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From RI to Outstanding

posted 18 Dec 2015, 01:59 by Craig Nicholson   [ updated 1 Jan 2016, 07:50 ]

If you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll get what you’ve always got! That unoriginal thought came back to us in May 2013, when we were categorised by Ofsted as 'requiring improvement'. What we got, wasn’t nearly good enough.

We had previously converted to an Academy in October 2012 and during our due diligence an external consulting company told us our expectations of average point score across the key stages were too low - and we needed to double them! This put is all in a bit of a panic. We are in an area of very high social deprivation, with FSM hovering around 70%, very many incidences of involvement with external agencies such as social services and around 60% mid-year transfers. We convinced ourselves we were up against the odds.

We’d fallen into the trap of ‘making excuses’ – we allowed the outside environment to influence the internal environment of the school. Typical of this was that staff were often heard to mutter phrases such as ‘our children will never be able to do that’. We needed to change!

Where to start?

The problem really was where to start. We’d been plodding along thinking we were doing ok and relying on contextual value added to support our case. We had trouble employing staff as nobody wanted to work in such a challenging environment or area. The children were constantly changing making target setting almost impossible. Being held accountable for progress in these circumstances was worrying.

It was around this time that I came across Sir John Jones, a former head teacher from Kirby in Liverpool. Listening to him talk about his experiences suddenly lit a fuse in me that I’d been getting things wrong and needed to take more notice of my gut instinct. John talked about teachers being ‘weavers of magic’ and suddenly I realised that’s what was needed to drive us forward.

I got John to come and talk to our staff.  After he left we found ourselves discussing his final phrase, a twist on an original quote by Maya Angelou, ‘Children may forgot what you said, they may forgot what you did but they’ll never forget how you made them feel’. We decided as a staff that’s we needed to go back to. We needed to teach more with our hearts, we needed to walk a mile in the children’s shoes, sit in their seats in the classroom and imagine how we’d feel by 3pm having spent a day in school.  We came to the realisation we needed to stop making excuses, the best we could do for our children was set extremely high standards, raise their aspirations and make the curriculum engaging, exciting and enriching. We agreed as a staff to put together a curriculum that would address the children’s experience deficit.

  • We’d do things as a whole school, we’d actively pursue youth social action 
  • We’d engage heavily with technology to equip children to be 21st century digitally literate citizens
  • We discussed growth mind-set and changing the language we used 
  • We would always talk about learning and progress
  • We established a twitter account (the best thing we ever did to begin to engage parents) so we could share our curriculum with parents through the day and give children and parents something to talk about
  • We held ‘Inspire days’ and invited the parents in to participate in the curriculum
  • We developed a text messaging service to enable better communication
  • We developed our mascot ‘Tim’ (today I’m mastering) who is our role model for all the pupils. In fact Ofsted, when they revisited, noted that children were intrinsically motivated to be like Tim and didn’t’ need any external motivation to learn well at school.

Changed behaviour among staff, children and parents

Gradually we started to see a tipping point. Staff were enjoying teaching. They were doing less planning and involving themselves more in producing resources and fun engaging activities. They were giving feedback in a meaningful way which was having a positive impact on progress. Children were enjoying learning and discussing it, they were doing homework, reading for pleasure….. Attendance started to creep up and parents were engaging more with the school attending events, tweeting us and messaging us.

The senior leadership team embraced technology and led by example. All staff were given iPads to enable better communication. SLT carried A5 versions of the Ofsted Inspection Framework around with them, to check that everything we did measured up against the outstanding grading to see how we measured up. We looked at CPD as a way of growing all staff - not just those who may have been struggling or needed that bit of extra support. Governors supported our actions and ensured we had the right resources to deliver what was needed.

We used the ‘so what’ test with everything we did: e.g. we’re holding a lunchtime homework club – so what?

The ‘so what’ was that by holding the club, children who hadn’t been doing homework started to do it – many said the reason they didn’t do it at home was they didn’t have the equipment or materials and they didn’t have a place to do it. So by our becoming enablers the children could participate and their learning and progress improved.

If the answer to ‘so what? was that we couldn’t see or identify any impact then we stopped doing it. We took some brave steps, we didn’t know if what we were doing would work but it felt right.

Ofsted’s next visit

Moving on 2 years: in May 2015 the phone call of an impending visit by Ofsted came again. This time we knew we were better than ‘requires improvement’. We had an upward trend in our results, we were well above national figures with our outcomes from early years and Y1 phonics, we were at or above national outcomes at the end of KS1 and beginning to climb above national figures at end of KS2. We felt we had something special. In an area as challenging as ours, with rising numbers of safeguarding issues, increasing numbers of children with English as an additional language, continual inward and outward movement of pupils, increasing expectations at a national level…. we were beginning to buck the trend.

We have a steady staff now who are enthusiastic and well trained. And most parents engage well with the school and understand our passion to drive up standards. But most of all we have increasing numbers of children who love learning, read for pleasure, do homework and are well rounded citizens who engage in youth social action and enjoy coming to school. They demonstrate a passion for enquiry and a level of independence often beyond their years. We have a ‘growth’ mindset and a very positive attitude to learning.

And everyone is now extremely happy to be part of an ‘outstanding’ school.

To those who are facing the challenges we faced. I would suggest remembering to:

  • be brave and take some risks
  • work smarter – don’t keep doing things if they’re not working 
  • apply the ‘so what’ test to everything you do: if it’s not making an impact stop it or change it
  • get buy-in to the vision
  • teach with the heart

Above all: have fun and weave your magic!

Christine Kemp-Hall (Principal) - 18th December 2015