This is a quick and light-hearted post on what characteristics one might expect to find in a school that takes its academic credentials seriously. These signs are not supposed to be individually necessary or collectively sufficient, but I hope they do give a flavour of what I mean when I talk about a school being ‘academic’.
(1) Pupils read more than the standard Key Stage 3 textbooks in lessons.
My history focus will shine through in these comments, but this probably applies more generally. What are the pupils in your school reading in lessons? Is it a common textbook that is light on prose and heavy on fun activities? Or do teachers in your school frequently get pupils reading more serious books? Have they read some Attenborough in their geography or biology lessons? But here’s the acid test: go to a PSHE lesson and look at what pupils are reading there.
(2) Your school talks to parents about the precise content of the curriculum.
Parents often want to know what is going on at school, particularly as they increasingly get monosyllabic grunts from their children when they ask what they learnt at school that day. At the very least an academic school sends home each term a detailed breakdown of what is being learnt in each subject. At best, it brings parents in and runs twilight sessions in which parents get a subject-knowledge update on what their children at learning. Particular academic bonus points where parents start leading some of these sessions and come into school to share their knowledge more widely.
(3) Teachers run ‘geek’ clubs for other teachers and pupils
In the first school in which I worked the history department started running ‘History Talks’ in which members of the history department gave talks in the library on something interesting: I remember doing one on Anglo-Saxon England. The English department soon joined in. At my second school was a particularly inspiring teacher (Matt Stanford) who set up a lunchtime club (I think it was just called ‘Geek Club’) in which teachers and students gave talks on ‘something cool’. I remember a particularly entertaining one on the history of art. Such events are a celebration of knowledge and are often found in academic schools.
(4) Teachers get to do subject knowledge development on training days.
What this is might vary from subject to subject, but if you get a chance each year to go and learn something new about your subject – not because it’s on a new exam specification, but for its own sake – then your school is one that values knowledge for its own sake and recognises the value of having knowledgeable subject experts as teachers.
(5) External experts come to give talks on areas of specialism.
This could be assemblies. This could be for particular subject groups. It probably isn’t just ‘gifted and talented’ If your school brings in experts from academic fields – such as authors, researchers or university lecturers – then your school clearly wants to push its pupils beyond the bare minimum.
(6) Your library has books that go well beyond the curriculum.
All school libraries have books that go beyond the curriculum, but take a closer look at the books and look to see if children are actually taking them out. Take a look at the history section. Is it all Horrible Histories and picture books? Or are there recent works of serious history? Does your library have Richard Evans’ three volume history of the Third Reich? Or several of Orlando Figes books on Russia? If so, your school certainly has an academic ethos running through its library. Particular kudos if your school has these books and does not have a Sixth Form.
(7) Teaching assistants are subject-specialists.
This is difficult to achieve in practice and in some cases schools employ teaching assistants to work with children with particular needs (e.g. I regularly worked with a TA who knew sign language). But a school that is serious about pushing all pupils academically knows that, where possible, teaching assistants need to be deployed in subjects where they are most knowledgeable. Ruth Brown at Cottenham Village College is quite possibly the best TA I’ve ever worked with (and I’ve worked with a number of excellent ones – including currently) and what she got pupils to do with history was stunning.
(8) Children aren’t told at the ages of 12, 13 or 14 that a vocational subject might be more appropriate for them.
In any true comprehensive there will always be a handful of children for whom the full, academic curriculum is not appropriate, but if your school consistently enters the overwhelming majority of pupils for languages, history, geography and similar subjects at GCSE, then you probably teach in a school with high academic aspirations.
(9) You rarely hear the phrase ‘you don’t need that for the exam’.
Counter-intuitively, academic schools are often not completely exam focused. In fact I would say some of the least academic schools are those that obsess about getting pupils their Grade C in Maths and English Language at the cost of learning a broader curriculum. Teachers in academic schools are not afraid to teach knowledge that goes beyond the requirements of the exam, though in the spring of Year 11 the exam invariably and understandably dominates.
(10) Your school hasn’t collapsed subjects into a ‘competence-based curriculum’.
This is particularly common in Year 7 and was a big thing in the late 2000s with example curricula around such as the RSA’s Opening Mind’s curriculum (or ‘Emptying Minds’ curriculum as one sociologist at Cambridge called it). Academic schools take subject disciplines seriously.