Setting up a Knowledge-rich school in inner city Birmingham

In the third blog in preparation for our conference, ‘What does a Knowledge-rich school look like?’  Chris Martin, the Head of School at St Thomas Aquinas in Birmingham outlines what he and his team have learnt from other excellent schools who have been on this journey. For the last year he has been laying the foundations of discipline and routines in order to enable the teaching of an ambitiously Knowledge-rich and stretching curriculum feasible…….


Last summer I was appointed Head of School in a larger than average secondary school.

It is a ‘proper’ inner city school – no playing fields on site (our children have to get a coach at the start of their PE lessons!), a very leaky roof on our main corridor in the school (on one occasion this year I turned the corner and a corridor was under an inch of water and the bell was just about to go for lesson changeover!) and the sloping playground looks out onto two beautiful tower blocks. Despite being as far away from the sea as possible, we also have a large seagull population!!!

Despite all this, it is a truly wonderful school; full of amazing vibrant students and some of the most dedicated and committed staff anyone could ever work with.

Throughout last year, we had a P8 score of -0.4 and our disadvantaged students – which make up over 45% of our cohort – were doing considerably worse than that! We put an Action Plan in place to raise achievement. This consisted of lots and lots of additional sessions; Year 11 no longer had just 5 periods everyday but 7 (period zero before school and period 6 after school!).

Due to the hard work of staff, we raised achievement significantly to be in line with national averages. It didn’t take much further analysis to quickly realise that we had raised achievement for the students who actually turned up for all the additional sessions … but we had simply widened the gap between our PP and non-PP further!

Most significantly, what had been the cost of all this? There was a lot of pressure, long hours and, if I am being really honest, some of the joy and excitement had long disappeared from the faces of staff. All rather depressing.

When reflecting on this, I was convinced there must be an alternative. How could staff rediscover their love of teaching? To embark on a new direction, I got out there. I was allowed to visit some of the best schools in the country. I simply emailed Headteachers and spoke to some of them for an hour. I read books and reports and then contacted authors. I was really taken aback by the generosity and goodwill of fellow professionals who did not even know me – the very best leaders really are driven by moral purpose.

After visiting Michaela School, St Martin’s, Mossbourne Academy, Dixons Trinity Academy and sending colleagues to Bedford Free School and others, and attending numerous ResearchED Conferences, I soon began to realise that there was an alternative approach out there.

When I walk into lessons in any school, it is immediately evident to me that the new GCSEs our students are sitting include content I studied when I sat my A levels. The only way students who arrive to school without the cultural capital necessary to succeed is to be taught it. That is, modelled and explained explicitly until it goes into their long term memory. They can stay in school until 6 or 7pm every night to do this. Or, alternatively, a school can have the highest standards of behaviour with a demanding and ambitious curriculum. The key difference with the latter is that staff can have a life!

I was fed up of looking at long faces. As a result, we developed a vision around becoming a Knowledge-rich school. First and foremost, however, we knew we had to improve behaviour.

We did some standard/expected things such as significantly raising expectations re uniform – we banned black trainers and insisted on shoes (we sent lots of students home … but somehow avoided the news).  We also did some more radical things such as same night centralised detentions. Yes, in the first few weeks we did have 100 students in our main hall but we kept going saying we care too much too make exceptions. Perhaps, most crazily of all, we introduced Line Up every morning and afternoon for 1100 students … on that sloping playground with the seagulls! The students walk into school in silence now though and they are much more ready to learn as a result. The impact had been transformational.

Since January, with the improvement in behaviour, our conversations with staff have turned back to what is being taught. If we are serious about raising achievement of our disadvantaged students, we are serious about them studying challenging texts right from their first day in Year 7. We have talked about pedagogy but in a way I have never talked about before in my teaching career. We are talking about direct instruction and modelling and given staff permission to teach their subject rather than entertain. We discuss distributed practice and interleaving key content to ensure our kids can recall key knowledge months after they are first taught it. Although very early days, our staff feel affirmed because they have permission to be experts!

Once you go down the journey of a Knowledge-rich School, I have found that you become more and more convinced it will transform the lives of disadvantaged students. Quite simply, they will get better GCSE grades as a result. More importantly, they will stand on the shoulders of giants they wouldn’t have known existed. What are you waiting for?

Chris Martin
Head of School,
St Thomas Aquinas Catholic School & Sixth Form


The conference and Midland Knowledge Schools Hub Launch and Conference

Saint Martin’s in Stoke Golding, along with Parents and Teachers for Excellence and a network of other Midlands based schools and teachers, are setting up a network called the Midland Knowledge Schools Hub. The aim is to to share expertise and network for those interested in developing a Knowledge-rich curriculum and related strategies to promote attainment in schools, especially among the most disadvantaged.

We’re very grateful to have Nick Gibb, Minister of State for School Standards, launching the Hub at Saint Martin’s on the 10th of May at Saint Martin’s (Any Midland Head Teachers/ Deputies i/c of Teaching and Learning are welcome to come to the launch which will include a speech from Nick Gibb and from Stuart Lock, Head Teacher of the Bedford Free School – email me for an invite). In addition to this, our first conference will be on Saturday May 12th 2018 entitled ‘What does a Knowledge-Rich School look like?’ – tickets available here. We have some really interesting speakers, educational bloggers and writers. The confirmed ones so far are Andrew Old, Ben Newmark, Stuart Lock, Robert Peal, Jon Brunskill, Helena Brothwell, Ros McMullen and Mark Lehain (With more to follow). If you’re interested in the Hub then please feel free to email me or my Deputy Loraine Lynch-Kelly ( for more information.

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