School improvement: Back from the brink

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Being placed in special measures when you are not expecting it can be a devastating blow. Writing anonymously, one senior leader explains how his school bounced back…

Working in an inner city school presents a particular set of challenges. For my school that included a wide range of feeder primary schools, differing aspirations from a complex multi-ethnic community, and hidden levels of social deprivation. When the school is a free school which is part of an outstanding chain, but is then placed in special measures, a whole new set of challenges emerge.

Waiting for the call from the “Big O” is always daunting, but we felt confident that the school was in a good position. The data collated for progress, behaviour and attendance all pointed to students making outstanding progress. Attendance stood at 96 per cent, behaviour incidents had halved, and a majority of students were making more than a full level of progress in each year.

For my area of pastoral care, all indicators were consistently green – referrals were down, attitudes to learning were showing a clear positive trend and use of the isolation room was becoming a rarity. When the call came, the well-practised and previously successful approach taken by other schools within the academy was set in motion.

However, this time, the inspection did not go well. Progress data was challenged and the evidence provided at classroom level did not support the “overly generous” levels awarded in a majority of areas.

Teacher assessments were not secure and often not moderated, and higher-level skill development was superficial at best yet reported as well-established.

Teaching was seen as variable in too many lessons and in some cases clearly not at the level that senior leaders had suggested.

Senior leaders from across the Trust were quizzed on support and moderation but were unable to evidence work that had taken place.
The school was placed in special measures in the summer of 2015. As part of a larger outstanding Trust, this had dramatic and long-lasting repercussions. Senior leaders, including the headteacher, deputy and assistant head, were all removed by the new executive headteacher.

I was the only member of the previous senior team to remain and was immediately set a new challenge – to work with the executive head to revise assessments, challenge expectations and establish a consistently accurate and robust data set.

I had joined Ambition School Leadership’s Future Leaders programme in September 2014 and it made sense to make my new objectives the focus of my impact initiative. This was a huge and unexpected challenge, but speaking to my leadership development advisor and my new headteacher gave me the confidence to start unpicking the issues and look for ways to get back on track.

Like many schools that find themselves in special measures, our priority was to focus on the progress being made in English and maths, and in particular the progress made by year 9 students who would be moving on to GCSE courses in the near future.

If we could demonstrate an accurate and robust assessment system, this would be a significant step forward. We chose to focus on year 9 as we could access externally validated tests across all core subjects making assessment judgements more easily moderated against agreed mark schemes, mitigating against any concerns in relation to overly generous practice.

To move things forward quickly presented a number of challenges, not least how to refocus staff who felt battered and undervalued. Staff were naturally wary of change. Rebuilding trust and providing support was an essential first step. To gain buy-in we depersonalised the issues and focused on the outcomes for learners.

We started by targeting key individuals at middle leader level, approaching a core group of well-respected, dynamic and popular staff to be the standard-bearers for our more rigorous approach.

I sat down with these leaders to talk through issues, understand barriers and seek direction, which I relayed to my new senior leadership team with an action plan of how we would re-establish accuracy and support learners and teachers.

The plan started with a root and branch review of teaching and learning practice at the school but also across the whole Trust – something which had not been planned for under the previous team.

I held meetings with other curriculum and assessment leads and used my contacts developed through Future Leaders to identify best practice and draw up revised policies and practices. This led to, among other things, the development of our “life after levels” approach involving mastery grades.

The next stage brought together focus groups of subject staff from across the Trust to moderate work and establish an accurate set of baseline “Current Working at Grades” that would set the scene going forwards.

The generic schemes of work we had previously used were reviewed and adapted to focus more clearly on outcomes for learners, with resources being shared across the Trust to maximise engagement and learner buy-in. Relevance and rigour became the watch-words by which we judged the suitability of study programmes and the associated assessments that now formed an integral part of our formative and summative reviews.

After this initial shake-up we needed to bring the students and parents, who had understandably lost confidence in the school, on the journey with us. A small minority had moved their children to other neighbouring schools, however most families remained supportive and wanted to engage with the process of change.

Attendance at parents’ evening had always been a real strength (well over 90 per cent). So we used the evenings as an opportunity to address concerns and the parents responded well to the vision for change outlined by the senior leadership team.

Our communication with parents brought everything back to improving their children’s outcomes. All too frequently as educators we talk in edu-speak – a complex mix of acronyms and technical vocabulary that puts barriers between the teacher and the parent. In parental meetings, we relayed our message in a clear and concise manner, acknowledging errors and setting expectations in a common language that all could access and invest in.

For some students and parents, small group workshops that focused on core skills in literacy and numeracy were offered to reinforce the school’s willingness to go the extra mile to make sure everyone felt part of the process.

Describing learning and levels as “chunks” brought a realism to a sometimes abstract concept and this quickly created a culture of learners sharing the “chunks of learning” they had achieved.

We now share feedback with parents six times a year, reporting each half-term using a mixture of revised formative and summative assessments, created by staff across the Trust at collaborative in-service training days. These provide relevant information to students, parents and teachers and support the evidence-base that is used when inspectors call. Feedback from all stakeholder groups has been positive and Ofsted inspectors have said our system is now fit-for-purpose and providing accurate data.

Once progress data was shared with students and parents, and following a second cross-Trust moderation, all subject areas were brought on board and now work to this more robust and responsive system of assessment and progress monitoring.

In December 2015 the “rigorous new system” was seen to have made a strong contribution to improved progress in English and maths and by June 2016 progress had “improved markedly” through the consistent application of a cross-Trust assessment system.

Central to the changes made has always been the impact on learners and ensuring that they know what our expectations are, how much progress they are making, how they can improve, and what their true potential is.

Our target was to improve the percentage of students making or exceeding expected progress by 35 per cent from our revised summer baseline. This figure was achieved in English and exceeded in maths with an increase of more than 40 per cent being validated through our moderation processes and quality-assured through Ofsted monitoring visits.

When I look back at the dire situation we faced after our inspection in 2015, it is hard to believe what a vibrant and focused learning community we are today. From a time of doubt and even despair for some, we have worked through our issues together and have developed more robust and challenging systems that engage learners more completely and inform parents more accurately.

How have we done this? Good communication, clear focus, sharing expertise and, above all, a belief that our staff can inspire and our students can achieve. Working with proven leaders across the Trust, engaging with outstanding schools in the area and using the network of Future Leaders participants all helped to provide our project with credibility and generate momentum.

Where are we now? Life without levels has created more challenges for us but applying the same methodology we used after Ofsted has meant that staff, students and parents are not afraid to ask questions or be engaged in the process, and see themselves as key drivers for improvement and genuine stakeholders in each other’s success.

  • The author of this article is a deputy headteacher from a secondary school in England.

Ambition School Leadership

Ambition School Leadership is a charity that runs leadership development programmes in England to help school leaders create more impact in schools that serve disadvantaged children and their communities. Visit


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