Best Practice

The power of the school gate: Are your pupils ready to learn?

Facing problems with pupils arriving in class not prepared for learning, and the disruption this causes, school leader Allen Hall drew a red line at the school gate in a bid to change habits and ensure pupils arrived at school ready for the day ahead

During a typical wet November in 2015 Waterhead Academy was visited by Ofsted for our third Section 8. The leadership team had worked tirelessly since going into special measures a year earlier, and we were hopeful that we would receive another positive report and inch closer to the end of the process.

Waterhead Academy was formed from two local schools. Recently, it was featured in The Guardian as a remarkable school that could “teach a divided town to live together”. This was down to resilient and committed staff and a community determined to improve the life chances of their young people.

However, hearing the lead inspector say that we were “not making progress” sucked the oxygen out of the room. The result was an educational backdraft that set off a chain of events as we teetered on the edge of our very own Darvaza crater.

After four headteachers in as many years, including pre-opening and a new executive principal installed days before the Section 8, there was a mountain to climb and a burning platform to improve student outcomes.

But we were led by an executive principal with a clear vision, and he rallied the leadership team to focus on the building blocks of improvement, throwing things out if they were not working, and keeping things simple and measurable.

One upside of going into special measures was that the silos within the leadership team gave way to exciting collaboration.

As part of the Future Leaders programme that I was undertaking at the time, I had to implement a school improvement impact initiative. I chose to build a partnership between teaching and learning and personal development, welfare and behaviour. My objective was to improve student behaviour for learning in the classroom.

Ofsted’s recent research survey found that 38 days of the year are lost to low-level disruption (Below the Radar: Low-level disruption in the country’s classrooms, Ofsted, September 2014) and the majority of teachers’ feedback suggested that talking, not following instructions and interrupting learning were the most common reasons for poor classroom behaviour.

A key concern for us was that many pupils came to school without the proper equipment they needed to learn. This could quickly escalate to disruptive behaviour. Therefore, the core strategy of my impact initiative was setting up the “morning gate red line” in order to improve pupil preparedness for the school day.

I wanted to make sure that all students were prepared for lessons, so there would be the maximum amount of time for learning. The school gate was the threshold. All pupils would have to present their equipment at the gate. Any missing pens, rulers or planners could be purchased at the pop-up equipment shop we set up at the front of school. By encouraging pupils to take responsibility – one of our core values at the school – and practice good habits we wanted to set clear expectations of what should happen both in and out of the classroom.

However, change management is not simply about saying “it’s happening”, but it is an on-going process to ensure lasting success. My interest in change management was sparked at a Future Leaders training event. The session shared different viewpoints and models for making change, but I found that Kotter’s eight-step model was a particularly useful and clear tool to organise sustained change.

Step 1: Urgency

Kotter refers to the first step of change management as “urgency” and we had plenty of that. He considers this as establishing a “burning platform”. It was clear that pupil preparedness was a cultural issue that was having an adverse effect on behaviour and pupil learning. Anecdotally, equipment was a visible issue which staff talked about and this was supported by the data that suggested there were an average of 57 reported lack of equipment instances a week (though many incidents were not recorded).

Step 2: Building a team

The next step was to build a strong team who could drive the strategy forward. Our senior leadership collaborated with the pastoral team to map-out the strategy. We focused on the practicalities and possible risks of introducing the initiative. I set up an initial meeting to agree the end objective, and we then worked the details out backwards. Utilising the expertise within the team, we were able to communicate and execute our objectives. For example, the senior leadership team communicated the plan to parents, head of years prepared the students, and the assistant head of years organised additional equipment to be ready for the front of school.

Step 3: Vision-setting

Before Future Leaders, my understanding of vision was limited, especially in its implementation and how core values drive it. It was important that the vision aligned with the school’s values and that our processes reflected the culture we wanted to create. “Responsibility” is one of our values, and being prepared will not only improve learning in the classroom, but will create habits necessary to be successful beyond the school gates – for our students to learn, to be successful and to be responsible, they must be prepared for school.

Step 4: Communication

It was important that the vision and strategy was effectively communicated and over-communicated to ensure 100 per cent understanding of what our expectations of pupils were. There could be no ambiguity. Pupils were told explicitly in assemblies and the message was reinforced during form time. We raised a sign on the school gate to ensure the message was not quickly forgotten:

  • Equipment out and ready to show (black pen, red pen, pencil, ruler and planner).
  • No coats or other non-uniform items to be worn inside the academy.
  • No mobile phones or other devices seen or heard.

Step 5: Enable action

It was a big operation. With more than 1,200 students enrolled and only one gate, there were bound to be areas we needed to improve.

And there were. Feedback from the team was critical to improve the system. Without a channel of constructive feedback, improvement would have been limited. For example, the initial issue was large queues and groups of students forming at the front of school. The team felt empowered to raise this issue, otherwise we may have continued with an ineffective system. This quickly led to re-arranging the shop to focus only on equipment while student services provided things like uniform items and nail varnish removal polish.

Step 6: Create short-term wins

We celebrated our short-term wins with staff and students during briefings, form and assemblies. I had planned weekly milestones for the team to track our progress as the number of recorded behaviour points for pupils not having their equipment dropped. I stated our weekly average of 57 and mapped it out to zero over the course of a term. It was great to be able to share weekly improvement, particularly when big progress was made.

Step 7: Don’t let up

The marginal gains at the start, followed by the drastic improvement towards the half term increased the strategy’s credibility. Staff were supportive of the change; it was students who challenged it – the old way of doing things was viewed as easier. But creating new habits is not easy. Repetition and consistency can help change and embed positive habits. Although we experienced success quite quickly, we still upheld the highest level of expectation and standards.

Step 8: Make it stick

The strategy is now in its third year and there have been many refinements along the way. However, what has not changed is the vision and purpose. The short-term wins were great but the long-term impact is about changing habits to help our students become more responsible and prepared for lessons and everyday life. The morning routine is now part of our culture; it is now part of our routines and expectations.

Making an impact

The impact was quick and visible across the school – in the classroom and in the data. Staff feedback was positive. Many commented that pupils’ preparedness had significantly improved, and there was less disruption and more time for learning.

Behaviour points for equipment significantly decreased. The first few weeks we saw a steady decline in the weekly average, but after week three it collapsed. It dropped down to an average of 10 behaviour points a week, and finally rested at five. It also had a ripple effect across the academy, having a positive impact on others areas such as pupil welfare – during the meet and greet, for example, while checking equipment we are able to intercept issues early. For instance, a pupil who is angry or upset can be helped quickly to prevent any further problems taking place throughout the day.

The “morning gate red line” strategy was underpinned by our core values, to change a culture and improve behaviour so that we could ultimately improve pupil outcomes. Its impact was recognised by Ofsted, but more importantly it was felt by them. They commented in their March 2016 report that the strategy was not only innovative in checking for pupils’ equipment but the dialogue between staff and pupils prepares children emotionally for learning.

Now, we are out of special measures. Behaviour has rapidly improved and Ofsted considers our leadership “good”. Pupil progress continues to improve and this year we are nearing the national average. The platform is still burning but the resilience and determination of our pupils and staff is clearing a new path for success for Waterhead Academy.

  • Allen Hall is vice-principal for curriculum and assessment at Waterhead Academy in North West England. He comes from Kentucky in America and has been teaching in the UK for 11 years. Allen blogs at and tweets @ahalledu. He joined the Ambition School Leadership Future Leaders leadership development programme in 2015.

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