Delivery Team Intern Vanessa O’Driscoll shares the lessons learnt at a workshop NSN hosted in partnership with Marine Academy Primary (MAP) about closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged students and their peers.

Since opening in 2013 in Plymouth, Marine Academy Primary (MAP) has been amongst the highest performing schools in the country when it comes to closing the attainment gap. Siobhan Meredith, the school’s headteacher and a National Leader of Education; Nicola Keeler, Inclusion Leader and Pupil Premium Champion; and deputy headteacher Claire Jones shared their expertise at the workshop.

MAP is in the St Budeaux area of Plymouth, which is in the nation’s top 20% of areas with high social deprivation. This means that most of the school’s students enter Reception from backgrounds which may be low in social capital, with some families being third or fourth generation unemployed.  

In order to deliver their curriculum to best serve all pupils, MAP has adopted a rigorous educational strategy. Because of the historically high percentage of disadvantaged pupils attending the school, they receive an above average amount of pupil premium (PP) funding which is carefully managed by leadership and governors. Leaders at all levels discuss disadvantage and pupil premium spending is on the agenda for every governance meeting, meaning that there is a strong sense of shared accountability. This ‘no excuses’ approach is reflected in the school’s results: in July 2018, 87% of the school’s disadvantaged pupils achieved the expected standard or higher at the end of KS2, when compared with 70% nationally.

Nicola leads the school’s Inclusion Team, whose purpose is to find the most beneficial ways of implementing PP funding. One way this is done is by highlighting pupils who fall into a disadvantaged category: pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM), looked-after children (LAC), and children recorded as Ever 6 FSM, then checking in after a few weeks that teachers are aware of these children in their class. The goal is that by engaging teachers in this way, they will be more attuned to the needs of these pupils and can support them accordingly.

The progress of these pupils is regularly monitored, by using colour coding to signify any changes to their performance year-on-year. The team is also quick to recognise less obvious types of disadvantage. They currently employ a full time speech and language therapist who assesses Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) pupils for weaknesses in vocabulary or difficulty following instructions. We were told that so far this year, just one pupil entering the school had passed these tests. Follow-up work is then done with these students to get them on a level playing field as soon as possible.

MAP’s work around tackling disadvantage also shines in ways which go beyond the confines of the school curriculum. Claire spoke to us about the school’s wider strategy of inclusion, which takes a holistic approach to closing the attainment gap by incorporating cultural activities and the wider community.

The school works with the National Breakfast Programme (NBP) to provide the cheapest breakfasts in the city. It has been proven that just attending a breakfast club improves academic achievement. Their breakfast club starts at 7.30am, earlier than many other schools, as this allows parents who work as healthcare professionals to still get to work on time.

Engaging parents and adults is central to Marine Primary’s inclusion strategy and this is a real credit to the school. MAP achieves this through activities such as their monthly ‘Conversation Café’, where parents and carers have the opportunity to network with each other, as well as the Inclusion Team. This is also a great way for everyone to unwind with a coffee and cake, while staying informed about key topics such as e-safety and phonics.

Another innovative engagement tactic which MAP have developed is their termly ‘Dudes Club’, where pupils are encouraged to bring along a man that they know to school, whether this be a relative, family friend, or even the school caretaker. Those in attendance get to enjoy a hearty pint of juice and a bacon butty, with activities such as martial arts and football. As the school has a primarily female workforce and many pupils do not have any male figures in their immediate family, this is a way for them to have positive associations with men as well as women.

Perhaps most memorable of all are two members of the school who cannot go unmentioned: LB and Watson, the therapy dogs. MAP makes no secret of how integral both dogs are in reducing feelings of anxiety in students and teaching them how to behave compassionately. They have even found a way to involve the dogs with pupils’ learning, by getting students to practice reading in front of Watson, who listens to them without judgement.  

We would like to say a massive thank you to the staff at MAP for sharing the secrets of their success with us, which are truly inspirational. It is clear to see that closing the attainment gap must encompass more areas than just lesson time – it must give pupils and their families a way to access experiences and services which they can use for life.

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