NSN Spotlight visit to The Swanage School: 3 Key Areas of Success | newschoolsnetwork.org

NSN Spotlight visit to The Swanage School: 3 Key Areas of Success

On Tuesday 27th November, The Swanage School in Dorset hosted a Spotlight visit for free school groups from around the country. The school is the only mainstream secondary school in Swanage – a coastal town of around 9,000 people – and currently has 320 students in years 7 to 11.

The Swanage School is a shining example of a school that has thrived against the odds. The remote, rural location of Swanage, at the end of the Purbeck peninsular, presents challenges around teacher recruitment and retention. Moreover, the school’s cohort has relatively high levels of deprivation compared with the rest of Dorset. Nevertheless, the school has managed to fill a crucial gap in secondary provision in Swanage, preventing long and difficult travel for pupils to the closest secondary schools in Wareham – 10 miles away. The school, rated Good in 2015 and 2018, achieves high standards year on year, resulting in a Progress 8 score of 0.55 this year – the second highest score in Dorset local authority, placing it in the top 10% of secondary schools nationally.

It would be an impossible challenge to squeeze all of the reasons for the school’s success into a short blog, so below are summaries of three key points that have contributed towards the free school’s success:

Human scale learning

The Swanage School tailors its curriculum to the needs of pupils, demonstrably through its mission to tackle low attainment in literacy in the area. The school’s small size ensures efficient response when a pupil may become disengaged, not only through effective tracking of data and assessment (more on that to come), but also through individual relationships between staff and pupils. Through this ‘human scale’ approach, pupils are monitored closely to provide literacy interventions where necessary and additional English is offered as an alternative to pupils who may not take a keen interest in MFL in Key Stage 4. The school also employs an English curriculum lead to tailor aspects of the curriculum, where progress may have previously stagnated, to re-engage pupils with the subject through a focus on project based learning and collaboration in years 7 and 8, based on the successes of School 21. As such the school continues to tackle historically low literacy levels in the area, achieving an English progress score of 0.2 in 2017, high above the local average of -0.13. The school has since replicated this practice across the rest of the humanities subjects.

The ‘So what?’ question 

To maximise the expediency of the data collected, leaders and teachers are all encouraged to ask, ‘so what?’ as they review data pertaining to summative assessments. This simple check creates a challenge environment and ensures that teachers only collect data that is utilised effectively to improve the progress of students. No data is ‘collected for data’s sake’, and the usefulness of data to drive progress is always considered – all data collected is used to track progress, inform curriculum planning and identify necessary interventions. The efficiency of data use also helps to alleviate teacher workload: Data drops occur only three times across the academic year.

The ‘so what?’ question is implemented at all levels of pupil development on a ‘human scale’. Pupil’s continued progression is ensured through developmental feedback and targets within lessons and bookwork alongside assessment. Teachers never ‘tick and flick’, and instead continually challenge pupils with probing diagnostic questions both in lessons and marking to develop deeper understandings of particular concepts. During the school tour, this was evidenced within ‘Independent Learning Project portfolios’ in which pupils developed their ideas on topic through peer and teacher feedback at each checkpoint of research and essay planning. For example, one pupil’s colourful portfolio exploring how female independence was accelerated by twentieth century conflict demonstrated how the pupil’s thinking had developed to consider how contextual societal norms were difficult to overcome. This was shown through questions from peers and teachers as well as responses from the pupil to their feedback, including the expectation for the pupil to explain how they had implemented the feedback on their next piece of work.

A school for the community

A key challenge for any free school is attracting prospective pupils without a demonstrable track record. Throughout pre-opening, as well as the first few years of opening, free schools rely more heavily upon their founding mission, vision and values than existing providers. The Swanage School is an intentionally small school, creating an environment where teachers, pupils and parents can create deep and meaningful relationships to support one another. Its steadfast commitment to placing human relations at the heart of everything it does has provided local people with a genuine alternative to the large secondary schools outside of Swanage.

The school has successfully implemented pupil recruitment and marketing strategies that reflect these values; opting for a series of smaller, open events at local cafés and community centres – as opposed to a few headline events held at strategic points in the academic year. Community support is crucial to the survival of any new school, and so it is testament to the hard work of staff and senior leaders that The Swanage School is already an established fixture of the area (local residents support the enrichment programme by running clubs and the sports hall has even hosted weddings!). The role of the school within the community and vice versa proves that the school is a physical embodiment of its maxim: Where relationships are at the heart of the school and the school is at the heart of the community.


The mission and drive of the staff within the school is inspirational. There is a palpable sense of warmth within the school, epitomised by a spontaneous lunchtime performance of Christmas songs, led by a teacher, which caused the lunch hall – pupils and staff – to erupt into song, dance and laughter.

The Swanage School is a fantastic example of a free school addressing the need for school places, providing local people with a community hub, and producing outstanding results for its pupils in a challenging coastal area.

NSN would like to extend its gratitude to The Swanage School, its staff and pupils who so warmly welcomed us on the visit.

Blog topic:
Running a school