Case study: Creating a happy school

Written by: Emma Lee-Potter | Published:
Smile! Last year's sports day at Arthur Bugler Primary School, which was commended in the National Happiness Awards in 2019

Headteacher, John Bryant, was named Happiest School Employee in the National Happiness Awards. Emma Lee-Potter finds out how his school has put happiness at the heart of its work

The reception wall at Arthur Bugler Primary School is covered in a sea of colourful notes, some written by children, others by parents and carers.

The initiative is part of Staff Appreciation Week, which was held at the two-form entry primary school in Stanford-le-Hope, Essex, for the first time in February.

John Bryant, who has been headteacher at Arthur Bugler Primary for five years, asked parents and carers to nominate staff who had made a huge difference to the children and write notes of thanks to them.

He received more than 150 responses. Some children thanked the school cleaners for keeping the school “clean and tidy” while parents and carers praised the office staff, teachers, caretaker and Mr Bryant himself.

“The messages are all from the heart – especially the ones written by some of the children who are quite vulnerable and may be having a difficult time at the moment,” said Mr Bryant.

“They’ve each picked out a member of staff who has helped to change their lives. I was worried some groups would get left out but a really wide spread of staff have been appreciated.”

The idea was part of Mr Bryant’s drive to put pupil wellbeing and staff wellbeing and inclusivity at the heart of the school. The drive has been so successful that it led to him being named the Happiest School Employee at the National Happiness Awards in 2019. The school itself was commended in the Happiest Primary School category of the awards.

When Mr Bryant joined Arthur Bugler, which is part of the Osborne Co-operative Trust Academy and was formed following the merger of an infant and junior school, his aim was to create a culture and environment where everyone – the 420 children and the 75 staff -– could thrive. It has clearly worked. The staff team has remained the same for three years and last November school standards minister Nick Gibb wrote to Mr Bryant congratulating the school for its outstanding achievements in the 2019 phonics screening check.

One of the first things Mr Bryant looked at was the school’s behaviour policy: “We completely changed it to ensure that pupils had the chance to make the right choices – with very clear expectations and focusing on the positive. Our mantra was that ‘if we create reasons for children to make the right choices, then they will make the right choices’.

“So we have lots of praise and lots of positivity. We have created an environment and a culture where children are making progress, doing well academically and love coming to school. Our attendance is way above the national average and when the gates open in the morning the children literally run in.

“Children’s mental health and wellbeing are so important. It’s not just the lessons you teach – it’s about showing them how to be resilient, independent, able to challenge and question things and be inquisitive.”

Positive attitudes: More scenes from Arthur Bugler Primary School, including the whole school pictured with headteacher John Bryant, who was named Happiest School Employee at the 2019 National Happiness Awards.

Mr Bryant and his team describe the school as “the fun factory”. In posts on social media they use the hashtag “best school year ever” – #bestschoolyearever – and have introduced a host of strategies to boost the children’s wellbeing and positivity.

Friday is known as Funtime Friday and is always a day of celebration. The day includes Free Writing Friday, a national campaign launched by children’s laureate Cressida Cowell where children write freely for 15 minutes, and Cosy Reading, a 30-minute session when pupils can read any book they wish and choose anywhere they want to read it.

“Some classes have blankets and cushions and children sit under tables but it’s all about the enjoyment of reading,” said Mr Bryant.

At Friday assembly pupils who have had “a really good week” are chosen to sit in “the best seats of the house”, complete with popcorn and drinks, while every class with 98 per cent attendance or more gets to spin an attendance wheel and win extra break, doughnuts or afternoon tea with the head.

Other initiatives at the school, which was judged to be “good” by Ofsted last year, include “five positive calls home”. Teachers nominate five children for things they have done, such as “going above and beyond”, coming into school during a difficult time, or doing well in their writing, and Mr Bryant phones their parents and carers to tell them. He also invites groups of pupils to have hot chocolate and a biscuit before they go home on Friday afternoons.

Mr Bryant and the Arthur Bugler team have put just as much effort into enhancing staff wellbeing and reducing teachers’ workload. For instance, staff are allowed time off to go to their own children’s school performances at Christmas.

“I’m not one of those people who moans about things,” said Mr Bryant. “I’m solution-focused and rather than moaning I say ‘what’s the solution?’ There’s so much negativity in the world, especially in education, and moaning is not going to change anything. Instead, we have focused on staff wellbeing – and it’s in the fabric of everything we do.

“We used to have a marking and feedback system which we thought was good but which was making staff work, work, work and was having no impact at all. We researched it and made a conscious effort to think about what we were doing and now we have cut back on marking and are doing more live feedback.”

Mr Bryant is convinced that instead of offering activities like yoga, school staff would rather have time to mark books or prepare for tomorrow’s lessons – “and then they can go home and be with their families”.

“If you’re asking staff to do something, give them the time to do it,” he said. “Don’t bother with yoga. The big thing that people want is time. My job as leader is to make the staff’s jobs as easy as possible. What can I do to help them do their jobs as effectively as possible?”

The school has set up a workload and wellbeing team. It is led by a teacher and its members include a higher level teaching assistant, learning support assistants, a midday assistant and Mr Bryant.

The team has a formal meeting every three or four weeks and led the school’s Staff Appreciation Week. Mr Bryant hopes it will become a national campaign and would like other schools to take it up too. The aim of the event, which had the backing of the National Education Union and UNISON, was to say a huge thank you to the teachers and support staff and show them how much they are appreciated.

As staff arrived on the Monday morning of Staff Appreciation Week the workload and wellbeing team and pupils gave everyone a goody bag packed with a mug, sweets, pen, torch and mental health pamphlets. Other events included raffles, baked potatoes for staff at lunchtime, a night out for all the staff and afternoon tea for the midday assistants. “The rest of the staff covered their duty for them,” said Mr Bryant. “It was good for people to understand the challenges they face in their role.”

Mr Bryant dislikes the term “senior leadership team” and has changed the traditional display of staff photographs in Reception, with the headteacher at the top and other staff below.

“It sends a message of a hierarchical structure and that the head’s the most important person,” he explained. “But different people are important at different times of the day and for different things. When it comes to lunchtime, for instance, I’m definitely not the most important person. Everyone works together here and sending that message is so important. Now our photographs are in alphabetical order.”

The head is acutely aware of the demands on teachers at parents’ evenings so he organises parents’ evening packs for them, with a bottle of water, tissues, a cake and mints. “Half the time it’s the thought that counts and it’s something to get them through the night,” he said.

Mr Bryant’s ideas, particularly the parents’ evening packs, have attracted interest from schools across the country: “I’m happy to share what we do because people share stuff with me,” he said. “If it helps to ensure children and staff in their schools benefit because of something we’ve done it makes me feel like I’m doing my job. It’s not just about my school. It’s about every single child in the country. We’re all doing the same job, with the same pressures of league tables, accountability and Ofsted inspections, and if I can help in any way I will.”

Tips from Arthur Bugler Primary for promoting wellbeing at your school

  • Relationships are key. Speak to staff and find out about the pressures and strains on them.
  • Once you understand your school, its context and the staff you are working with, look at the systems in place and the impact they are having – because some things may be having very little impact.
  • Embed a culture of wellbeing. The headteacher needs to be 100 per cent committed to this but if you have a group of staff who are on the same journey with you it can be led from within, rather than from the top.
  • Time is an issue for everyone, so if you are asking staff to do something give them the time to do it.

  • Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education writer who writes regular school case study articles for Headteacher Update. Read her previous pieces at

Further information & resources

National Happiness Awards 2019:

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