Case Study Three: Commander Joe’s and Top Valley Academy

Brief Description of The Provision

Commando Joe’s is a military-inspired fun and fitness programme. It is commissioned by mainstream primary and secondary schools and APs to work with groups of young people for a variety of reasons commonly associated with improving educational outcomes, engagement and wellbeing. It began five years ago, with one ex-military instructor. It has since grown to 44 delivery staff. Commando J’s is based in Warrington, and mainly operate in the North West; however the Midlands is a rapidly growing arena.

Content and Delivery

The content of the Commander Joe’s programme differs depending on the specific needs of the group of students and the aims of the commissioning school. For the Commando Jane’s all girls group at Top Valley Academy (TVA)[1] the programme is part time and long-term. The girls attend two sessions every week (one on a Thursday and one on a Friday) for an entire academic year. This equates to 2-3 hours of input per week. This is not a set format – it is different across the varied groups that access the provision within TVA.

TVA decided to have an all-girl group, Commander Jane’s, because they felt that that would be “in the best interest of quickly building rapport” (Clive, staff Commando Joe’s). They also have all-boy groups. At secondary level they tend to find that it works better if the groups are gendered, because sometimes girls will not get as involved in the activities if boys are in the group. The Commando Joe’s staff felt that, in general, girls engaged better in physical activities when they were in an all-girl group, and that they were able to get more out of the sessions.

The girls seem to get something slightly different from the programme than the other groups in the school. They have a very strong sense of cohort. They are provided with a dedicated space where they meet, and some of the walls and noticeboards in this room have been decorated in a military theme. The girls also have their own uniform, which they wear instead of school uniform on Thursdays and Fridays; they are demarcated as a distinct group within the school.

The girls do a range of activities; in the observed session they were doing circuit training. The programme often includes highly physically and emotionally challenging activities – working as a team to get a heavy tyre from one end of the school site to the other; working in pairs with one person blindfolded and the other guiding them around the school using instructions only. These activities are intended to develop collaborative working, comradeship and trust. The programme provides young people with a safe space to try new things and to get things wrong. One of the Commander Joe’s mottos is ‘once you’re in, you’re in’, and they promote the idea of not giving up. Reliance and perseverance are thus valued and nurtured.

Commando Joe’s staff have also supported a school-wide drive to improve punctuality. They stand at the gate and pick up students who are late. They are also trialling a Commando Joe’s breakfast club which all students can access. They are in the process of designing an Accelerate Project which will target areas such as health and fitness, with regular testing of weight, height and fitness. They will use bleep tests.

The longer the programme is at TVA the more the school staff feel they can be “flexible and creative around the partnership now because it is so solid”. They have recently introduced fitness sessions for some of the year eleven students.

 

They have groups of girls and groups of boys at TVA. They cater for students in primary and secondary mainstream schools and students in PRUs and other alternative provisions and sports clubs.

Identifying Features of Quality

Mission/aims/purpose

Different schools have different requirements of the programme. Some of the most popular are:

  • for students to have fun
  • to support the health, fitness and wellbeing of students
  • to develop students’ self-confidence and resilience.
  • to support team building, trust and friendship between groups of students
  • to support students’ improved attendance, behaviour and attainment

TVA has attached the following ‘buzz words’ to the programme and these provide further insight into its proposed aims: friendship, belief, discipline determination, experience, will power, self-control, challenging, confidence.

The Commando Jane programme allows the girls a chance to reframe their identities in the school. They stand out as a group because for two days a week they do not wear their school uniform, but instead wear a ‘Commando Joe’s Uniform’ with a military style. It includes combat trousers, sturdy boots, a t-shirt with logo and a jacket. They have been invited to think of ways that they can support the school in return for the privilege of participating in the programme. They have been provided with an opportunity to be role-models and have undertaken reading training to supporte younger students with their reading.

Through the Commando Jane programme, other aims and goals have been realised. The girls’ attendance and attainment has improved. Reports of negative behaviour have decreased. The girls themselves report that the programme had improved their confidence, behaviour, attainment and attendance. Their attitude to school has become more positive and they don’t give up as easily. They all had plans for the following year and were positive about their futures. They also felt that they had made friends, and there was a sense that they had become part of a new community where they had different goals and different ‘types’ of conversations. For instance, they said that they had been discussing how they could support younger students who have special educational needs and learning disabilities. They demonstrated to researchers a sense of responsibility for others.

The Commander Joe’s military ethos provides different ways of teaching, and encourages students to think in new ways. The emphasis is on developing relationships, and on personal and personalised sessions with small groups. The longer programme staff are with a group the more trust and confidence are built, and the more they can challenge the young people to try new things. Commander Joe’s staff teach the young people to try their best and if something doesn’t work, that is okay. Try again in a different way. This encourages a problem-solving approach.

The school is pleased that the programme is having wider, beneficial health impacts because of its physical nature. One of the boys involved in the programme has lost several stone in weight.

TVA believe that commissioning the programme for in-school support will contribute to better learning and the wider well-being of students.

this is about good teaching and learning and rooting it to that but also about fun and fitness and surely, as a child, when you wake up in the morning to come to school you want to have fun as well as to learn and it is important to strike that balance” (Larry, Senior member of staff, Top Valley Academy).

 

The programme has supported attendance in the school. TVA have sent the Commando Joe’s out to some of their most hard-to-reach year 11 students, who are at risk of persistent absenteeism. CJ staff collect them in the morning and bring them in.

Target Group

TVA have framed Commando Joe’s as a privilege/reward in the school, not just as something for the badly behaved students. They began by targeting it at middle ability pupil premium students. However, numbers of students accessing the programme continue to increase.

This case study pertains to one specific strand of the programme; the Commando Jane’s. Here the programme has been tailored to support a group of year eleven girls who are from a ‘difficult year group’. For some of them, their selection was due to poor behaviour. Two of the young people were on their final warning for permanent exclusion. The rest of the group struggled with confidence issues.   Commando Joe’s remit was to support them to realise how important this final year at school is and to instil some positivity.

TVA have also engaged the Commando Joe’s programme with some of the hardest-to-reach year 11 pupils, i.e. those with poor attendance. Commando Joe’s have been involved in visiting these students at home and encouraging them to come into school.

Recruiting

The majority of Commander Joe’s staff are ex-military with at least 4 years minimum military service. This fits with the military ethos of the company. There are a couple of non-ex-military staff, who have been employed for their expertise and experience in the health and fitness industry, which is seen as valuable to the organisation. Staff have training when they first join the organisation. They are taught to have firm boundaries and expectations of behaviour and on developing a rapport with the young people.

Staff

Commando Joe’s began around five years ago. To begin with it consisted of one person and grew gradually. After 18 months there were seven people and a couple of office staff, and after 2 years there were 12 more people. Since then the organisation has grown to 45 staff and they are hoping to take on another 10 staff in September 2014.

The staff have gained expertise through their experiences in the military. Commander Joe’s is predicated on the idea that a military background provides staff with a different way of approaching situations, which they can use when they are working with groups of young people. They also receive additional training when they join the programme. The development of rapport is seen as key to the programme.

Once a month all staff hand in a session plan, and the best of these are sent out to all instructors, so there is sharing of best practice amongst the team. This is useful because the instructors often have to work in isolation, so this provides an opportunity for sharing of ideas. They also have one or two training days during most school vacations.

Communication

There is regular communication between Commando Joe’s and the commissioning school. The programme is regularly reviewed and adapted as necessary.

Safety and Safeguarding

All Commando Joe’s staff working with pupils in a primary or secondary setting receive the mandatory induction programmes that are bespoke to the school.

Rules and Discipline

Staff have training when they first join the organisation. They are taught to have firm boundaries and expectations of behaviour. They are consistent and follow through with the rules. They are ‘tough but in a gentle way’.

Curriculum and Accreditation

The Commando Joe’s programme does not provide accreditation of its own but one of the aims of the programme is to support young people in their wider learning and to increase their attainment. The TVA example shows that there has been an improvement in the attainment of the girls, and the school believe that Commando Joe’s has played an important role in this.

TVA have an achievement evening and they are planning to put in an annual reward for the most improved Commando Joe’s and Commando Jane’s. Striving for this award is intended to contribute to the whole school ethos of achievement and success

Monitoring of progress

The TVA deputy head carefully oversees the Commando Joe’s programme and has regular discussions and planning meetings with the head teacher. Key data from participating students are regularly collected and reviewed by the school (attendance, punctuality, behaviour, and attainment).

The Commando Joe’s present their rewards at the Annual Achievement Evening held by the Academy and also support the delivery of the annual summer school and transition programmes. Both the Head of the feeder primaries and Deputy Head of TVA work closely to identify pupils who can be supported throughout year 6 and a bespoke transition programme to enable them to get a ‘flying start.’ Commando Joe’s now has instructors working alongside pupils in two of the local TVA feeder schools.

Commando Joe’s do regular reviews of the programme and progress in each school, which is overseen by the area manager.

Inclusion

The program is inclusive; their motto is ‘No child left behind’. The group will support individuals who are struggling, and sessions are tailored for any specific SENs or disabilities. Staff acknowledged that on the surface Commando Joe’s can seem like a very masculine programme. The instructors are male, and the uniform may suggest a typical masculine uniform. However, they have found that it is just as useful for working with girls as boys, and that girls get a lot out of it as is the case at TVA.

Transitions

TVA is very passionate about the importance of transitions and they have used Commando Joe’s as part of their programme for young people who transition into the school. They have days where they invite year 4, 5 and 6 pupils in from feeder schools, which Commando Joe’s are now a part of.

One of the intentions of using the programme with the group of girls at TVA was that it would support them to have a positive ending to their time in school, which in turn would support them to make positive post-16 transitions. Thus, the group we observed were not intending to transition out of the Commander Jane’s programme; the programme will end when they girls finished secondary school after their GCSEs.

Commissioning Schools

Once a school has commissioned them, Commander Joe’s begin with an introductory meeting between the area manager and relevant school staff. Here they discuss the nature of the young people’s difficulties and how they will tailor the programme to their specific needs. Schools are very good at sharing the relevant information with Commando Joe’s, which feeds into Commando Joe’s risk assessments and session planning. While schools have specific aims in mind they do not tell Commando Joe’s how to deliver sessions in order to meet these aims. Commander Joe’s have a meet and greet assembly with the young people they are to work with. They sometimes meet parents/carers too, as they can need some initial reassurance about the aims of the programme.

In the TVA example, the schools had quite a lot of involvement in the programme (but this is variable across schools). They heard of the work of Commando Joe’s and invited them in to get a feel for their costs and benefits and they mutually agreed on a trial. There was some initial school concern that this was a recruitment drive for the army, so school staff wanted to see the programme in action. They are now thoroughly reassured that this is not the goal of the programme.

A trial session was run by the Commander Joe’s director. TVA staff reflected on this session; they liked the engagement, challenge, commitment and rapport that was developed. After this they thought about which students would benefit most, and where it would slot into the timetable. They went through a trial period with different year groups, and a Commando Joe’s instructor came away with them on a camping trip. They sought lots of feedback from different young people to inform their planning decisions.

TVA also spent time explaining the nature and purpose of the programme to staff throughout the school:

We then introduced the subject leaders, at a middle leaders briefing, to what it was all about and then the director came and spoke to our whole staff to get them on-board and, essentially, it was all about how we can support your pupils through our programme and we would like to see quick benefits for you in the classroom” (Senior member of staff, TVA).

The aims of the programme were communicated to parents and carers, who were also invited to an evening with the director of Commando Joe’s where they had the chance to find out more and ask questions.

Commando Joe’s have also developed a partnership with a local primary school. A Commando Joe’s instructor goes there at lunchtime, which also supports TVA to get a profile on some of the more challenging young people who will be joining them in year seven for 2014-2015.

A review meeting is held once a month between TVA and the Commando Joe’s instructor. The aim is to review the progress the young people are making and to see if any changes are needed. This is a form of quality control. The Commando Joe’s programme is increasingly getting recognition in the national press and TVA are used as a flagship school. Commando Joe’s have received some publicity in the Nottingham Evening Post. Commando Joe’s feel that TVA have really embraced the programme. TVA are now keen to ensure that the impact of the intervention is sustainable. Their interest in this research project is in part to see if it generates some ideas about how they can tailor the programme to maximise its impact. TVA are planning to include Commando Joe’s as part of the timetable for all students because of its success to date.

Relationships with Students

Young people have been consulted by TVA throughout the Commando Joe’s planning and implementation process. The feedback from students has been “fantastic” (Senior member of staff, TVA). The Commando Joe’s instructor has developed an excellent rapport with the students. This was clear from research observations where students were observed listening carefully. The instructor combined firmness with a good sense of humour. There was a real pace and energy about the session.

The girls reported that the Commando Joe’s staff are nice, easy to get on with, and good at building people up. The instructor encourages them and won’t let them give up. They also spoke of mutual respect:

“He treats us the same way as we treat him so we realise that if we didn’t treat him with respect he won’t do the same with us”.

Relationship with parents

The Commando Joe’s programme was presented to parents as a choice, and TVA emphasised that the programme was a reward:

“The way we pitched it was: we think this will be really good for your son or daughter because …. Now it’s not mandatory because it’s a rewards based programme but we feel that your child, socially, academically and emotionally they will get something out of it. And we got overwhelming support for it actually” (Senior member of staff, TVA).

Initially some of the parents were wary of the programme’s military element, but The Commando Joe’s instructor said that they soon changed their minds once they are given a bit more information on the content and aims of the sessions.

Top Valley Academy would like to find a way to include parents/carers in the programme, although some students felt that some wouldn’t want to come, and others would be at work and therefore unable to attend sessions. A future TVA development is for pupils in the programme to run an after school ‘fun and fitness boot camp’ for parents/carers. The Year 11 ‘Jane’s’ are keen to run this alongside the Commando Joe’s instructor.

Resources and Networks :

This programme allows the girls to reframe their identity in the school.

Facilities

Programme activities take place in a variety of locations around the school, although there is also a large designated Commando Joe’s area, the old school library, where there are Commando Joe’s notice boards. Although this area is also used for other things – e.g. parents’ evening – it is associated with the Commando Joe’s in particular. Students have a sense of ownership of the space.

TVA is shortly to have a new build and is considering the benefits of having a designated space for Commando Joe’s. Even though current students in the programme won’t be around to use a new facility, part of their legacy could be to help to design it.

Finances

Commando Joe’s is a private company. They have had to rely on investments, particularly in the early days. The commanders are paid on a daily rate from 8-4:30 across the academic year. TVA has paid for two instructors over three days and they can use them as they wish across that time. The programme has cost TVA £27,000 for this academic year, for three days per week.

Well-managed, led and accountable

The deputy head has good and regular oversight of the programme. Data and information on the programme was well organised and easy to access.

Evaluation and Quality Assurance

TVA compares the girls’ before and after six months of the programme against several key indicators. These are seen as pointers to the success of the programme:

  • Attendance: Has attendance improved? Some of the girls’ attendance was quite poor when they started.
  • Punctuality: Commando Joe’s staff have also supported a school-wide drive to improve punctuality. They stand at the gate and pick up students who are late. Their whole-school lateness is now down to under three percent “so that is working”(Senior member of staff, TVA).
  • Achievement: The Janes have all improved their reading age by at least three years, some as much as six years. The chief reason was the training they received from the academy librarian who taught them to be reading buddies to support weaker readers in Year 8.
  • Are the young people hitting their targets? Nine out of ten of the girls are now on track to hit their academic targets. For some this is 5+A*-C with Maths and English.
  • Behaviour: A reduction in the number of negative behaviour incidents that are recorded by staff on their form – for the girls, a 63% reduction in negative behaviours.
  • Destinations: 3 of the Jane’s were at risk of being NEET in Year 10. All have secured places in further education at college or have embarked on apprenticeship programmes.

The school are also interested in whether the girls are happier and are having a better time in school. This was captured in comments about their confidence and self-esteem. TTVA are also keen to improve health and fitness so they do regular fitness tests. One of the boys on the programme has lost a significant amount of weight.

Some of these outcomes will be more important for some students than others, depending on their individual circumstances.

 TVA quality assure Commando Joe’s via spot checks, and the Commander Joe’s director comes in as part of their area management quality assurance. Once a month the CJ team leader reviews the progress of the programme. They speak to the school, find out how things are going and see if any changes need to be made.

In general, schools observe CJ lessons and sessions. This is more or less formal depending on the particular school. Instructors are assessed once a term in each of the schools they work in by the area manager. They are told what is good about their sessions and can discuss areas which could be improved. The focus is on improvement.

At TVA Commando Joe’s is valued and will become a part of students’ main timetables from September 2014 onwards. This means it will be part of the school-wide quality assurance schedule.

Transformation (Choice and autonomy)

As already noted, TVA are keen for the Commander Joe’s programme participants leaving a legacy and also giving back to the school for what the school has invested in them. OT this end, they ay help to design a new facility and are already trained to support weaker readers in year 8. This is seen as their first whole school mission/responsibility.

Commander Janes can be seen as transformative of the girls life chances. Theirs attendance and attainment has improved. Reports of negative behaviour have decreased. They all had plans for the following year and were positive about their futures. They agreed that the programme had improved their behaviour and attainment. They also felt that they had made friends, and they had a sense that they had become part of a new community with different goals and different ‘types’ of conversations.

TVA is also pleased that the programme is having wider, beneficial health impacts in the school, because of its physical nature.

The BBC visited the school to film Commando Joe’s for a programme on behaviour in schools and the role fitness could play. The pupils presented themselves well and TVA and Commando Joe’s were pleased with the profile this provided.

[1] This case study is based on one group of girls accessing the Commando Joe’s programme at Top Valley Academy, Nottingham. The Commando Joe’s also work with other students in this school, and with students in many other schools and provisions.

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