Bouncing back from a poor school inspection

Written by: HTU | Published:

Some of the most challenging times in a headteacher’s career can be after a poor inspection outcome. Nick Bannister meets leaders who have helped their schools to bounce back after inspection setbacks

Bringing a school out of special measures might seem a complex challenge for any headteacher.

But for Sarah Fielding, co-headteacher at Haydn Primary School in Nottingham, keeping it simple was the best approach.

When she joined the school in 2007, Haydn was up against it. Inspectors had judged the school inadequate in the February but just two years later the school had earned a rating of good with outstanding features.

“When a school is in crisis it’s much simpler than when it is not in crisis,” explained Ms Fielding.

She continued: “Usually the areas to work on have already been defined for you. Then it is a case of the leader putting in an approach to address the areas of development in the school improvement plan. They need to make sure that staff know what the focus is and why and how we are going to improve it. 

“We tried to simplify things. We focused on what the key issue really was. At Haydn, standards of writing were much poorer than they should have been. 

“It was a case of acknowledging that there was lots to do here but that we were going to focus on this one thing, do that really well and not care too much about anything else. We weren’t going to be distracted by all the initiatives that were flying around at the time.

“By securing improvement you can build on it and it will permeate lots of other aspects of the school. For example, if you teach writing really well, it has an impact on achievement in the foundation subjects.”

Understanding data about pupil performance in writing and applying this to learning was a key step in Haydn’s journey, says Ms Fielding. 

“Our staff needed to understand where children were in relation to the school’s context. They were already looking at the raw figures but there was no clear understanding of how the data here related to national data. We needed to provide training and support to help develop this specific area.”

Haydn’s transformation from special measures to outstanding has led to Ms Fielding and co-head (and husband) Pat Fielding, extending their support to neighbouring primaries Cantrell and Claremont.

Cantrell, which had received a notice to improve in 2010, was judged good in an inspection last autumn while Claremont, which Ofsted says has serious weaknesses, has recently had an encouraging monitoring visit.

The development of talent within Haydn and the other schools has had a key role to play in the success story. 

Ms Fielding continued: “Specialist teacher roles have been really powerful, and we are very lucky to work alongside a very talented team. We have a trained MAST (maths advanced skills teacher) and we have trained six facilitators across Haydn and Cantrell who can support staff through the Outstanding Teacher and Improving Teacher programmes. 

“We’re also developing specialist SENCO roles across the three schools now. We use specialist teachers for modern foreign languages, music and PE, and have lead phonics, Every Child a Reader and Every Child a Writer teachers on the staff. And we have four staff who are now accredited SLEs (specialist leaders in education) in literacy, modern foreign languages and PE.”

Giving colleagues leadership responsibility is also important, she added. “Everyone at Haydn has a responsibility for a subject. This makes sure that they understand their area in detail and aspire for it to be outstanding. When you have an area that you are responsible for it gives you ownership and leadership.”

Ensuring that you make external appointments that complement the strengths of existing staff is another crucial ingredient for success. “We made some fantastic appointments a little while ago and suddenly the whole game had been raised,” Ms Fielding said. 

“It was the tipping point for the critical mass. A change that seems to be really minor can tip the balance and make people aspire to the next step. 

“At Haydn we already had a number of really strong staff but they were working in isolated pockets. By making additional strong appointments this can tip the balance in the right direction.”

The simple, focused approach in Nottingham has echoes in the approach adopted by Stockton headteacher Liz Bramley. When she joined the Oakdene primary – a school serving a challenging area with high unemployment and twice the national average of pupils receiving Pupil Premium funding – in April 2007, she thought that although the school was rated as good many improvements could be made.

“Nothing was very good or excellent and two aspects of our provision were inadequate and the curriculum was very much satisfactory,” she explained.

Ms Bramley was just four terms into her role at Oakdene when Ofsted announced that it was visiting. 

Work had already been done to start transforming the curriculum and Ms Bramley felt that the school was in a robust state by the time of inspectors stepped into her office.

The school received a good judgement, with the curriculum one of several areas described as outstanding. This provided her with the impetus to move the school up to an outstanding judgement the next time the inspectors called.

“We used the curriculum as a key lever for improvement and it has been,” she said. “If you get your curriculum right it will absolutely have an impact on the whole school.

“We follow a ‘learning challenge’ curriculum. We moved away from QCA. Children develop a key question which is a topic and it will be different from previous years. We create learning challenges for that week. These will be in areas that have to be covered but will be bespoke to the pupil.”

Spotting and developing talent and also sharing what it is that makes an individual outstanding has proved crucial to the school’s success, said Ms Bramley.

“My leadership style is finding talent. I am quite good at seeing where talents lie in my staff and helping them to realise their potential. It’s important to build their confidence and let them really run with things.

“We had two teachers who were rated outstanding by Ofsted so we set about deconstructing what it was about their practice that made them outstanding. We created a teacher’s toolkit out of this work, looking at areas such as teaching and learning approaches, behaviour strategies and planning.

“From 2009/10 we saw more people moving into that bracket of consistently outstanding teaching. We had to make sure that there were really strong team leaders in place to help promote and support staff to become outstanding.”

With the school now rated outstanding in its latest Ofsted inspection (see panel, right) Ms Bramley looks back at her early days at the school and says that one of the biggest changes has been in the way staff look at the school. This transformation will help propel the school onto greater success in the future, she believes.

“When I started at the school I did a visioning day. One thing that really got me was that some members of staff felt embarrassed when they were at an external course. The reputation of the school was not great. 

“They wanted a pride in their school and for the community to feel the same. I thought that above everything we needed to achieve that. I felt that they needed someone really enthusiastic who was going to believe in them and move the school through the next chapter.”

How we handled a new style Ofsted inspection

Ofsted revised its inspection framework in September 2012, increasing the level of preparation schools have to make to satisfy the needs of inspectors, as well as changes to the grade descriptors and a shorter notice period of inspection.

Liz Bramley’s school was among the first in the region to be inspected under the new framework in March 2013. 

“It was incredibly hard,” she said. “We had been ready, we were well prepared to the point that every week was going to be ‘the week’.

“It did feel different but when the call came the time absolutely flew. We were super organised. I spent a lot of my time making sure that everyone was okay. 

“We had six teachers who had never been through an Ofsted. Then it was a case of just making sure that the inspectors got everything they needed. I had a summary self-evaluation form (SEF) prepared and that was all he needed.”

Being sure of the judgements you give your school in the SEF is crucial, she added. Involving staff in the SEF and ensuring that you all have a deep understanding of the data that informs your view will give you confidence.

“We had put our school up there and that took a lot of courage. Ofsted had not been in the Tees Valley since September so we had no expectations of what it would be like. Inspectors gave us outstanding on all points, even on behaviour which we had not rated as outstanding in our SEF. The inspector thought that we had been hard on ourselves on that point.”

Although the inspection went well, it was not without its challenging moments, says Ms Bramley.

“In 2008, I felt that I was really involved in the whole process but this time I felt the opposite. The lead inspector said that he would not do joint lesson observations on the first day. I wasn’t expecting that. Instead he gave me a data exercise on our key stage 2 progress. 

“The next day I went in fighting. I said I wanted to be part of this process and that I wanted to do joint observations. 

“He seemed relieved at that point and said that it was good to see some fire. We did a joint observation and he was involving me throughout. I felt that at that moment we had turned a corner.”

  • Nick Bannister is a freelance education writer.


  • For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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