Case study: From good to outstanding

Written by: Emma Lee-Potter | Published:
High expectations: Pupils at work at Sugar Hill Primary School (Image: Supplied)

After a recent inspection, Sugar Hill Primary converted from a good school to outstanding across all categories. Emma Lee-Potter finds out what secrets lie behind the school’s success

When Ofsted inspectors visited Sugar Hill Primary School last year (2017) they were unequivocal in their praise. They remarked on the school’s “calm and joyful” atmosphere, described the children’s work books as “immaculate” and praised the head’s “aspirational vision” for her pupils.

The inspectors judged Sugar Hill, a large primary school in Newton Aycliffe, to be outstanding across the board – the first school in Country Durham to convert from good to outstanding in all areas under the last Ofsted framework.

This achievement was followed soon afterwards by a letter from school standards minister Nick Gibb, congratulating the school on being among the top two per cent of schools in England for the progress made by pupils between key stage 1 and key stage 2.

For headteacher Paula O’Rourke and her team of 21 teaching staff and 23 support staff, accolades like these have been the culmination of years of hard work, focus and determination.

“There is no magic wand,” she said. “It’s pure hard work – knowing your school really well, knowing the issues you’ve got and knowing what you need to develop to fit your pupils’ needs.”

Ms O’Rourke joined Sugar Hill as assistant head 10 years ago and was appointed as head six years later. By the time she took over in 2014 she and the senior leadership team knew the 447-pupil school inside-out.

“It was a really good starting point,” she said. “I knew the school from the bottom up and so did the leadership team. It has been a real advantage, without a doubt. If you start with a new leadership team you’ve got to find your way and that takes time, whereas we knew the school really well and knew exactly what our issues were.”

Her school is situated in two 1950s buildings near an industrial estate in the oldest part of Newton Aycliffe, an area of high unemployment. Many pupils are from single-parent families, 34 per cent have free school meals and nearly 15 per cent have SEN.

“We have very few families where parents are in professional jobs,” said Ms O’Rourke. “Children might not have the aspirations to go on to further education or to jobs that aren’t in the local area – so we want to instil in them the idea that they can do anything that they want to do.”

Ms O’Rourke is convinced that headteachers should have the confidence to know what will work for their school – and what won’t. When she first became head she was unconvinced, for instance, by the school’s IT-based assessment system so she and her staff developed their own Step Trackers system from scratch.

“You’ve got to do what works for you and not worry, even if people around you aren’t doing that,” she said. “I’m a firm believer in having a look at what’s out there and then doing what you need to do.

“We’ve developed systems that meet our needs as a school. We look at the commercial products out there, see what we think and then adapt them to meet the needs of our children. We’ve done it with all our tracking for assessment, behaviour and attendance.

“It’s key to have the right team, the right people in the right places, and to really bring staff on board. With everything we develop we say ‘this is what we’re going to try’. We look at the impact and then we meet again and we tweak. It’s a constant journey.”

Ms O’Rourke and her team have instilled high standards in every aspect of school life, often introducing their own way of doing things.

“When I first started here I went into the nursery, which I had no experience of before,” she said. “I went on several courses in the county and I’d come back to school and think ‘that just doesn’t work’. So very early on I started to say: ‘We need to do what works for us.’ Since then we’ve developed our own path in everything we do.”

Sugar Hill pupils learn joined-up writing from Reception and use pencil right through the school – “it makes quite a difference to handwriting and if they make mistakes they can rub it out”.

They learn specific ways of writing the date and underlining their work and no-one uses worksheets.

“Worksheets are very restrictive,” said Ms O’Rourke. “They look very untidy when they’re stuck in books and they are difficult to track when you’ve got loose sheets everywhere – so we decided to ban them.”

The first thing visitors see when they walk into Sugar Hill is a magazine stand filled with examples of pupils’ work.
“Ofsted said in our feedback that the children’s books were the best set of books they’d ever seen,” said Ms O’Rourke.

“As soon as people walk into school they see the standard that’s been set. It hasn’t come easy but it’s the expectation now. Every member of staff and every child knows that. It’s the same with uniform and behaviour. We follow everything through in terms of our expectations and standards – and parents are really supportive of that.

“The children’s behaviour now is exemplary. We instil in them that we won’t accept anything less. I’m not going to say that we are 100 per cent perfect – we’re not. We have issues like every other school but they are very few and far between. We’ve had no exclusions for the last five years.”

The school’s social learning mentor, Belinda Atkinson-Jones, has had a huge impact on pupils and parents too. Ms Atkinson-Jones was appointed four years ago and supports children and families throughout the school, running community events, helping the head to monitor attendance and working to engage children whose attendance has fallen below 85 per cent.

She supports children with social and emotional needs in class and has even accompanied parents to doctor’s appointments. She works with 10 core families, often seeing them on a daily basis, and supports around 42 families with varying issues.

“It’s a huge role and is integral to everything we do,” said Ms O’Rourke. “We are really lucky to have her. I think every school should have a Belinda Atkinson-Jones. She has an office in school and the parents absolutely love her. She is very approachable and parents approach her about things that they might not approach the teachers about.

“Belinda might say ‘would you come and meet this parent with me?’ That gets them into school and helps them to see that we’re not the scary people some parents might think we are. She fulfils such a need.”

The Sugar Hill team is rigorous in everything it does. The six-strong senior leadership team meets twice a week to monitor progress and scrutinises the work of different year groups every week. Ofsted inspectors were clearly impressed by this, noting in their report: “Leaders at all levels check the quality of learning in lessons, review pupils’ work and check pupils’ progress rigorously and regularly. This means that they know precisely what is happening in class. Leaders then identify actions to improve any weaker practice.”

Even though Ms O’Rourke does not teach, she goes into every class every day. “I’m here to give the children in Sugar Hill the best start they can possibly have – and every member of staff feels exactly the same,” she said.

“I do what I need to do paperwork-wise but that’s not the important part of being a head at all. I’m a great believer in a good file and I’ve taught my senior leadership team to love files too but that’s not why I’m here. I don’t sit in an office all day. That’s not me. I make a point of seeing the children every day, from nursery through to year 6, and pride myself on knowing every child’s name. I go and meet the parents most mornings.”

Other innovations include the introduction of a head boy and head girl and a mini-leadership team of year 6 pupils who meet with the governors and greet visitors to the school. Sugar Hill is also involved in a Durham Constabulary project, whereby year 5 pupils volunteer to be “mini-police”, helping with playground duty, acting as role-models in school and talking to the school’s police community support officer.

Despite Sugar Hill’s myriad achievements the teaching staff are determined to progress and develop further.

“I know every head would say this but it’s a really happy school,” said Ms O’Rourke. “I’m a firm believer in developing people but staff love it here and don’t tend to leave. They’ve certainly got enough challenge to keep them going. No-one is sitting with their feet up though. We’re still tweaking, still changing and still developing. We’ve got no intentions of standing still.” 

  • Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education journalist.

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