When leading her outstanding school and taking on another in special measures became increasingly challenging, national leader of education Bridget Harris made changes.
Remodelling her senior leadership team at St Thomas More Catholic Primary, a teaching school in Colchester, Essex, Bridget put in place systems so that standards would not slip in her absence, and experienced teachers would have the opportunity to develop their leadership skills.
“We have always done a bit of school-to-school support, then, in 2014, we became part of a multi-academy trust and sponsored a school in special measures, which involved a lot of work,” she explains.
The four team members, all outstanding teachers, took on additional areas of responsibility. Deputy head and AMiE member Elizabeth Hayes was assigned day-to-day running of the school, with support from Leona Saker and Natalie Banthorpe. Leona was handed responsibility for assessments, pupil monitoring and monitoring the school development plan and Natalie, who has been helping 11 schools across Essex with phonics, took on trainees, NQTs, ITT applications and mentoring. Both were promoted to assistant head. “Natalie and Leona were already acting up as assistant heads when I wasn’t there and it wasn’t fair on Liz not to have the back up,” says Bridget.
Being the head or the deputy head can be a very isolating experience. It really isn’t here. Whatever we do, we talk about as a team.
Year 5 teacher Dave Peck stepped up to provide another layer of leadership as the senior teacher in the school. He develops the curriculum, recent achievement being the Silver QM for Science and is brilliant at nurturing colleagues to get the very best from them. That was back in September 2015. Two years on, what began as a short-term project to build leadership capacity has proved so successful it has been put in place permanently.
In June, the team’s leadership was recognised when they won the Outstanding School Team of the Year category of the National Teaching Awards.
Two judges, a primary headteacher and a secondary deputy, visited the school for three hours and spoke to the head boy and girl, all the staff and four trainees. They also received testimonials from parents.
Meeting the team, the key to its success is clear. The relationships between the five are characterised by mutual support, trust and confidence. It helps that four of them– Dave joined in 2009 as a trainee – have worked together for over a decade.
“We kind of know when each other needs support,” says Bridget, who has led the school for 15 years. “I had a bad day recently and I got a phone message from Dave ‘Sausage sandwiches, in your room, 8 o’clock tomorrow morning,’” she smiles. “Being the head or the deputy head can be a very isolating experience. It really isn’t here. Whatever we do, we talk about as a team.”
Expectations are higher now. Schools are thought of in different ways and the community expects so much more from a school.
Elizabeth, who has been at the school for 35 years and deputy for the last 19, agrees: “I feel I can second guess Bridget because we’ve worked together for so long. Right from the start she developed me as her deputy. I know – and hopefully it doesn’t happen very often – that if I’ve made a bad decision Bridget will back me up and we will put it right together. That gives you more confidence to make a decision in the first place because you know you’re not on your own.”
Ideas and solutions to potential problems are shared at team meetings, often informal gatherings in Bridget’s office that take place several times a day.
“There are so many pressures on schools now,” she says. “Expectations are higher now. Schools are thought of in different ways and the community expects so much more from a school. Gone are the days when children come to school and were just educated. We are like mini social work centres, mini hospitals, mini parenting centres. We do everything now. Sometimes you really have to sort a lot of issues out before you can get to the teaching.”
“But having the team makes the job enjoyable and exciting,” she adds. “We work really well together and that filters through the school. It goes down to the next level in the school and the next.”
There are murmurs of agreement.
Leona, who has taught Year 6 for 15 years, says: “We take risks to be creative and get the best for the children.”
Nodding, Natalie, who has responsibility for trainees (all of this year’s assessed as outstanding) and NQTs, says: “Our trainees will do anything for the school and for the children. And if trainees or NQTs have an idea, we let them run with it. We try to nurture talent and bring it on.”
Our school is about having fun, being creative and doing your very best.
The recent bush craft afternoon suggested and delivered by an NQT, with help from Dave is an example of the freedom staff at all levels have to introduce their ideas and take risks. Pupils aged eight to 10 learned how to make different kinds of fires and made popcorn.
Dave explains: “We have a wildlife area where the children build dens and the night before the bush craft the team were in the pond pulling out reeds, which the children used to weave mats for their dens.”
“Our school is about having fun, being creative and doing your very best,” adds Bridget.
Eight performances are staged each year and the school promotes the arts and sport, which Bridget believes benefits pupils’ well-being and academic performance.
When the children sing, dance, paint, play an instrument, or compete in sport, it filters into the classroom. It makes them want to do their best there, too, and gives them confidence to attack anything.”
“It helps build resilience as well,” adds Leona. “They know it’s all right to make mistakes, to get things wrong and try again and again and again.”
I’ve heard of schools that insist on plans every week. We don’t insist on that here but we do insist on outstanding lessons. We trust the teachers.
Developing the whole child, rather than keeping a narrow focus on academic achievement, is a priority at the school, and Bridget is clear that changes are only made if the team thinks they will make a difference to the children. That also means thinking carefully about how teachers are spending their time and making sure they are not bogged down by unnecessary workload.
“If new initiatives come in we don’t say we have to do it, we think do we really need to and, if not, we say let’s not bother. If you keep changing things that increases workload because you have to get used to a new way of doing something. We carry on with the old way and then funnily enough it comes around again. We don’t move with the trends. We only move when we need to.”
“Absolutely,” nods Natalie. “We did change our handwriting policy. We went to letter join, which is a web-based scheme. Teachers can use it at home to prepare resources, which is a real benefit to them. We linked it with the spelling, to take pressures off teachers. They felt the weighting of spelling and handwriting had increased with the interim framework guidance. We looked at how we could fit this in the curriculum.”
Heads sometimes think it’s their job to do everything... that’s when it doesn’t work. It falls to pieces.
Teachers are trusted to plan and deliver lessons and plans aren’t inspected, adds Dave. “I’ve heard of schools that insist on plans every week. We don’t insist on that here but we do insist on outstanding lessons. We trust the teachers.”
A reluctance to delegate usually has unwanted consequences.
At another Essex school, in special measures, where Dave recently volunteered to improve pupil’ literacy there were no books for September because rather than allowing teachers to order them the head believed it was their job, says Dave.
Bridget reflects for a moment. “Heads sometimes think it’s their job to do everything, that they’re saving their staff time, but when leaders feel under pressure to keep the office door closed and keep everything to themselves that’s when it doesn’t work. It falls to pieces,” she says. “At schools in special measures there is often a lot of good practice, but the systems are missing. There are great teachers but sometimes a lack of leadership.”