Marine Academy Plymouth

At first glance, it might seem that the only difference is a new name and some updated uniforms. But for the students of Marine Academy Plymouth and their families, the metamorphosis of this once struggling secondary school into the UK’s first ever marine academy, earning plaudits from Ofsted inspectors along the way, has brought about a far more tangible and long-lasting change. Among these has been a shift in mindset for many of those young people attending the school, those who now feel empowered to embrace a future full of optimism. Marine Academy Plymouth, or MAP as it is commonly known, opened as a state-funded specialist secondary school in September 2010. Previously Tamarside Community College, and occupying an inner-city location in St Budeaux where many residents experience social and economic deprivation, the school had long been saddled with a bad reputation, and students were commonly choosing to leave at 16 and go straight into a job, believing this to be their only option.

Those in charge at MAP were determined to do things differently. Three sponsors signed up: Plymouth University, Plymouth City Council and Cornwall College, with the University as lead sponsor, and the aim was to instigate a ‘no excuses’ policy for students when it came to expectations.

Much of the school premises was rebuilt, opening in 2013 with three new floors, and modern teaching and learning spaces, alongside the existing, expansive sports complex. With the addition of a pre-school and primary school, incorporated into the secondary school campus, a virtual pathway was created to take students from nursery age to the cusp of higher education. And that infrastructure development has had to be matched by a changing mindset – by teachers, pupils, parents and members of the community. 

Nick Ward, Principal of MAP, said: 

“Academy status doesn't solve everything but it allowed us to reinvent the school, and offered an opportunity for a fresh start. Having the University as our lead sponsor has broadened the horizons of our students enormously, and shown them possibilities they had not considered before. In a culture where young people had grown used to assuming they would leave school and get a job, because that was their only option, we have established an environment where aspirations are routinely raised and young people are encouraged to consider many more options, with a real chance to include university among them.”

Marine Academy Plymouth

With nursery, primary, secondary and sixth form, MAP has specialist school status for its focus on the marine environment, which encompasses science and engineering. There is a strong focus on employment pathways for the marine sector as a whole, and not only marine science but also for careers in engineering, tourism, medicine, catering and construction.

The school journey starts at Marine Academy Nursery, where quality childcare is available for ten babies in the baby unit, which opened in 2011, alongside over-twos in the wider nursery complex. It continues at Marine Academy Primary, which opened in September 2013, and this year was named as the first primary free school in the South West to be ranked as ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted. The school was graded at the highest rating in every one of the five categories, with its team praised as being “passionate and showing a determination to provide the best education they can for pupils”.

Headteacher Siobhan Easton, who took over the helm in 2015 and at 27 is the UK’s youngest headteacher, was given special praise by the Ofsted team for her “exceptional leadership skills and ability to motivate and inspire whilst not compromising her high expectations”, and there was acclaim too for the supporting team of staff and governors, which includes staff from the University.

Vikki Matthews, Chief Talent Officer at the University, and Chair of the Board of Governors at Marine Academy Plymouth, said: “We were thrilled that Ofsted recognised how outstanding the school is, and are so proud of the school team and amazing pupils. The entire leadership team at MAP and MAP Primary is wholeheartedly committed to raising aspirations, and has a very clear idea of how the school can do that.

“This work is encouraging pupils to love learning and to think about their futures, and the best option for them as they leave school, whether that be apprenticeships, getting a job, or indeed coming on to Plymouth University for further study. Our role as lead sponsor has enabled students to get used to being in a university environment, so they already feel like part of the family.”

There has been a significant increase in the number of A level students choosing to come to the University, and this, Vikki says, is evidence of the sponsorship working on a “symbiotic” level.

“There is a real alignment of values between the University and MAP – the importance of respect and engagement – and that is why this partnership works so well,” says Nick. “MAP believes in nurturing and developing talent wherever it is found, not putting a label on it, and we believe that all of our young people can be brilliant, treating each individual student with the utmost respect, and a compassionate, but essentially never patronising, approach. This has established a real strength in learning, and led to life-changing differences for the students at MAP.”

The secondary school at MAP has also seen improved performance over the last five years, with two Ofsted inspections reporting positive improvements, and an overall upward trajectory in examination outcomes since 2010. The exam results for 2013 were the best ever, with 95 per cent of students achieving five GSCEs at A*–C grades, and A level results included 100 per cent pass rates in English literature, photography, biology, maths and Italian, and an overall pass rate of 92 per cent.

Over the last 18 months, students and staff have also worked together to transform the appearance of public spaces at MAP, again in conjunction with the University to benefit from its expertise and resources. The University’s Brand and Campus Design Director, Tim Guy, worked with MAP students to create a giant mural for the central atrium and dining area at the school, incorporating a marine theme, and the 38-foot high, 90-foot long piece of art was created with the help and input of designers and graduates including BA (Hons) Illustration students, and staff in the Design and Print Centre.

Professor David Coslett, Interim Vice-Chancellor of Plymouth University, said: “In the last five years, MAP has become the University’s school, and a positive way for us to share our passion for marine studies, as well as helping to nurture and develop the skills of the next generation. We look forward to continuing this relationship, and continuing to raise aspirations for pupils at MAP, for many more years to come.”

The Principal

Nick Ward joined Marine Academy Plymouth when it opened in 2010, originally as the Senior Vice-Principal working alongside Principal Helen Mathieson. Nick had previously served as deputy headteacher in a rural secondary school in Cornwall, and was enthusiastic about the challenges involved in managing a city-based school – challenges he fully embraced when he became Principal in September 2013 following Helen’s retirement.

Nick said: “Raising the aspirations of our students at MAP has certainly been the biggest challenge, and giving our pupils more optimism in how they see their futures. The support of Plymouth University has truly broadened the horizons of all the students at MAP, encouraging them to see further afield.

Nick Ward, Principal of Marine Academy Plymouth

“A prime example of that was the tone of the individual meetings I held at the end of last term with year 11 students to discuss their choices. It is the fifth year I have held these interviews, and there has been a very noticeable change in how students view their future options.

“The percentage of our students going on to university education has certainly increased, with a marked rise in numbers maintained year on year. Before MAP began, many students thought it was more important to get a job after leaving school, and didn’t see the long-term benefits of staying in education. The changes we have made, along with the involvement of the University as our lead sponsors, have transformed that outlook. The University has also significantly supported our staff development, enabling many to pursue a masters degree to secure further accreditation.

“I’m absolutely proud of what has been achieved so far, despite many changes in education and the national curriculum that have posed their own challenges. As we move forward, one of our biggest challenges remains the need to address common perceptions people in Plymouth continue to have around the education landscape in the city, and the legacy attached to the school. We’ve made real strides in that respect but we continue to work to overcome negative, and misleading, perceptions based on history, rather than what MAP offers today.

“We also have many contextual challenges as there remains social and economic deprivation in the community in which our young people and their families are living, and the ability of the family to support the student. We work together as a team with the ongoing and committed support of our key sponsors, led by Plymouth University, to tackle these issues head on.”

The pupils

Dominic Jones, Josh Stoneman, Luke Obee and Caitlin Gillard (all 17) are in their final year of A levels and have lived through the transformation from Tamarside to Marine Academy.

“It was completely disorganised,” says Luke of the final year before the switch. “There was poor discipline, bullying … it was the school’s lowest point.”

“And there was a stigma, which persisted unfairly into the academy’s early years,” adds Josh. “Now things are so much better.”

An immediate tightening of discipline – “a jolt to the students” according to Dominic – and a significant turnover of staff were the two most obvious signs of change, initially. But there then followed new facilities and new opportunities.

“This Sixth Form centre didn't exist, and while the construction work was going on we were in cramped rooms,” said Caitlin. “But it’s great to have this independence.”

“The buildings are modern and the pupils care a lot more about them,” Josh adds. “There’s a lot less graffiti and vandalism, and you don’t see chewing gum stuck to the desks.”

The opening of Marine Academy Primary has, says Dominic, made the academy community an “even happier place” and provided work opportunities for them, including supervising lunch sessions and breaktimes. 

And the four have all taken part in activities as varied as helping out on residentials, meeting the US Ambassador on his September visit to the city and presenting awards to excelling pupils.

All four are applying to university, with Dominic, Luke and Caitlin wanting to come to Plymouth to study economics and finance, English and creative writing, and maths/ accounting respectively.

“Five years ago, only a handful of people went to university – now everybody is driving towards it,” says Dominic.

“You used to hear people talking about going on to apprenticeships,” adds Luke. “Now we have people coming to our sixth form from other schools because they want to go to university.”

Caitlin Gillard, Josh Stoneman (front), Luke Obee, and Dominic Jones at Marine Academy Plymouth

The (research) impact

Academics in the Plymouth Institute of Education have been conducting a longitudinal study on the progress of MAP and the challenges of raising student attainment since its inception in 2010. Dr Tanya Ovenden-Hope, who has a Visiting Research Fellow role with the University alongside being Director of Education at Cornwall College and Adjunct Professor at Cape Breton University, and Dr Rowena Passy (pictured) are the researchers at the centre of the Class of 2010 project, which has also contributed to wider reports into coastal academies across the country.

“We’ve seen a greater than ten-fold increase in the number of academies since 2010,” says Rowena, Research Fellow in Post Primary Educational Development.

Dr Rowena Passy

“And with the Prime Minister promising that ‘all schools will be given the opportunity to convert to academy status’, including the forced conversion of coasting schools, there’s a clear need to understand the experiences and outcomes of those already on that journey.”

Focusing on the first Year 7 cohort – the ‘Class of 2010’ – Rowena and Tanya have been collecting information on working levels, predicted grades and actual test performance in each subject, plus records of extracurricular activities and achievements. They have conducted interviews with a stratified random sample of 15 students (out of 214) in the summer term of each school year (and will do so until 2017) to understand their subjective experience. They’ve also interviewed the Principal, covering strategic priorities, and four teachers to gauge general views on the group’s progress, and to gain in-depth insight into the teaching and learning approaches promoted within MAP.

Rowena says: “Clarity of leadership and providing support to the teachers so that they can bring about the changes needed have been crucial to the MAP story.”

“And we've noted a change in the attitudes of the students over the five years,” adds Tanya. “There’s a greater confidence and engagement – a move from ‘it’s boring’ to ‘you've got to make every moment count!’ There were, of course, students who were making good progress five years ago, and equally there remain some students who have challenging behaviour, but the combined effect of all the changes – the new buildings, the new curriculum, the promotion of good behaviour – has helped to improve performance, and crucially, their aspirations to succeed.”