When Debbie Westwood became deputy head of Christ Church CE Primary School in Birmingham in 2009 parents rarely crossed the school threshold – and when they did it was usually because teachers wanted to discuss their children’s behaviour.
Fast forward nine years and Christ Church is a very different place. Ms Westwood was appointed as the school’s headteacher in 2014, and in November 2017 Ofsted judged the school to be outstanding in all areas. It was placed in the top two per cent of schools in England for the progress pupils make between key stage 1 and the end of key stage 2 and earlier this year it was shortlisted for the TES primary school of the year award.
Parents are hugely supportive and there is a constant dialogue between parents and teachers. The school opens its doors 15 minutes early every morning so children can complete “early morning work” with their parents and try their hand at brain teasers on the whiteboard. This has not only improved punctuality and attendance but has also had a positive impact on pupils’ learning.
Attendance at parents’ consultations is excellent and some parents have taken on volunteering roles at the one-form-entry school. A mother from Greece who volunteered to help later became a teaching assistant and is now a year 6 teacher. Her husband is the school’s building services manager and their son, who did not speak any English four years ago, was one of the school’s highest performing year 6 pupils last year.
Ms Westwood and deputy head Nick Whitehouse pride themselves on giving the school’s 234 pupils a range of opportunities. Christ Church is situated in Sparkbrook, one of the most deprived parts of Birmingham. Ninety per cent of the pupils are Asian-Muslim and the rest come from a range of ethnic groups, including Sikhs, Hindus, Romanians, Bosnians and Arab families. Twenty-eight per cent have free school meals, 28 per cent are entitled to Pupil Premium funding, and just over five per cent have SEN.
“The biggest thing for me is that it’s all about the people,” explained Ms Westwood. “It’s about getting to know the families and building relationships so they are behind us every step of the way when we tell them we are 100 per cent focused on making sure their children have an outstanding education.”
When Ofsted inspectors visited in 2017 they recognised the school’s focus on building community relationships and commented that this had had “a direct impact on improving outcomes for pupils and keeping them safe, both within and outside the school”.
In fact the school starts building relationships with families before their children arrive at Christ Church: “Because my families experience challenging circumstances one of the key things I decided to do when I joined the school was to do a home visit for every new child,” said Ms Westwood.
“Either myself or my deputy head visit, together with the teacher or teaching assistant of the class the child is going into. First of all it’s to see the living conditions of the child, which is sometimes a real shock. It puts into context how difficult it might be for the child to do their homework if they don’t have a desk to sit at or they’re sharing a bedroom with other people. It also means we can tailor the support to what the family needs – so we can signpost them for housing, for instance, or if mums are trying to get away from an abusive partner we can put them in touch with Women’s Aid.”
In addition, home visits are a good way of welcoming families into the school community and explaining its ethos and expectations.
“We are a church school and we serve a community that is basically not Christian,” Ms Westwood continued. “We explain that we do collective worship every morning but that we respect all faiths. We like to be open and transparent about everything we’re about. Sometimes families have left their country in terrible circumstances and we want to make them feel comfortable when they come to us. They are welcomed with open arms.”
Ms Westwood often tells parents her own story. She was born in Sparkbrook to Irish immigrant parents and was the first person in her family to go to university. “It really grounds me with them,” she said. “They like the fact that I’m very honest about my own background and they understand that I don’t want these children to feel deprived in any way.”
Similarly, she tells the Christ Church staff about her journey into teaching and headship. She worked as a teaching assistant for 10 years and, encouraged by her teaching colleagues, went to university at the age of 29 to read English. She then returned to the school where she’d been a teaching assistant to join its graduate teacher programme.
“Whatever stage you’re at and wherever you are in the school you’re always learning,” she said. “We have a real culture within this school of learning for everybody. I’m passionate about the teaching assistants being part of the team and we involve the lunchtime supervisors in everything we do. I put a lot of trust and faith in everyone professionally.”
Ms Westwood and her team work hard to give pupils as many opportunities as possible. The school has taken part in projects with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, Primary Proms (where primary school children get the opportunity to experience live music in major concert halls across the UK), and the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). The project with the RSC culminated in 20 pupils from Christ Church acting in a professional production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.
“We paid for coaches for the parents to go because they wouldn’t be able to afford it,” said Ms Westwood. “We sat in the audience and it was phenomenal. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of.
“Anything that’s free I snap up straightaway. I’m very aware that outside school a lot of my children won’t get to do things like this. I’m trying to broaden their horizons with loads of enriching experiences. It’s making sure we offer as much as possible to them.”
Ms Westwood and her deputy have also introduced a creative approach to teaching and learning, giving the teaching staff responsibility and trusting them as professionals. For example, when the school introduced cursive script a year ago teachers took a whole-school approach.
“We decided we would really go for it,” said Ms Westwood. “The difference it has made to the way the children present their work, the content of their work and the expectations of the staff has been incredible. We used Letter-join and it was on the whiteboards for the children to see. All displays were in cursive script and we wrote letters to parents in cursive.”
Another focus has been on the staff’s work/life balance: “As a senior leadership team we have worked really hard on staff wellbeing. We were concerned that if we are on this journey as a school we don’t want it to be so relentless that people can’t cope.”
Initiatives include reducing the volume of marking, giving instant verbal feedback in lessons (which has made “the biggest difference to the progress children make in a lesson”) and getting staff to review the effectiveness of each other’s feedback and examine each other’s books.
The school does not use supply teachers either. Teaching assistants prefer to cover lessons themselves rather than show supply teachers what to do. They attend all the school’s CPD sessions and help with marking, making such an impact that Ofsted inspectors remarked on their “exceptional contribution to pupils’ learning”.
Ms Westwood also recognises that staff have long working days and she avoids emailing them in the evenings and at weekends.
“If it’s something urgent I’ll send a text but it’s very important that we don’t let work take over to the point where people don’t have a family life,” she said. “I think that once you’ve done your working day you’re done.”
Ofsted inspection tips from Christ Church
- Know your data and be prepared to defend it.
- Know your SEF (self-evaluation form). You have an hour to discuss it but you can’t read it like a script.
- Know your school and sell it.
- Be ready to explain any dips in data.
- Children’s work in books is vital, especially as lesson observations are only short bursts.
- Choose readers wisely – and have good talkers.
- Remember that behaviour for learning and the learning atmosphere is constantly referred to in the feedback.
- Don’t try to hide anything – and be brave.
- Tell everyone involved what is happening, including your cleaners and cooks. We told our children our inspectors’ names so they would address them politely around school. We held a special assembly the day before and told them we were excited about showing our visitors our outstanding school.
- Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education journalist.