including a reptile room complete with snakes, bearded dragons, white tree frogs, chameleons and crested geckos.

“The idea for the reptile room came from a child who had significant difficulties and was a low attender,” explained Mr Williamson, who did his teacher training at Bishop Grosseteste College (now part of the University of Lincoln) and taught in London and Manchester before moving to Northern Saints. His first headship was at St Stephen’s CE Primary School in Lambeth, south London. “I was trying to find a hook into bringing him into school and he started talking about a snake his uncle had. I said: ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had a snake in school?’ So a snake duly arrived.”

Progress: Pupils at Northern Saints in class (Image: Antonia Barraclough Photography)

Northern Saints, which receives just over £300,000 in Pupil Premium payments each year, serves an area of low aspiration, where there have been few cultural opportunities in the past.

“We tend to have a fairly static but not necessarily stable population,” explained Mr Williamson. “In contrast to the 16 per cent of children who stayed at my school in London throughout their school career, 98 per cent of the children here started with us in reception. But while there is very little mobility it also means that some of our children have never been to the sea – and it’s only four miles away.”

Northern Saints, which is now in the top 100 performing schools for progress made between key stage 1 and 2, prides itself on giving children the opportunity to learn from first-hand experience, both outdoors and through an extended and enhanced curriculum. “The rate of progress of our disadvantaged children is remarkable, particularly as they reach key stage 2,” said Mr Williamson.

“Our disadvantaged pupils outperform their peers in reading and maths. We have achieved this through the notion of co-construction with the children – the idea of co-planning all their learning and working to ensure that this ethos feeds throughout the school.

“We believe in partnerships rather than projects. Individual short-term projects and interventions can have an impact on pupil learning and we have been engaged in some of those, but what I have driven forward as head is the notion of longer term partnerships, where we work together to design and develop programmes of study and learning opportunities that meet the needs of the varying cohorts.”

With this in mind, Northern Saints formed four key partnerships, all of which were part of the school’s Pupil Premium Awards application. As Mr Williamson wrote in a blog post: “Our disadvantaged children lack that urgency for learning and inspiration to achieve and so we use the (Pupil Premium) grant to provide a wide range of additional opportunities to get out into the local and regional area and use the plethora of museums, galleries and resources to increase lifelong aspiration.”

The first partnership is with the Outward Bound Trust, an educational charity that runs adventurous and challenging outdoor learning programmes. Mr Williamson has always been passionate about outdoor education and was keen for pupils at Northern Saints to experience opportunities outside the curriculum.

“The Outward Bound Trust has a very strong record of adventure and challenge, but what they particularly taught us was the notion that we all have a life script. It’s the idea of the iceberg – success is what people see on the surface but underneath there are particular character traits and skills that need to be developed but that others don’t necessarily see.”

Outdoor learning: Pupils from Northern Saints during one of their Outward Bound expeditions (Image: Northern Saints School)

In a typical year at Northern Saints, all year 5 pupils take part in a weekend expedition at an Outward Bound training centre in the Lake District.

“But this is no ordinary primary school visit,” said Mr Williamson. “One of the first things they do when they arrive is go down to Lake Ullswater and we all jump in, teachers included. Some children say ‘I can’t do this’, but through this programme we teach the idea of having a positive mindset, how to tackle the unknown and what you do when you are faced with a challenge.

“What the Outward Bound Trust is particularly adept at is ensuring that every child achieves, every child is faced with big challenges and all the lessons learned can be applied back into the school context. It’s about building character and confidence and helping the children to learn those basic skills that they need to face new challenges in everyday life.”

In year 6, the children have a week-long expedition to Ben Nevis in Scotland, where they go rock-climbing and abseiling on Scimitar Ridge and tackle an overnight expedition. The landscape is often thick with snow and the youngsters carry all their own equipment, including full A-frame tents.

The school’s second partnership is with Beamish Museum in County Durham, an extraordinary open-air museum that chronicles life in North East England during the 1820s, 1900s and 1940s. Northern Saints staff attend training days at Beamish, use their materials and resources in school and target pupils who are struggling with their learning. Different year groups get the chance to spend a day at the museum’s Victorian school, mining colliery and Edwardian bakery.

“For children who don’t have many opportunities to get out and have lots of first-hand experience, some of the talk around learning becomes very difficult because they haven’t got a structure to pin it on,” explained Mr Williamson. “They need something to write about, so Beamish is fabulous.”

Over the last two years the teaching staff have also spent time studying Bloom’s Taxonomy and higher order questioning. “It has made an enormous difference and made us focus on the children who otherwise would have been fairly passive in the classroom. When we visit places people always say ‘we can’t believe how mature the questioning is from your children, how interested they are’. The children love learning and want to find out more.”

The school’s other partnerships are with the National Glass Centre in Sunderland (one project involved the children creating a stunning array of crystal minibeasts) and Seven Stories, the national centre for children’s books in Newcastle upon Tyne. Northern Saints has also used some of its Pupil Premium funding to pay for a reader-in-residence from Seven Stories to work with the children for two days a week.

Mr Williamson has now seen a whole cohort of children progress through the school and is convinced that the breadth of opportunity they have experienced pays dividends. Their work is far more detailed, their focus in class is excellent and they are very proud of their school.

Northern Saints pupils at the Houses of Parliament with chair of governors Ann Hodgson to collect the school’s 2016 Pupil Premium Award (Image: Northern Saints School)

When it came to the Pupil Premium Awards ceremony at Drapers’ Hall in London, Mr Williamson and chair of governors Ann Hodgson decided to take three of the school’s most disadvantaged year 5 pupils along with them.

The children were given an impromptu tour round the Houses of Parliament, went to a performance of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the actor who played Willy Wonka signed a poster for them wishing them good luck for the awards. As Mr Williamson said: “It demonstrated to the children that with the right approach and confidence anything is possible.”

  • Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education journalist.

Further information

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