Case study: A culture of positivity, respect and innovation

Written by: Stephen Holden | Published:
The right environment: Tottington Primary School headteacher Stephen Holden has focused on creating the space and confidence for staff to innovate

In moving Tottington Primary School from ‘requires improvement’ to ‘good’, headteacher Stephen Holden and his team have focused on creating exactly the right culture to support staff innovation and raise pupil outcomes

When I took up my first headship position here at Tottington Primary six years ago, the school was correctly placed into the “requires improvement” category by Ofsted, having been satisfactory over time.

Some might have said that it was completely the wrong time to try and change the culture of the school, but for me there couldn’t have been a better time. Now, almost six years later, the school is rated “good”, with an outstanding grade for behaviour, and consistently has results in the top percentiles nationally.

I believe the innovative culture nurtured at Tottington is one of the main reasons for its success. However, an innovative culture can’t be created overnight or bought off a shelf, it takes time and a well thought out approach.

Establishing leadership

The process began with deciding what type of leader I wanted to be and the outcomes I was looking for. There are two main types of headteacher in my opinion, the aggressor or the respected. The aggressor instils fear into their team to get results, the respected get results through understanding, confidence and a positive team ethos. Both of these types of headteacher can get results, but I knew which style would fit with my values and beliefs.

I had a very positive experience during my NPQH, but being a relatively young headteacher, I still felt quite inexperienced and worried about the prospect of getting the team of more than 70 staff to support me. My first decisions were to be approachable, positive and to make my vision for the school known.

My credentials got me the job, but teachers are not interested in what is on my CV, they want to know what I want to achieve at the school and what type of leader I will be. I started by making it very clear that we were all in this together and although we may have different responsibilities, we are all valued and all equal.

Leading from the top is important but decision-making should never be from the top down. It is imperative for all staff to be involved in key decisions made in the school. As such, a process of sharing ideas, discussing policy and testing initiatives is part of everyday life here.

I do not, however, use whole staff training days for such matters. In my opinion, training days are a unique opportunity to inspire and motivate staff. They shouldn’t be about topics such as data, systems or policy. Although I acknowledge training days can sometimes be the ideal time for these, at Tottington we do these elsewhere, creatively weaving them into the working week. I have found that it is a far more effective use of whole staff training time to uplift, motivate and inspire staff.

And I know that many schools hire motivational speakers for this job, but I feel this is a message best coming from me. I deliver a consistent message that my staff are amazing and we are all very lucky to be in this profession.

Back to basics

In my first year, I made it clear that our core educational offer would be at the forefront of everything we do to drive standards upwards. We began by stripping back our teaching to the bare bones of the curriculum. As an interim measure, we reduced the confusing mix of interventions, off-the-shelf teaching ideas and “fads” so that we could refocus on the delivery of the core principles of teaching.

Only when we had raised standards in core subjects would staff be given the freedom to try new ideas and build on the curriculum in other areas. For the new offer to rapidly improve standards, however, it had to be consistent. We achieved this through our “Core Skills” document. Created by staff, children, parents and governors, it allowed all stakeholders to focus on the same things, delivered in the same way.

Relationships & respect

As well as consistency, another management mantra of mine is respect. Teachers, teaching assistants and school staff are the most hard-working and passionate workforce, deserving an incredible amount of respect from leadership. It is essential that their lives, both professional and personal, should be at the forefront of my decision-making.

Every evening my staff will talk through their day at the dinner table with their families. They will reflect on their interactions and how they have been made to feel. I keep this at the forefront of my mind as I speak with my staff.

Headteachers and leaders can have a huge impact on someone’s day, just by the way they say good morning. I make a conscious effort as soon as I step over the threshold at school to be a figure of positivity – this can have a knock-on effect on everyone else. Positivity is infectious and must be led from the top.

The lives of the children and families of Tottington are equally significant. Making myself as visible as possible from day one has been instrumental in building positive relationships with our parents. My staff and I being on the yard at the start and end of every day reinforces the message that we are all working together. Always taking on board parents’ thoughts, ideas and concerns with honest interest, gives them the confidence that we will listen, respond and act. We are never too busy – this positive relationship is our core purpose.


Public perception

Another key driver in creating an environment where innovation could flourish was changing how we were viewed from the outside. If staff are confident about how others see them, then they will have the confidence to take risks. Small changes made big differences. A new letterhead, a tweak to the school uniform and improving the look of the building to reflect our new professional but nurturing focus.

We relentlessly share what we do with parents and we have embraced social media. Even ensuring children tuck in their shirts as they leave for the day and my staff being out in the community as our children walk home shows the community what we value.

The biggest change however was not what people could see, but in how they felt about the school. Tottington is now a sea of positivity. Every staff member and every child will greet you with eye contact, a smile and a positive comment – we call this being “Cool Around School”.

The main focus though has been on how our pupils feel. Just as my colleagues go home and talk about their day at the dinner table, so do the children. I want every conversation about me and my staff to be positive. Children will remember if you say good morning, high five them in the corridor or notice their new coat.

The way you make a child feel depends on what you focus on. If you focus on the positive, I guarantee the talk at the dinner table will be positive too.

Even when difficult conversations need to be had, the mantra is the same – be honest, be understanding and show that it matters to you. The “dinner table rule” is used to pre-empt, diffuse and personalise difficult conversations around behaviour. If you feel a child will discuss something at the dinner table, then parents are contacted before the end of the day.

This helps the school explain its actions and it prepares the parents so that they can support the school. For more persistent behaviour matters, meetings are held between class teachers, parents, senior leadership and the child so that restorative conversations can take place. No child is shouted at – misdemeanours are confronted with respect and understanding.

Our pupils benefit significantly from the culture we have developed, not only proven in our school results, but in the character of the children as they leave our school. The slow drip of all these factors over my first six years has cemented Tottington as the place to be, not because of our strong results or Ofsted outcomes, but because of the most enduring measure of all – public perception.

A space for innovation

There is no quick fix for creating an environment which fosters innovation, as every school is unique, but there are a few processes and values that I believe have helped us along the way.

One of the most crucial elements to allowing staff to be innovative is giving them confidence, freedom and trust. If staff don’t try new things for fear of the repercussions of making mistakes, they can’t be innovative.

I have made it clear that I believe in the staff at Tottington, and the only two ground rules they must measure themselves against are: “Will this help to raise standards?” and “Will your idea give children memories that could last a lifetime?”

If the answer is yes to both of these then they must try it, and if the idea doesn’t go as planned, we learn from it. The results have been amazing, and staff are now constantly trying new things that are significantly raising standards and giving children unique experiences.

Motivating and developing staff is equally as important as making sure our children are reaching their full potential. Staff will only push to develop themselves when they feel content and not overworked, therefore I have made a conscious effort never to set a level of expectation that is unrealistic. I make sure I’m not always the first car in the car park in the morning and not the last to leave at night. PPA time can be taken at home. I don’t send emails in the evening and there is no expectation that staff come into school in the holidays.

As long as all the work is being done, whether it be in school or at home, I have no criticisms. I trust staff to manage their time well and they have proved to me they are more than capable of doing so. A happy workforce is one that has a great work/life balance, who spend time with their own families and find time for themselves.

My staff are relentless workers and sometimes even feel guilt at not thinking about school every waking second. This is nonsense. This is a job, and to do it effectively you put your family and your own wellbeing first.

Wherever possible I encourage staff to look at outside opportunities for development of themselves and their pupils. Whether these be teacher conferences or events, school trips or even grant applications to win funding or technology for the school. These opportunities have opened up many doors for our school and it is a pleasure to see teachers and their pupils taking ownership and pride in external partnerships.

We are particularly passionate about media, from our own version of carpool karaoke, to our innovative teaching methods and famous floss dance video, these efforts have won us ed-tech prizes, secured us funding and raised our school profile.

Not bought, nor copied nor borrowed

I think one of the most important things to consider when developing a culture of innovation in any school is that every school is different. An innovative culture can’t be copied, it must be grown, takes time and should align with you and your school vision. The road to get to this point has not been an easy one, it has taken a lot of hard work and we have overcome many challenges. We focused on getting the basics right before we started delving into the realms of creative and outside the box teaching. We are now at the point where teachers don’t have to ask themselves “will it raise standards?” as this has become embedded in our school culture.

The teaching profession is not an easy one, we read in the education press daily how teachers are struggling with workload, stress and accountability. I am a strong believer that if headteachers can foster a culture in their school that is built on respect, positivity and achievement, then the profession will be far more enjoyable and successful for us all.

The innovative ideas at Tottington Primary are not my own – my staff are way more creative than I will ever be. Growing an innovative culture however is not just simply having brilliant ideas, it is realising the head’s role in creating the safe space where these ideas can be conceived and realised, allowing incredible things to happen.

  • Stephen Holden is the headteacher of Tottington Primary School in Bury.


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