"The literacy programme has become a whole-school, whole-staff approach. In terms of technical subjects, we know that ensuring students excel in literacy is paramount."
Last September, before our doors opened at Silverstone UTC, our new and enthusiastic team piled into a coach and began a long journey down to London for a day that few of us will ever forget. We arrived at Pineapple Studios with a touch of fear and trepidation. We had come for our ‘company spirit’ day: a chance for us, as a team, to discuss and formulate the mission for our school, and lay the foundations of our team. The mirrored walls and crowded stairways appeared, at first, an odd setting for this task, but there was something about the hope and enthusiasm of those surroundings that helped us to focus. Hours later, amongst the faint smell of sweaty dancing shoes and the distant echoes of music in the hallways, we had formulated our plan. Our mission was finalised and our challenge was set:
"To produce high-performing, work-ready,young people in a college without walls."
Firstly, we knew that careers stemming from our subject specialisms in High-Performance Engineering and Business and Events Management are competitive and challenging, and to be the best, to stand out in the work-place, it was essential for our students to be able to communicate effectively. We have some wonderful, industry-leading partners at Silverstone UTC, and we want our students to impress.
Secondly, we were well aware that our cohort was mainly boys, and that the statistics were stacked against them. According to the National Literacy Trust, ‘Girls outperform boys on all National Curriculum reading tests…At GCSE level, the gap between boys and girls achieving A* to C in English GCSE is 14 percentage points’ (2012:4). Clearly, to fulfil our mission, this was one challenge we had to tackle head-on.
We began by developing a vision for literacy, and articulating the rationale behind what we wanted to do in order to redress this balance, and to ensure that our students were ‘high-performing’, regardless of what the statistics told us. For our students to truly excel in the workplace later on in life, it was essential to us that they were enabled to excel. All staff agreed on one thing: we did not want any ‘quick fixes’ that would soon fade and die. To make any real difference to the literacy levels of our students, we needed to plan for the long term.
We took time to develop a rationale and vision that we felt reflected the UTC and its values. Below is what we agreed on:
Literacy in schools is often perceived as a ‘tag on’ to lessons, if it is focused on at all. I could hazard a guess that many teachers in many schools would not know what was going on to help improve literacy across the curriculum. With such demanding jobs, it often seems too much to take on another ‘thing’, especially if we do not see the benefit to ‘our subjects’.
Is it ever possible to incorporate an explicit focus on literacy to the curriculum without it becoming the above? Is it possible for a body of staff to truly work together to raise the literacy standards for their students, allowing them to access the curriculum in all areas, expand their vocabulary and, ultimately, impact on the quality of their teaching and learning experiences and outcomes? The Silverstone Literacy Strategy has been borne out of these questions, and seeks to encourage the collaboration needed to explore the answers to them.
To collaboratively develop a crosscurricular literacy programme that:
- Has a measurable impact on the ability and outcomes of students to access the curriculum
- Raises the self-esteem and self-belief of students in the UTC
- Helps to equip students with some of the basic skills they will need in life
We began with reading. Our initial discussions focused on the need for our students to read for pleasure.
The National Literacy Trust found that:
"...reading can have a major impact on children/young people and adults and their future… For example, research with children has shown that reading for pleasure is positively linked with…reading attainment and writing ability…text comprehension and grammar…breadth of vocabulary…[and] greater self-confidence as a reader…an increase in general knowledge…a better understanding of other cultures…community participation…[and] a greater insight into human nature and decision-making’ (2006:8)."
We wanted this for our students, and over the year, I believe they have started to want it for themselves. The initial concept was simple: ten minutes reading time at the beginning of every lesson in school. We loaned books out from the library, encouraged students to bring them from home, gave recommendations, and, I believe essentially for some students, many of the staff incorporated the use of technology into this reading time.
In my classroom, students have the choice of what medium to use to facilitate their reading: some religiously bring in their books – a few are making their way through a newly obtained series that they requested from parents; some bring in magazines that are to do with their hobbies or interests; some read the newspaper and some use phones, tablets and laptops to access news, articles or books online. The UTC was also the first in the local area to offer its students an online library platform which allows them to loan books onto their devices.
The students themselves have noted the difference this focus has made to their interest and enjoyment of reading:
"I never read before, but being able to read on my phone helps. I can read the news or other things I’m interested in." Nathan
Y10 Engineering student
"I didn’t read at all before and I hadn’t read a book for two years. I now read in PP time and before bed. I’ve read eight books since the reading in class started." Noah
Y10 Engineering student
"I read books that I’m interested in. I’ve just started a series of books, and I’m about to finish the second one. I didn’t read much before, but I’m about to finish my third book of the year." Rayner
Y10 Business and Events Management student
The next stage of the plan, having established the routine of reading, was to appoint ‘Literacy Leaders’ from the student body. We wanted to place ownership of this programme onto the students themselves, and to hear, from a student perspective, what impact the programme was having. We appointed four keen students into these roles, and throughout the year they have been involved in meetings, visiting lessons, reporting back from a student perspective, and contributing ideas to help improve what we are doing. Here is what two of them have had to say about their roles and the literacy focus itself:
"The ten minutes reading at the start of lesson has helped me tremendously. Originally, I hated reading a book and now I am getting into books and I actually enjoy reading. The literacy leaders has encouraged me more in English and has helped me become more confident as a person and, because of this, I enjoy English more." Olly
Y10 Engineering student and literacy leader
"I enjoy the ten minute reading session in each lesson because it helps my literacy skills, both verbal and written. We get to talk to others and get books recommended to us by the other students and even teachers! I think that it helps everyone to improve their grammar, punctuation and paragraphing skills. It has made me see how important literacy is in every lesson and has improved my skills greatly. My role as a literacy leader is to ‘lesson dip’ which is where we – in pairs – go into other classes and ask the students questions about their books or how literacy is helping them in their lessons. We also discuss what to do – involving literacy – which we could use in lessons. Starting in June, we are having literacy objectives which will be on the board for one week and the objective will be assessed by the teacher at the end of each lesson either verbally or written." Leigh
Y10 Business and Events Management student and literacy leader
The literacy programme has become a whole-school, whole-staff approach. In terms of technical subjects, we know that ensuring students excel in literacy is paramount. In Events Management, for example, we have worked closely with the teaching team and students to give Year 10 specific support in Speaking and Listening. Students have demanding texts to read for their course, and regularly have to make presentations to partner companies. Project based learning (PBL) will offer us the chance to develop a unique programme of literacy support into our second year. We will work closely with the team of specialist teachers, developing the skills that are needed in each of the project blocks to ensure our students excel and succeed. Our mission to become a ‘college without walls’ has meant that we have worked to break down barriers that may have previously existed: staff read alongside their students, we recommend books to students and they do the same for us. Reading is no longer an embarrassing thing for many of our students. Because we all do it together, there is no chance to be singled out for being keen.
However, please do not get me wrong – this has not all been plain sailing. A lot of hard work has gone into reaching this point in the year. Some students still have trouble staying focused to read. There have been times this year when I have glanced around the classroom and sighed heavily at the clear struggle between boy and book that goes on in areas of the classroom. We have had to find ways to break down those walls, and the incorporation of hand-held technology is, I believe, crucially important in doing this. I have learned a great deal about the importance of listening to our students. They have offered insights that have allowed this programme to grow. We wanted to develop a programme that was conducted alongside students, rather than one that was ‘done to them’. It was important to listen to their preferences to use hand held technology, and to understand what engages each of the individuals that we work with. A big lesson to learn is that, sometimes, as staff, we don’t know best. Given the chance, and a voice, students will lead you to help lead them.
There have been successes and there are clear areas to improve on, but overall, when I look around the building in those ten minutes at the beginning of lessons, when I have a conversation with a student who has, for the first time in their life, completed an entire book, or when I get given a book recommendation by a young person, who then brings in that book for me to borrow, I know at that point that what we are doing at the UTC is making a difference, and I know that we are helping to mould the future of those young people to believe in themselves and stand out from the crowd.
National Literacy Trust (2006) Reading for Pleasure London: National Literacy Trust
National Literacy Trust (2012) Boys’ Reading Commission 2012 London: National Literacy Trust