Combatting isolation in coastal schools

This report from The Future Leaders Trust examines why coastal schools fail and how headteachers are turning them around.

This is an extract of the original article - read the full blog by Dr Tanya Ovenden-Hope on The Future Leaders Trust website.

Download a PDF of the report here.


Many coastal schools in England face unique challenges after decades of economic decline. As a result, children across large swathes of our coast are underachieving.

The Future Leaders Trust, whose mission is to raise the achievement of all children, regardless of background, has expanded from its roots in inner-city schools to become a national programme. The Talented Leaders programme in particular works with schools in coastal and rural areas.

We are not the only ones addressing these challenges. Recent research by Dr Tanya Ovenden-Hope and Dr Rowena Passy set out to identify the measures taken by headteachers to move their coastal schools towards an ‘Outstanding’ Ofsted categorisation. Its findings tally with our headteachers’ experience of how effective leadership makes a clear and positive impact.

The challenges faced by coastal schools are related to geographical, economic and cultural factors: declining industry, limited transport infrastructure, low-paid work and few opportunities. Coastal populations simply have fewer choices than many others. The sea has turned from the basis of local wealth to a barrier that restricts opportunity.

Most problematic is that these factors have an impact on how children see themselves. The heads in this report talk about how they have worked to change young people’s mindsets, to show them that they can have more choices if they can learn to believe in themselves and work hard.

Change of this kind is not easy, so it will always take time. However, the heads in this report show that determined and visionary leadership can bring people together – staff, parents and students – to achieve it. Headteachers must instil the concrete foundations of great teaching and good behaviour and grow the softer stuff too: relationships, trust, excitement, hope and a strong sense of community.

Many coastal schools have been neglected and many find it very hard to recruit the great people who have the drive, resilience and skills to achieve the difficult work described above. But these people do exist – seven of them are in this report – and we are looking for more of them as part of the Talented Leaders programme.

Despite much excellent work from leaders and teachers around England, there is a great deal to do before we can guarantee that every child will receive the excellent education they are entitled to. We believe that creating networks for school leaders to share good practice is one of the surest ways to drive school improvement more quickly, and this report is one way that we are doing so.

Coastal Academies (Ovenden-Hope and Passy 2015)

This publication draws on the findings of Drs Ovenden-Hope and Passy in Coastal Academies: Changing school cultures in disadvantaged coastal regions in England (Ovenden-Hope and Passy 2015). Their work began in 2010 as a longitudinal study of students entering a coastal school that had converted to academy status. This expanded to include five more schools, and all six became part of a broader piece of research into the practices that drive effective school improvement in coastal areas.

Challenges facing coastal schools

The schools in Dr Ovenden-Hope’s study all became academies as a result of poor student outcomes and the report begins by arguing that many coastal areas are characterised by high levels of deprivation, limited skilled employment prospects for school leavers, multi-generational unemployment and communities that do not see the value of education. Similarly, the schools in this report are all working with The Future Leaders Trust because their students need to achieve more.

Many coastal towns face particular challenges due to decline since the nineteen-seventies of long-established industries, often in labour-intensive sectors such as ship-yards, docks and fishing, and the service industries related to seasonal tourism.

Schools in these areas face similar challenges because of their shared socio-economic context. TheCoastal Academies study found these are a combination of:

Educational isolation 

Three schools in Dr Ovenden-Hope’s study had no local university to act as a natural destination after school. There had been none of the targeted investment and improvement programmes that inner-city schools have benefitted from over the past ten years, for example the London Challenge and engagement from large corporations with nearby headquarters.

Difficulties with staff recruitment

All headteachers reported difficulties recruiting staff. They attributed this to their coastal location, characterised by geographical isolation, poor transport links, limited employment prospects for partners and long commutes from affluent areas. It was not uncommon to only have one or two applicants for roles – or sometimes none at all.

Difficulty engaging students and families

Five schools reported problems engaging with students and families, citing child protection issues and a lack of motivation due to family members’ poor experiences at school. In areas with high levels of unemployment that sometimes spanned generations, many families failed to see the point of education.

Poor quality of teaching and learning

Headteachers reported poor quality teaching arising from a lack of accessible continual professional development, high rates of staff sickness, poor student assessment structures, poor data management, poorly trained staff in key positions and low staff morale.

Failing local primaries

Three academies reported low or variable standards in local primary schools. The smaller number of primaries in coastal areas means Year 7 intakes are significantly affected by low-performing feeder schools, leading to teachers having lower expectations of the entire cohort that negatively define students’ time in secondary school.

Change in politics and educational policy

Changes to performance measures, academy organisation, the curriculum, assessment and exams led to significant challenges for teachers trying to improve grades. These have a bigger impact when coupled with the issues described above.

Solutions for coastal schools

One of the findings of Dr Ovenden-Hope’s research is the need for a clear vision and strong leadership, with five headteachers speaking of the essential need to see the social and moral purpose of their work.

This is arguably true of all schools but in coastal schools, with the combination of challenges created by their location, excellent leadership and tightly-focused improvement measures are vital to change culture and raise student achievement.

The measures taken by headteachers and senior leaders to improve examination performance and students’ attitudes were built on changing school culture from one of low aspirations to fostering high expectations for teachers and students.

Engaging students with learning

Schools reported that for student outcomes to improve, it is not enough for students to attend and behave; they need to be engaged. Students were offered a range of opportunities such as educational visits to places of interest, projects with local businesses and reward trips.

Raising expectations

All headteachers spoke of the need to raise teachers’ expectations of their students and improve the quality of teaching. They did this by creating a sense of urgency about the need to raise standards; recruiting new dynamic teachers; developing staff; establishing systems for capturing accurate data; restructuring the timetable; and improving leadership structures.

Changing student behaviour

Student behaviour was improved through positive measures, such as involving them in leadership, giving them additional responsibilities and promoting good role-models. A strict new uniform code was introduced in most of the schools. Extra-curricular activities such as sports and university trips were introduced to raise aspirations.

Working with the community

The schools began working more closely with feeder primary schools, enabling a better transition into Year 7. One school assisted struggling local primaries by helping them recruit governors and supporting lesson planning. Local engagement was encouraged through activities such as Open Saturdays and establishing the school as a hub of local services.

Impact in coastal schools

These initiatives have been seen to work. Five of the schools in Dr Ovenden-Hope’s study converted to academy status before 2010 because fewer than 30% of students achieved 5+ A*-Cs GCSEs (including English and maths). Following the initiatives described above, all the schools met or exceeded the Department for Education ‘floor target’ for GCSE achievement in 2012-13. 

Three significantly improved the proportion of students achieving 5+ A*-C GCSEs (including English and maths). Four were graded ‘Good’ by Ofsted at their last inspection with praise for teaching and learning; one of the two academies in special measures has now had this categorisation removed.

Three significantly improved the proportion of students achieving 5+ A*-C GCSEs (including English and maths). Four were graded ‘Good’ by Ofsted at their last inspection with praise for teaching and learning; one of the two academies in special measures has now had this categorisation removed.

Building on these findings, this publication brings together the work of seven members of The Future Leaders Trust’s network. They lead coastal schools around the country. 

Having read Coastal Academies: Changing school cultures in disadvantaged coastal regions in England, they describe the measures that they have taken to improve their students’ outcomes.