A journey to outstanding

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When principal Harry French arrived at his school he was the third head in three terms. He discusses some of the problems they faced and how a focus on aspirations and creating a culture of learning is paying dividends.

The most exhilarating moments in a school day for me are leaving the confines of my office and taking a walk around the academy, experiencing the quiet purposeful “hum” that fills our corridors.

When I stop and gently tap on a classroom door before entering, I take a quick glance through the window and see young people, learning with smiles on their faces; our classrooms are purposeful learning environments.

I arrived at Greenwood on June 17 last year as the third headteacher in three turbulent, challenging terms. The academy had faced both staff and student strikes, extreme negative publicity and needed to face several other challenges including an urgent need to restructure and increase student roll. Everyone lacked belief; however, the most serious observation for me was the faces of students and the notable lack of smiles.

Results in 2013 rapidly improved with our year 11 students achieving 53 per cent A* to C GCSEs including English and maths which represented a 16 percentage point increase on 2012 outcomes. The promising results formed a base for the journey we have been on ever since and today the school is a very different place.

At the top of our grey old building is our maths department. As you step away from the landing you are greeted by a gigantic sign that boldly reminds students that you have entered a different domain, Mathematics, Docendo Discimus (Latin “by teaching, we learn”).

As you turn left and look down the corridor your eyes are drawn from the floor to ceiling by a mass of banners and blackboards; banners demonstrating in amazing technicolor how maths has an impact on our daily lives and blackboards that confidently challenge students to go further, aim higher and tackle that A* question. 

As you walk into 305, Mr Thacker’s Classroom, you are greeted by more of the same. This stimulating environment helps our young people to develop independence and tackle maths questions on their own, encouraging students to take risks and accelerating the learning process.

In 2013, maths results although significantly better than the year before, fell short of expectation; this year we are targeting 70 per cent A* to C, just above national averages and a 15 per cent increase year-on-year. 

The quality of leadership in maths is now outstanding, the vision drive and hunger that every child must make good or better progress is evident in every classroom; most ably demonstrated by the 50 or so students who attend a maths revision session in the morning, tackling their maths questions over a free breakfast, and after-school where in every classroom you are greeted by small groups of students huddled around a maths question working hard, smiling, enjoying the challenge. 

On the second floor are the science and English departments. Science is a vibrant, exciting place to be. Our teachers immerse young people in awe and wonder; leaving them wanting to find out more.

In December, we had a “no pens day” designed to encourage students to develop their speaking and listening skills and encouraging teachers to experiment, risk-take and develop those memorable experiences that are the catalyst to much of the smiling you now see around the school.

Our young scientists took no pens to an entirely new level, creating slime, explosions, making hair stand on end and possibly some of the most disgusting smells you could ever imagine! Learning at its very simplistic best.

Further along the corridor you reach the English department. At this point in the year, 92 per cent of year 11 students have already achieved an A* to C grade; an achievement very hard to put into context because only the very best grammar schools in the country will get close to this level of attainment.

Recently I asked an Ofsted inspector to visit the academy; we spent some time in Mr Cole’s English classroom looking through books and talking to the students about their experience of English at the school; after 20 minutes or so our visitor carefully moved to the front of the class and asked sir if he could bring the class to a brief pause; in a very stern authoritarian voice he asked the students to put their hands up if they are on target to achieve their target grade. Every child without exception gingerly raised their hand high and proudly into the air; as we left the room he turned, smiled and simply exclaimed, outstanding!

We are very proud of our English achievement, particularly when you consider that our young people join the academy with levels of reading and writing significantly below other young people in Birmingham and nationally. 

On the ground floor of the building you find Learning Access and in the middle of the corridor in room 013 you find Believe to Achieve (B2A). B2A is an amazing stimulating room permanently manned by Charlie and Vicky. We cannot escape the reality that many of our young people experience some extreme difficulties and struggle with the daily transition to learning. In B2A Charlie and Vicky give young people the critical strategies that they need to overcome their personal challenges and make the most of their learning opportunities. 

Behaviour at the school has dramatically improved but so has the level of personalised behavioural support; another key reason why you see so many smiles as you walk around the academy. 

As you walk down the Learning Access corridor, past our specialist autistic spectrum disorder base, and past our newly created multi-agency Youth Zone, your eyes are drawn to a bright purple poster on the wall asking students how they are going to spend their Vivos. 

We believe that young people should be rewarded for their hard work. If a child pushes themselves, takes on a “challenging question” or offers support to a friend it is right that they are recognised. Vivos are like club-card points and can be exchanged by students online for prizes.

Taylor Billings, our head girl, has more than 3,000 Vivos credited in her account, enough to pay for her prom ticket, an event written large into student life here.

As you pass through the double doors towards reception on the left hand side you find my office. 

I am very lucky to lead Greenwood Academy. Becoming a headteacher was not my initial career goal – I used to work for a food manufacturer, selling to big shops like Tesco, but decided I wanted to do something more rewarding and so became a teacher in 2005. 

I moved into a middle leadership role, and became deputy head after joining the Future Leaders programme in 2011. I believe in the simple values of trust, honesty and professionalism, the foundation upon which we are creating, to coin an Ofsted phrase, “rapid improvement”. The teaching and support staff here are the best I have ever worked with. I am proud to say that our external monitoring proves that more than 80 per cent of teachers regularly deliver lessons which would be described as typically good or outstanding and we have eradicated inadequate teaching.

Where teaching has not been recognised as good or outstanding we support each other to make the necessary journey of improvement within a framework of exceptionally high, personalised support against an equally high level of challenge. It has to be this way because our children only get one chance.

The aspirations of our young people are higher than ever before. Despite attainment on entry being significantly lower than the national average, some of the highest deprivation indicators in the country, and a legacy of underachievement to overturn, we are working together as a community to close the achievement gap, something we are on track to accomplish within the next 18 months.

We understand the challenges that out students will face and are working hard to provide them with the skills that they will need to survive in today’s turbulent difficult workplace environment.

Our journey to outstanding will take time; we must always remember our starting point and the dark days of the not so recent past. A typical school will take five years to achieve consistently outstanding outcomes across the board; we are at the very start of our journey. 

However, there is nothing typical about Greenwood Academy, our students, staff or indeed our community. We will be an outstanding school and we will get there with a smile on our face!

  • Harry French is principal of Greenwood Academy in Birmingham.

Future Leaders
The Future Leaders programme is a leadership development programme for aspiring headteachers of challenging schools. It offers a residency year in a challenging school, leadership development, personalised coaching and peer-support. To apply or nominate a colleague, visit www.future-leaders.org.uk


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