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The Sunday Times Schools Guide Parent Power
Comprehensive School of the Year
Tapton School, Sheffield

By Judith O’Reilly ....


Read below the full web article or click here for a link to the article in the Sunday Times.

The Sunday Times Schools Guide Parent Power
Comprehensive School of the Year
Tapton School, Sheffield

By Judith O’Reilly ....


Hard work makes the learning magic at our Comprehensive of the Year

The idea that “two heads are better than one,” is more of a way of life than a proverb at Tapton School in Sheffield. David Dennis and Claire Tasker both tackle the head teacher’s role, and proof that their double act is working – if anyone needs it – is found in some of the best comprehensive school results in the country.

With a school the size of Tapton and with its soaring ambitions, two heads aren’t a luxury, they are an out-and-out requirement. Tapton, winner of our Comprehensive School of the Year award, is going places, and the energy and excitement are tangible.

“We’re restless,” admits Dennis.

“Restless for success, for achievement and for improvement. Restless for our students to triumph – whatever their background – and to have the best possible teaching and learning,” agrees Tasker.

And when you are talking about the best possible teaching and learning, what that means in practical terms is that a good teacher in a good school marks a child’s homework thoroughly. A great teacher in a great school marks it, then gets the child to rework it and develop it along the lines of the marking. In a school such as Tapton, the child isn’t merely learning, the child knows how he or she is learning and how to learn better.

Tapton secured 72.1% of A-levels at A*-B grades, with 42.3% of GCSEs at A*/A grades this summer, rising more than 60 places in our national state school rankings. To reach that point, you haven’t just sat back and counted the hills Sheffield is built upon. (There are seven by the way, says Dennis. Like Rome, adds Tasker.)

In December 2012 Ofsted inspectors judged Tapton to be “outstanding” in terms of pupil achievement, quality of teaching and behaviour of pupils, as well as leadership and management.

Inspectors said students learned “exceptionally well” at Tapton, that their attitudes to learning and academy life were “exemplary”, with “outstanding manners and attendance”. Teaching was outstanding in most subjects with consistently high expectations creating “highly positive climates” in which to learn.

With an exceptional review and superb results, a school might be forgiven for thinking it is getting it right, so there is no need for change. However, Tapton decided that to keep getting it right, change was a necessity. Ofsted’s verdict – without hesitation or exception – liberated Tapton’s leadership to research best practice, to innovate, to improve – always looking to the touchstone of pupil achievement.

The school is in Crosspool, a pleasant leafy residential area close to the heart of the city, drawing its students from a wedge running from the comfortable suburbs right into the inner city, with a significant proportion of the inner-city youngsters catching one or even two buses to get there.

It’s a catchment area that means Tapton is a true multicultural comprehensive with a very mixed socioeconomic intake.

Tapton may have below-average numbers of children on free school meals at 16% (the average is 17.4%), but 14% of its intake has English as a second language, with pupils drawn from Nigeria, Somalia, Tunisia, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan, China and Hong Kong as well as eastern Europe, including Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Russia. Thirty languages are spoken at home, and about a third of the 1,660 students on the roll have a black ethnic background.

Dennis believes this multicultural outlook reflects Sheffield’s historic role as an ethnic melting pot due to its industrial heritage, its leading university, and its proximity to the beauty of the Peak District. “It’s always been a welcoming place. Historically, it’s been a haven for displaced communities from across the world.”

As well as the two co-heads, Tapton’s leadership team includes the school’s former principal David Bowes, now chief executive of the Tapton School Academy Trust. The trust shows Tapton isn’t resting easy but is spreading its good practice and quality teaching far and wide – most immediately through its two partner secondary schools (Chaucer and Forge Valley) and its three partner primary schools (Southey Green, which itself has 715 pupils, Meynell and Hillsborough).

“The idea,” says Bowes, “is moving a community forward together from the age of two through to 16 and on to sixth form. Because what Tapton is about is valuing everyone, caring for each other and achieving excellence, and that is echoed in each of our schools.”

This approach is acknowledged by local MP and former education secretary David Blunkett, who is also a patron of Tapton’s parent school trust.

“The leadership team are outstanding and deeply committed to social values,” Blunkett says. “They are reaching out through the trust to transform the life chances of children outside their immediate, mainly affluent, catchment area to raise aspirations and provide inspirational teaching.” 

In 2010, both Dennis and Tasker were appointed deputy heads to Bowes shortly before he started working with the Chaucer School. Within eight months they were made joint heads to his executive lead and last year, when the Tapton School Academy Trust expanded again and Bowes moved up to become its chief executive, they made the decision to apply together for the job of Tapton’s principal.

“Thirteen years ago,” says Bowes, “this was a sleeping giant. It was a good school but not doing very much. It was moribund in all kinds of ways. What has happened to it since is nothing short of spectacular.”

The two heads have their own specialisms. Dennis has responsibilities for the curriculum, achievement, tracking assessment and ICT. Tasker, in turn, is responsible for leadership, teaching and learning, professional development, performance management and accountability.

Tasker wants every minute in the classroom maximised while Dennis’s data-tracking pinpoints all areas where students can improve. It’s a partnership that works “brilliantly”, according to Bowes.

As Tasker says: “It’s ridiculous to be talking about achievement if the backstory isn’t about the amazing teaching and learning that goes on. It’s great classroom practice that leads to these outcomes within a deftly designed curriculum.

“We believe our similarities and our differences give us strengths. David is a scientist. I’m a historian. We come from different backgrounds but have an equal passion for the children to achieve.”

The leadership team and committed staff of a school which counts Lord Coe as an old boy (and now one of the patrons of Tapton) aren’t running to keep up, they are running to stay ahead. The reason they want the most innovative, effective ways of doing things is because that is how to boost children’s achievement.

“Education should and indeed must transform life chances across the city,” says Dennis. “That is why it’s important we are continually reflecting and evolving.”

Such educational evolution is particularly important, according to Dennis, because of the current changes and reforms across education. “Out there everything is changing. We have a new national curriculum, new GCSEs, new accountability, and a radically altered exam regime, and we need to stay ahead of the game. That is something we take seriously in terms of developing a curriculum that works and the tracking which tells us where every youngster is.

“I don’t think people are aware of how much things are changing in schools.”

Tapton has introduced “twilight” classes for those who want to take on extra GCSEs outside the school day such as drama, a second modern foreign language or Arabic. As a result, school finishes 35 minutes earlier on Tuesdays so that its pupils can start another two hours of twilight study at 3pm. Last year 120 children took up the twilight option; this year numbers are up to 130.

The school is a specialist college for science and for the arts, with particular emphasis placed on practical investigations in science. “That’s how you learn science best,” says Dennis. It participates in the British Physics Olympiad and Nuffield Research Placements scheme, as well as university research and the University of Cambridge’s Senior Physics Challenge. An astonishing 120 pupils take part in the extracurricular science, technology, engineering and mathematics clubs for years 7, 8 and 9.

The college is also a vision support centre and 16 of its pupils have little or no vision. Its visually impaired students are “exceptionally well integrated into school life” and “achieve outstandingly well”, according to Ofsted.

Blunkett says: “Unusually and successfully, the school has embraced and integrated a unit supporting a number of blind and partially sighted students who are embedded in the life of the school but who have the facilities and backing to ensure their success within this open setting.”

At Tapton, students with disabilities and those with special educational needs achieve as successfully as their peers.

The school is not simply playing a numbers game in terms of its achievements. Extracurricular activities are thriving with more than 40 clubs (including the science ones) and an active Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme, with more than 100 pupils taking bronze and 70 going on to gold. The PE department is also open daily from 7.30am offering sports before the academic day begins.

Each pupil knows that he or she matters. As part of that, the co-heads introduced their “co-heads’ raffle”. Any child known to have acted in a caring manner receives a raffle ticket and every six weeks the winners are awarded a book. Dennis and Tasker also meet all the children in year 7 personally to discuss their hopes and ambitions. About 270 pupils in year 12 and 230 in year 13 also get the chance individually to discuss with the joint principals “where they are on their journey”.

Tasker says: “When we were judged outstanding by Ofsted, people came to see what we were doing – they wanted to unlock the secret. They’d say: ‘I expected it to look different,’ because they thought it should be shiny and magical. But the secret is this: we have highly aspirational and motivated youngsters, supportive parents and dedicated staff. What we are is a really good school where everyone is working incredibly hard, day in, day out. There’s no magic – that’s our reality.”