The fall and rise of Grazebrook

The press had a field day when the primary attended by the children of Ed Balls, then education secretary, was placed in special measures. Its climb to outstanding status received less attention. Helen Ward meets the head whose risk-taking paid off

Helen Ward

It is mid-morning and the staffroom at Grazebrook Primary School in Hackney, East London, is empty. A shiny kitchen urn bubbles quietly on the worktop, a replacement for the tired old kettle that teachers once used.

Michelle Thomas, headteacher since September 2009, deplores inefficiency. When her staff need tea, they get tea, no faffing. "There was one little kettle in here - that went," says Thomas (pictured above).

Grazebrook is a 440-pupil primary school in Stoke Newington, the arty, pound;500,000-for-a-small-house part of Hackney. Inspectors say that the school is outstanding, it is oversubscribed and has been scrubbed as clean as the Year 1 son of a particularly proud mother.

But four years ago, the school was shamed by a particularly unwelcome spotlight. "Inspectors have damned it and the headteacher has quit: What IS going on at Grazebrook Primary School?" demanded the Daily Mail.

That year, Ofsted had designated 375 schools for intervention - but Grazebrook was the only one that the tabloids focused on. The then education secretary, Ed Balls, sent his children there, as The Daily Telegraph, Daily Mirror, The Independent and Daily Mail pointed out.

That urn steaming away in the staffroom was bought with the most unwanted cash windfall in education - special measures money. And in the turbulence that followed, the kettle wasn't the only thing to leave the building: teachers, parents and children went, some voluntarily, some less so. Headteacher Carron Adams-Ofori left, and a new headteacher, Alex Tate, and executive principal, Sian Davies, were appointed on an interim basis.

Jim Jacobs' eldest daughter, Rosie, had been in the school just six months when it went into special measures. "It was pretty horrendous," he says. "Staff were leaving left, right and centre. Kids would have three or four teachers in the space of a year. The original head, Carron, suddenly disappeared one day, and then there were protests outside the school gates, as she had been popular in the community.

"A lot of middle-class families took their children out of school and went somewhere else."

But Jacobs, who writes music for television, took a strategic view. "We thought it was a short-sighted thing to do, to take your kids out just when it was about to benefit from having major support."

Ed Balls, now shadow chancellor, and his wife Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, also kept their three children at Grazebrook (one has since left for secondary). The couple repeatedly refused to make any comment on their schooling, despite the Daily Mail insisting that as schools secretary Balls faced "acute embarrassment because standards at the primary his children attend have plummeted so fast that it is failing to provide acceptable education".

Ofsted visited three times in the 18 months after that verdict of special measures in March 2008. In October 2008, the inspectorate noted that children had become "restless and disengaged from learning when teaching is dull".

Another six months on, and things were beginning to change. "Pupils recognise the school's increased focus on learning and talk readily about improvements in the school, for example the introduction of a uniform and improvements to school lunches." And after another three months, pupils were "friendly, confident, articulate and speak happily about the recent improvements".

Racial tensions

Then, in September 2009, Thomas was appointed. Despite the progress that had been made in some areas, she had three months to do her thing before the inspectors returned. When they did, they decided the school was good, but mentioned that while there was a strong cohesive community within the school, cohesion in the wider community "is at an early stage".

Grazebrook Primary has the kind of pastoral name that belies its urban reality - not that Stoke Newington isn't nice. Stokey, as it's known locally, is a rather middle-class area of London with lots of green space, independent shops and restaurants, a farmers' market and its own literary festival.

It is the kind of laid-back bohemian area that is home to some very successful people. But zoom in to Lordship Road and the picture becomes more complex. The housing immediately around Grazebrook Primary is predominantly purpose-built flats, and the proportion of children claiming free school meals is 26 per cent. This area may be slightly posh for Hackney, where free school meals are eaten by more than one in three children, but the school's FSM ratio is still notably higher than the national average.

The Daily Mail never did get to the bottom of its question "What IS going on at Grazebrook?" It reported that former head Adams-Ofori was popular with parents. In 2003, she had been praised by Ofsted for her clear vision and determined leadership and for the remarkable improvements in the school since 2001. She won the Teacher of the Year award at the GG2 Ethnic Minority Awards in 2006.

When she resigned, citing personal reasons, the Daily Mail reported that a bedsheet was taped to the school fence with the words "Unlawfully gagged by white middle-class parents. Her inspiration will burn in our children's hearts". The banner was quickly removed, but had raised the issue of race and class tensions within the school.

But there had been outward signs that not all was well. In 2003, 63 per cent of children left Grazebrook with the expected level in reading; by 2006, this was down to 58 per cent - although standards nationally had risen from 75 per cent to 79 per cent in this time.

By March 2008, the Ofsted report not only said that the quality of education was inadequate, particularly in maths and science, but highlighted unsafe climbing bars, dirty, poorly stored play equipment in the nursery and reception classes and a lack of communication with parents.

A bumpy ride

Caroline Millar has five daughters. Her eldest child started at Grazebrook in 2000 and her youngest is in nursery. "We chose the school for our children because it seemed very friendly and relaxed," she says.

Two years later she became a parent governor and set up a parent council, but over the next four years she became dissatisfied with how the school was run and left the governing body. But she did not leave the school. "My middle child had a series of poor teachers and I was just about to pull her out, but Ofsted came and things picked up for her," she says. "Others didn't realise how bad it was until they read the Ofsted report, then they panicked and pulled their kids out. But the overriding sense was that parents really wanted to support the school."

The effect on numbers took a while to filter through. While children in Year 6 in March 2008 stayed and 56 took the Sats test that year, only 51 children were in Year 6 in 2009 and 53 in 2010. Last year, numbers had recovered to 55.

"In 2008, the Learning Trust (the body then in charge of Hackney's education) came in, all guns blazing," says Millar. "It then sent in a crack team and upset quite a lot of people. It was very fast and it was a bumpy ride. A lot of the upset was because people liked the relaxed atmosphere. They disliked the introduction of a uniform. Children had been used to calling teachers by their first names; now, that was not allowed."

Into the fallout stepped Thomas, an Australian with one previous headship at an inner-city primary that she had taken from being in the Ofsted category of serious weaknesses to outstanding.

"I had driven past Grazebrook every day on my way to work, and it intrigued me," she says. "I had been at St Andrew's, a primary near London's King's Cross, for six years and there was not much more I could do there.

"When I came to Grazebrook to have a look, I walked around and my jaw just dropped. There were obvious things. The heart of the school had fallen apart. It didn't look like a working environment; it was untidy. There was no love, no purpose.

"As I walked around, something ignited in me. I thought, `absolutely not, this school should not be like this'. I knew it would make me or finish me. I talked to people about it and they said it was a poisoned chalice - high-powered parents and a history of underperformance. I was warned: if you can't turn it around, your career will be finished."

Thomas wears a smart blue dress and black heels. She has impeccable make- up and groomed, shoulder-length hair. She has a pristine office with a meeting table that currently has a large array of biscuits on offer for visitors. When two boys pass her open door they spot the teetering pile of biscuits and become temporarily distracted from returning to class. She smiles at them, but in such a way that they realise they will definitely not be getting a snack.

Parents have described her style as "corporate", and certainly boundaries have been set - not just with children but with parents. "People were very worried it was all about results," says Thomas. "They were worried I would take the philosophy of the school away."

There were parents who wanted to ensure that their children were working creatively, who had time for the arts, but Thomas felt that the school's style had swung too far in that direction. "It wasn't really creativity with a purpose," she says. "Attainment had fallen apart. Having children unable to read or write to national standards is a big problem. School is not about turning up and having a casual approach to learning. One of the challenges in this school was confronting the mindset of parents."

She introduced the thematic international primary curriculum (IPC), which she had used at St Andrew's; a new literacy programme called Success for All, which was developed in the US; and ability grouping across different year groups for literacy. Marking includes a system of self-assessment, with teachers not only writing comments in pupils' books but asking pupils to reflect on their work and add their own comment or answer further questions. In every class, children's maths books are orange, English books are blue and IPC books are green.

And what to one person is stifling uniformity is to another simply the stability needed to enable children to learn. "I have parents who say there is no art in school," says Thomas. "`Really?' I say. I take them on learning walks. They used to think that if they couldn't see a child sloshing paint on paper there was no art. But I show them sculpture, dance and drama, and they say they can see it, but I have to keep selling it. We can't have that really wild, just let it all go and be madly creative approach because what is the outcome? Nothing."

Earlier this year, Ofsted arrived again and this time the school moved up a grade to outstanding. "For good leaders, how to move out of special measures is a fairly recognisable task," Thomas says. "But the difference between good and outstanding is hard to put a finger on. I think it's something to do with the atmosphere, when you walk around the school and children are excited, really engaged and talk to you."

When the outstanding report was published, a party was thrown for the pupils at the school. A big party. A fairground-style party in the playground with a bouncy castle, candy floss stalls and crazy golf.

And the press reaction? Well, the verdict was reported in the Hackney Gazette. But somewhere there are two senior politicians who will have noted that they were right to stick with the school.

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Helen Ward

Helen Ward

Helen Ward is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @teshelen

Latest stories