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Getting rid of staff isn’t the answer

New leaders of underperforming schools can feel under pressure to change personnel, but headteacher Simon Smith says his experience proves that this approach is misguided

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New leaders of underperforming schools can feel under pressure to change personnel, but headteacher Simon Smith says his experience proves that this approach is misguided

On the day I had my first look at the school I would later come to lead, it had just received its second “requires improvement” judgement from Ofsted. The head had retired and left a leadership vacuum that the deputy at that point was bravely trying to fill. Staff morale was low.

Then, just after I started, we received a review visit from the local authority, which slammed the school.

Clearly, there were significant problems. As the new head, it was my job to find a way to fix them.

The common narrative for turning around a school in these circumstances almost always involves staff leaving. Changing trajectory, goes the thinking, requires a new head to freshen up the team; it involves a root and branch purge of the dead wood.

The common narrative for turning around a school involves staff leaving. I don’t buy into that

I don’t buy into that. Three years later our school is rated “good” by Ofsted and the only member of staff who has left is the deputy head who retired after 38 years of incredible service. Our experience proves, I hope, that heads who rush to blame staff when schools suffer are very wrong to do so. Here’s how we did it.

Let’s be clear: the school has many challenges. It is the “wrong” side of town. It serves a complex community with numerous challenges, including deprivation. The town itself is cut off – surrounded by moors, and the nearest city is more than 20 miles away. But when I saw the advert for a headteacher – a step up from my then role as deputy head – I saw an opportunity that I couldn’t resist.

Of course, staff were initially protective of their school. The previous head had been promoted from within so had carried on the long-held traditions of the school. I was an outsider.

Starting the job in April was a godsend. If it had been September, I would have perhaps been expected to introduce instant changes for the year ahead. Instead, I used my first few months to get to know the school: how rare an opportunity – and how useful – that was.

Gain your teachers’ trust

I spent a lot of time wandering into classrooms, listening and watching. I got to know staff, parents and pupils. This exploration of the school meant I developed a clear picture of where we were and an idea of the key challenges and priorities. It meant staff knew that any decision I made came from a place of knowledge about the school’s circumstances.

The chief issue was behaviour. It was challenging and this was impacting on the wellbeing of staff and pupils alike. A new behaviour policy was devised and quickly embedded. Patterns of behaviour were analysed and minor but high-impact changes were made: we restructured lunchtimes, for example, so all year groups were not on break together. Meanwhile, I made sure I was visible in school, and visibly supporting behaviour. I also spoke to parents and we put the onus on them helping us to get it right.

The impact in class was almost instant: teachers were able to teach and behaviour improved. The previous behaviour issues were not the fault of staff, as many a “turnaround head” may assume – it was purely down to the systems.

Just as important as behaviour support was teaching support

Just as important as behaviour support was teaching support. Confidence was low. To move forward, we had to be honest about where we were, what we were good at and also where we struggled. This took time. I got in classes, I planned with people, we tackled issues together, head-on. It was a process of incremental improvement. And it was a partnership, not a series of top-down changes. Professionals had to feel trusted and valued at whatever stage in their career – and they had to be backed up with the right training to move them forward. Again, the impact was phenomenal.

The approach in both these areas was continued with everything we did across the school. We tweaked and changed numerous aspects and the overriding emphasis was that we did it all together – we identified the problems together and we found solutions together. Trust in staff was the overriding thing. We didn’t play a blame game.

From my experience, I would say almost all staff have the potential to be good. The question is how do we give them that chance when the stakes are so high? My advice to any head going into a school that is struggling is simple: the teachers are the vital ingredients in your school. Getting them to believe in themselves after a series of knocks is the real challenge. When I stopped worrying and started trusting the people who could have the most impact, and they trusted me, that was when we really made progress. The answer really is simple: “Let the teachers teach.”

Simon Smith is headteacher at East Whitby Academy

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