School improvement: A 13-month turnaround

Written by: HTU | Published:

Mayflower Primary School has gone from special measures to outstanding in just 13 months. Emma Lee Potter finds out how.

It is a remarkable achievement by any standards. In September 2012, Ofsted placed Mayflower Primary School in Dovercourt, Essex, in special measures after concluding that it was “failing to give its pupils an acceptable standard of education”. 

But 13 months later, when the school was re-inspected, Mayflower Primary had been transformed beyond recognition. In October 2013 the school was judged to be outstanding in every category and taken out of special measures.

Led by new headteacher Tony Coppin, who came out of retirement to get the school back on track, the teaching was described as “inspirational”, the pupils’ behaviour and attitudes to learning “exemplary” and the approach to developing teaching skills “excellent”. 

The inspectors highlighted the fact that the 300 pupils loved coming to school and said that most of them were either reaching the standards expected nationally for English and maths or were exceeding them.

The Ofsted report said: “The headteacher is an outstanding leader. He demonstrates exceptionally high expectations for the school and has inspired staff and pupils alike to achieve their full potential. In one year he has turned a failing school into an exciting and vibrant place where learning is valued by everyone.”

“We are very proud,” said Mr Coppin, 64, who was lying on a beach in Portugal when the local authority rang in September 2012 and asked him to become interim head at Mayflower Primary. 

He had been headteacher of Alton Park Junior School in Clacton-on-Sea before retiring and more recently had assisted at Cann Hall Primary School, also in Clacton-on-Sea, for two terms.

“I had realised that I missed being a head,” he said. “It is a big part of how I see myself and I have always felt that it gives me a role that is worth doing. When you retire you start thinking ‘what am I for?’”

Mr Coppin, who began his career as a youth leader and then trained as a primary teacher, jumped at the local authority’s offer. 

When he arrived at Mayflower Primary, however, he was dismayed to find that it was “just about the most depressed school” he had ever come across. 

“There was depression, anxiety, stress and professional self-doubt,” he recalled. “Good teachers were doubting that they could teach at all.”

But instead of being fazed by the challenge ahead of him Mr Coppin rolled up his sleeves. An optimistic person by nature, he soon realised that despite the Mayflower team’s loss of confidence most of the teachers had plenty of expertise, experience and professionalism.

“The first job was to talk,” he said. “We all had to get together – teachers, teaching assistants, office staff, everybody – and clear the air. I made it quite clear that there would be no tolerance of gossip. 

“A dozen people came into my office in tears during the first two weeks to talk about what had happened before and I had to say ‘I am not interested’.

“A school is a place of work and I wanted to get the message across that the main thing the school needed was firm leadership. I knew what good teaching looked like and it was simply a question of getting the teachers’ confidence back, pointing the school in the right direction, and making sure that everybody realised that it was a joint thing. One person couldn’t do it on their own.”

Mr Coppin was adamant that the key place in the school was the classroom. 

“Teaching is the most important thing that goes in a school,” he said. “You can take every decision by asking ‘how does that improve the learning?’”

With that in mind he outlined what he wanted to see every time he walked into a class – not simply good behaviour and attitudes from the children, but teachers encouraging independent learning, using accurate assessment and planning exciting, engaging lessons that focused on improving pupils’ achievement.

Rather than shutting himself away in his office he insisted on being highly visible within the school. He stood outside the school gate every morning and encouraged every child to say a polite “good morning” to him. 

He carried a pad of sticky notes so that he could jot down parents’ concerns. “But the parents never deserted the school,” he said. “There was no mass exodus.”

He visited all the classrooms each day and made sure that the staff engaged with both the local authority and the HMI inspector assigned to the school. “In a situation likes ours it’s no good moaning about how unfair it is,” he said. “We showed that we were positive and we soon found that everybody looked forward to coming here because we engaged with them and we listened.”

He also made it clear to the teaching staff that he trusted them. “Our model of self-improvement wasn’t to send teachers off on expensive courses,” he said. “The improvement came from within the school. Once you are satisfied that your staff are competent it’s important to trust them.”

Other strategies included promoting and empowering the school’s middle leadership (“then it grows from the middle”), appointing teachers as phase leaders for key stage 1 and key stage 2, focusing on marking and feedback (all work is marked within 24 hours) and making maximum use of the available data. Instead of summoning teachers to lots of meetings he limited them to an hour-long staff meeting a week: “Teachers are too busy for endless meetings,” he said. 

Mr Coppin also made a point of getting all the governors onside and making sure that they were prepared to work hard and get involved. When Mr Coppin and his team drew up the school’s action plan they highlighted 10 areas of teaching and learning and allocated an area to each governor.

“It’s important to take ownership of the action plan,” he said. “It should mirror the key recommendations from Ofsted and it must be shared and contributed to by as many people as possible.”

But even after the school’s glowing Ofsted inspection, the Mayflower team is determined not to rest on its laurels.

“When we heard the news we had a meeting and asked ‘what’s next?’” said Mr Coppin, who was appointed as permanent headteacher in July 2013. “Everyone has had a terrific boost but we are determined not to let it slip. “There’s no doubt that the school is a different place now. The staff are very positive and keen to show other schools what we have done and how we have done it. As for me, I am keener than ever. I really look forward to coming to work.”

The Mayflower approach to school improvement

Tony Coppin and his team have developed a model of rapid school improvement that will be helpful to others facing a similar predicament. Here are their top 10 tips: 

  1. Talk and clear the air. All staff need a chance to talk, in a non-judgemental atmosphere and as soon as possible after the inspection.

  2. Bring the school together. Make it clear that there will be zero-tolerance of gossip, cliques and whispering. All staff, including teaching assistants and office staff, should be invited to at least part of all staff meetings.

  3. Engage with the local authority and your HMI. Do this as soon as possible.

  4. Get the parents and governors onside. As a head, you should be at the gate, meeting and greeting pupils and parents every day and insisting on a polite “good morning” from the children. Tell the governors what is required and how the school is going to get there. 

  5. Ownership of – and knowledge of – the action plan. This should mirror the key recommendations from Ofsted and must be shared and contributed to by as many people as possible. Assign a governor to take specific responsibility for each key point.

  6. Focus on the classroom. The classroom is the most important place in the school. Make sure that each teacher knows exactly what is expected of them – in the form of a list of “non-negotiables”, such as accurate assessment, promoting independent learning, use of teaching assistants, annotated planning and high-quality training, where necessary.

  7. If you’re going to spend time on one thing above all it should be marking and feedback. That way the teacher knows how the child is doing and the child knows what they’ve got to do to improve. High expectations – of teachers and children alike – are crucial.

  8. Promote and empower the middle leaders. That way your improvement is organic and sustainable. Trust them.

  9. Whole-school distribution and ownership of data. Trends, groups, expected and more than expected progress, FSM, SEN, gender, ethnic – phase leaders should produce an analytical data story every term.

  10. As far as possible, find the skills for school improvement within the school itself. Sending teachers on expensive courses is of dubious benefit. The average primary school has well over 100 years of teaching experience. Use it. Also use high-quality coaching and mentoring.

  • Emma Lee Potter is a freelance education writer.

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