Rebuilding Northamptonshire: how leaders are fighting brain drain and saving their schools
Raising attainment in the county is a huge challenge for schools, given its historic educational barriers - but there are plenty of reasons for hope.
The path for pupils in Northamptonshire isn’t always easy to map out. There is no university in the entire north of the county and only one in total (in Northampton itself). This isn’t exactly due to a lack of pupils – there's around 50,000 pupils in North Northamptonshire, each going through school without an accessible local university in sight. Though progressing to university is far from the only measure of a child’s success in life, the lack of local options available has historically left high-achieving pupils with limited academic options. To achieve their ambitions, these pupils often choose the same path: move away and build a future elsewhere.
This leaves schools in a tough position. When bright young pupils are developed into brilliant academics, schools often watch pupils leave Northamptonshire without experiencing the value that they’d likely reinvest into the county if they had stayed beyond school (whether it be academic, cultural or economic).
And the problem even cycles back to affect school recruitment and retention. Before the effects of the coronavirus pandemic saw initial teacher trainee recruitment rise to 15 percent above its national target in 2020-21, recruiting trainee teachers in Northamptonshire was – and still is – a widespread challenge. There are no cities in Northamptonshire. Northampton – the county’s largest town, does not boast the reputational pull of Leeds, Manchester or Bristol. In short, the county’s schools find it difficult to encourage young teachers to relocate and build a career in Northamptonshire.
How challenges in Northamptonshire's schools are affecting pupils
The most effective way for pupils to succeed is through good teaching. Teachers have high workloads – and this affects the time that they’re able to dedicate to individual pupils. The problem is clear: more pupils-per-class, less time-per-pupil. This is a particular issue in Northamptonshire; when data was last recorded in 2019, the combined national average of pupils-per-teacher in English primary and secondary schools was 18.7 – in Northamptonshire, the average was 20.4 pupils-per-teacher.
Why is this figure a concern? Well – it affects the county’s disadvantaged pupils most severely, who significantly underperform compared with less-disadvantaged peers.
In the town of Wellingborough, disadvantaged pupils are achieving under half of the national average of expected progression in reading, writing and maths. It’s a big gap. When broken down across the seven primary schools in Wellingborough that supplied data in 2019, their 21 separate outcomes in the three key areas led to only one school scoring above average in one area. All 20 other results were average, below average, or well-below average. The results are a consequence of a sequence which continues to play out in the county’s schools: historic recruitment, retention and funding challenges, more pupils-per-teacher, lower outcomes for pupils - and specifically the pupils facing the biggest challenges. The educational barriers that disadvantaged pupils in Northamptonshire face go far beyond what and how they learn - they are deeply entangled with the history of the county.*
Supporting schools to tackle these challenges
There is no simple solution to the challenges that Northamptonshire schools face – nor is it a simple problem. But schools are addressing their recruitment and retention challenges. Since 2016, the number of Northamptonshire schools that have partnered with Teach First on our Training Programme has doubled – as has the number of trainee teachers employed in those schools.
We are in a crucial moment in the education sector. With the National Roll-Out of the Early Career Framework underway, Northamptonshire schools have an opportunity to support their Early Career Teachers like never before: to develop skills, to protect their time for learning and, importantly, to stay at the school longer term.
And the county’s school leaders have been preparing for this. Earlier this year, Brooke Weston Academy in Corby became the lead school in the Northamptonshire Teaching School Hub, meaning it will work with Teach First as one of our delivery partners to deliver the ECF to hundreds of schools across the county.
The academy’s location in Corby is significant too. The town was identified as the fourth worst performing local authority in the country in 2020, and has a history of instability and low employment rates following rapid deindustrialisation in the 1970s and 80s. These issues continue to affect disadvantaged pupils in Corby, meaning the work of schools, Teaching School Hubs and Multi-Academy Trusts isn’t simply focused on pupil outcomes, but on representing stability, hope and inspiration in the community.
Moving forwards for Northamptonshire's schools
So, what next for Northamptonshire’s schools? As we spoke about earlier this year, implementing the ECF won’t be easy, but it gives networks of schools a huge opportunity to cohere and give genuine support to teachers at the start of their careers.
Leaders in Northamptonshire are even finding additional ways to connect and share practice. In 2019, local headteacher Carly Waterman co-founded Educating Northants, which is a collective of local teachers and leaders championing collaboration and professional learning. They didn’t hang about – the collective’s first conference was later that year, bringing together 600 educators and over 100 speakers from across the county.
More than anything, those figures tell us that there is a huge appetite for collaborative, research-led school improvement amongst Northamptonshire leaders. Waterman’s school Lodge Park Academy is a partner school on our Training Programme and has undergone a rapid transformation in the previous two years. In September, Lodge Park emerged from special measures after being awarded ‘Good’ in four out of five categories by Ofsted. That’s some turnaround – and it provides an example of effective action in the face of challenge.
* Data for this blog post was conducted as part of an internal evaluation into Teach First's work in Northamptonshire, interviewing colleagues from several partner schools in the region.