Before long, my colleagues were over in Nashville, Tennessee, exploring schools there that had been transformed into career-focused academies. It was clear pretty early on that we couldn’t transplant Nashville into Newcastle. We have totally different education systems. But Edge, the North East LEP and their coaching partners from the US, Ford NGL, are forces to be reckoned with! Visiting Excelsior, they helped us develop a strategy inspired by what we’d seen in Nashville.
A key question for us was: how do we engage our community and local business in preparing students for the world beyond school?
We undertook several visioning days with Scott and Starr from Ford NGL. These were brilliant. They connected local businesses, charities, governors, parents, children, teaching staff, non-teaching staff… the list goes on. The workshops resulted in our roadmap and graduate profile, which carefully outline the attributes we agreed that our young people need to succeed in life – skills as important as their academic qualifications.
Early on, there was uncertainty about where the process might lead. So we began with something achievable – we introduced project-based learning at Key Stage 3. This was a three-hour slot, one day a week, for all students. In preparation, chosen staff worked with Ford NGL to develop a curriculum focused on local business needs. We scheduled dedicated time for this so that staff would have a chance to work on it. This was very new for all of us, so we had to give them capacity.
At Excelsior, over 50% of our students have English as an additional language, so we also wanted to emphasise oracy. We designed projects that incorporated lots of group work, research and presentations. We hoped this would develop communication skills and improve their employability. An Industry Alignment Officer also set up connections between staff and local businesses to develop an employer-led curriculum.
In the first year, we ran three projects on the themes of homelessness, regeneration and renewable energy – issues that young people immediately connected with.
The impact has been huge. Through student voice we’ve learned that those three hours a week of project-based learning are the students’ favourite. It’s given them freedom, flexibility, and an opportunity to learn in totally new ways. We also measured attendance and behaviour on those days. Both had improved. This new curriculum has given students the opportunity to make connections between their learning in the classroom and how this is relevant to the world of work and real life learning.