School-to-school support can often be the guise under which seemingly “outstanding” schools try to replicate exact systems and structures from their own school context.
My school, Blessed Thomas Holford, has always had an excellent reputation as a Teaching School because of our commitment to supporting schools in a personalised fashion. We believe that there is no “one-size-fits-all” and always seek to fully understand and evaluate different school dynamics ahead of helping to bring about change.
As part of the Future Leaders network, I am passionate about sharing what I have learned with schools in challenging circumstances that need to improve. Moreover, colleagues from my school have always benefited immensely from the schools to which they are seconded.
Last year, I was seconded to Blessed Henry Newman RC College in Oldham. The college had been formed from two predecessor schools with very different contexts – there were variations in the socio-economic background of many students, and only one school’s staff had experience of key stage 5 provision. The school’s 1,500 students, aged 11 to 18, moved to new premises in September 2012 after much effort from the leadership team to bring the two schools together and create a collective vision for Newman College.
However, the team accepted that this had perhaps been at the cost of pupil outcomes. The school had been placed in special measures in February 2013 and suffered a set of disappointing results in August 2013, with only 55 per cent of students achieving five A* to C grades including English and maths. Furthermore, the gap in attainment between Pupil Premium students and their peers was 23 percentage points in both English and maths.
The school suffered from a variety of other challenges: it needed more leadership capacity, and many new staff (including NQTs and Teach First participants) had joined in September. Teaching quality was erratic too; much required improvement but there was also some excellent practice that needed to be publicly celebrated and individual members of staff enabled to drive improvement in overall school standards.
The staff agreed that the school suffered from a lack of understanding surrounding teaching quality and the role of middle leaders. As a result, supporting the school in these two areas became the initial focus of my time at Newman.
Two leaders from the nearby St Patrick’s High School in Eccles, also a Teaching School, worked with me to ensure that essential changes could be implemented rapidly. My priority was to establish good relationships with colleagues at the school. I was mindful that many would be wary and perhaps concerned that my support would be authoritarian rather than collaborative.
I asked to lead the INSET on September 1 with all staff (teaching and non-teaching). I delivered a session in which I was transparent about the urgent need to improve and thus to increase monitoring and scrutiny.
I also tried to lead by example, modelling some of the behaviours and pedagogy needed in successful classroom practice. I continued in this vein throughout the year, often team-teaching or planning and delivering lessons across the curriculum, allowing teachers the opportunity to observe another teacher with their own classes, thus encouraging an increasingly reflective approach. The feedback from the INSET was overwhelmingly positive and made for a great start to the new academic year.
Initially I was tasked with monitoring and coaching a number of colleagues through capability procedures. This was essential to show that the school was insistent on the highest standards for every pupil in all lessons. I also delivered training and coaching for all the NQTs and Teach First participants to show that the school was equally committed to supporting all colleagues to improve their teaching.
This delivered a “quick-win” as it enabled me to get to know a lot of the staff very quickly, as well as allowing me to audit the areas for development more closely.
Immediately after October half-term an assistant headteacher from my school, also part of the Future Leaders programme, two colleagues from St Patrick’s, and I conducted an intensive review of the maths and English faculties. We followed the same processes as an Ofsted subject-specific inspection, compiling a detailed report on both faculties, and more importantly a clear action plan for improvement. This provided my focus for the second term of the year.
From January, I worked closely with the English faculty and in particular the head of department. The faculty was passionate about their subject and capable of delivering consistently good lessons, but they had become over-burdened with whole-school initiatives and disillusioned and disempowered following bad results.
We used training sessions as well as structured coaching meetings to allocate new roles and responsibilities. After a whole day’s INSET with the team they re-wrote their department vision. Soon their department motto – “Be committed. Be inspired” – could be seen and heard not just in their faculty but throughout the school. I was delighted that their incredible diligence, renewed focus and team spirit were rewarded with a fantastic leap in results to 82 per cent of this year’s cohort achieving three levels of progress and, even more impressively, 47 per cent achieving four or more levels of progress.
The remainder of my time at Newman was spent on developing middle leaders. The assistant headteacher in charge of teaching and learning and I worked collaboratively throughout the year, meeting weekly to plan our strategy for CPD on work scrutiny. We actively sought feedback from staff and modified our approach every term to show that we could be flexible and attuned to the needs of different departments.
There had been a culture of suspicion around observations, but because of my work with new staff, NQTs and the English faculty, the majority of staff now trusted that there was no ulterior agenda behind monitoring.
I met with every head of department and member of senior leadership team for a coaching conversation about their own teaching practice. Too little time had previously been available for these individuals to reflect on their practice, and yet they were then asking the teaching staff, who had much heavier teaching timetables, to do this!
By modelling discussions about teaching practice, the overall approach to teaching quality became a more positive learning experience for all the staff. It also reinforced my view that any leader in school must be credible as a strong classroom teacher.
When Ofsted came back for a full Section 5 inspection in May 2014, Newman College felt like a completely different place. The school was lauded for its impressive turnaround and was judged “good” in two areas and “requires improvement” overall.
The lead inspector commended all the areas of school improvement in which the schools had worked together: “Leaders have put into place well-founded strategies which have led to improvements in all areas of school life ... as a result of an overriding emphasis on improving classroom practice, teaching is improving rapidly and there are examples of students now making outstanding progress because of the teaching they receive.
“The school knows itself well and senior leaders have taken full advantage of the support from two teaching schools to put in place effective strategies to promote on-going improvement. As a result, teaching, leadership, and behaviour and safety have all improved since the previous inspection.”
A great set of results for Newman College followed. The overall A* to C pass rate rose to 62 per cent; those achieving their expected level of progress rose to
82 per cent in English and 68 per cent in maths, and the gap between Pupil Premium students and their peers narrowed by 13 percentage points in English to a 10 percentage point gap, and eight percentage points in maths to a 15 percentage point gap.
I learned a great deal from working with my Newman colleagues. Their excellent approach to marking is something I have championed back at Blessed Thomas Holford and we continue to work with Newman College, with subject-specific reviews and the delivery of a middle leadership training programme designed specifically for their staff.
We also continue to work with St Patrick’s, most notably at Our Lady and St John RC School in Blackburn to which I am seconded this year. We relish the opportunity to ensure better outcomes for pupils while taking account of the varying climates and needs of staff at different schools.
Future LeadersFuture Leaders is a leadership development programme for aspiring headteachers of challenging schools. To apply or nominate, visit www.future-leaders.org.uk. Future Leaders is also recruiting for Talented Leaders, a programme to place exceptional school leaders into headship roles in the areas that need them most. Apply by October 12 via register.future-leaders.org.uk
Dominique Gobbi, a member of the Future Leaders network, is associate headteacher at Blessed Thomas Holford Catholic College in Cheshire.