How the Co-op tackled a school with terrible truancy

How the Co-op tackled a school with terrible truancy

​How does a school go from having one of the worst truancy records in the country to having one of the best attendance records?

​"No nonsense and no excuses."

​That's the message that you keep hearing from staff at Co-op Academy Manchester.

​There is also a very direct approach from the school's attendance team.

​Even if a parent rings to say their child is poorly, there could still be a knock on the door to check out the story.

​Jenny Robey, the school's attendance manager, says she might be halfway up the stairs of a house where a child is supposedly off sick when the parent will admit that "she's really in Tenerife".

Not there... not learning

​The school, in Blackley, Manchester, used to send out a minibus to bring back all those caught dodging school.

The principal, Steve Brice, says a radical improvement on attendance was a key part of turning around the school.

​"If children are not in the building, they're not learning," he says. Any other improvements in lessons would be wasted if pupils were not there to benefit.

​Mr Brice says it has been important to send an unambiguous message that truancy is not tolerated - and to make clear that the school would not shy away from tough action, including fines and prosecutions for parents.

​He says schools in disadvantaged areas are not helping anyone if they lower standards.

​"It might seem tough not to accept excuses," says the principal.

​"There might be more barriers - but that's even more of a reason to work really hard.

​"It would be a complete disservice to children and their families to say 'they can't do it because..'."

New identity

​It's an approach that has seen the school going from near the bottom in school attendance among England's secondary schools to a record that puts them near the top.

​A decade ago, the school (in its previous identity) had about one in five pupils who were persistently absent. Now it's in the top 1% for attendance.

​But the first thing a visitor might notice arriving at the school is the Co-op logo on the wall and on the badge on school blazers.

​The logo is immediately familiar from the high street shops - but the Co-op also runs 13 schools, with a particular focus on improving schools in less affluent parts of the north of England.

​When the Co-op took over the Manchester school in 2010 it gave it a new name, new buildings and a new leadership - and with that a new culture.

​There was a much stricter behaviour code, rules on uniform were enforced and there was a push for a greater sense of calm.

​There was also a £24m rebuild, followed by a further £18m extension, including a professional-standard theatre that can be used by the community as well as the school.

​It's attracted more pupils - with numbers at the school more than doubling since the relaunch.

Social reformers

​The Co-op also introduced its own ethos.

​It's almost as if the Co-op movement's history of social reform, drawn from its 19th Century founders, has been used as a form of faith or belief.

​The school's houses - called "families" - are named after people from the movement's past and there are visible messages about fairness, respect and community.

​The vice principal, Mel McMorrow, talks about good manners and making sure pupils wear the right kind of shoes and tuck in their shirts.

​She had worked in the school's previous incarnation and said: "I wouldn't say it was out of control, but there was very little respect."

​The culture shift, she says, meant that pupils now wanted to be in school.

​There has been a big push on improving the teaching - and a policy of not using supply teachers, and instead having their own pool of staff to provide cover.

'Straight talking'

​Mr Brice talks about the need for "robustness" in setting standards.

​While the Co-op might be associated with progressive politics, he says the school also draws upon values of "straight talking" and "self-responsibility and self-help".

​Pupils at the school might have parents who had a negative experience in their own education - and he says there is a need to tackle such "inter-generational" lack of engagement with school.

​Ms Robey says that attendance problems can be the starting point for other underlying family difficulties.

​Parents might say the child is "stressed" or "anxious", but it might turn out to be the parent who has the problem and might need help.

​Frank Norris, the chief executive of the Co-op's academy trust, says the group wants to expand further in schools in the north of England.

​He says the aim is not only to raise educational achievement, but to use schools to support regeneration in the wider community.

​For example in the Co-op Academy Manchester, there is a mini-business centre on the school campus where local entrepreneurs and start-ups can work.

​Mr Norris says the schools are linked by the co-operative ethos, but in a way that connects with young people.

​Rather than talking about "solidarity", he says the schools might talk about succeeding together.

​"It's about respecting people - and those values are still relevant today."

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