From devastation to satisfaction in just four terms

3rd April 2009 at 01:00

When Ysgol Dyffryn Trannon, a bilingual dual stream school in Mid-Wales, was placed in special measures, teachers were devastated. It was June 2007 and for some time the school had been plagued with long-term absences, including that of the head. The future did not look good.

At the time, I was acting head of nearby Llanidloes Community Primary School, but two weeks before the end of term the local authority asked me to be advisory head at Ysgol Dyffryn Trannon - to lead it out of special measures and on to better things.

I had a mammoth task ahead. When I took over in September 2007, a new deputy head had also been appointed. What took place then were long meetings with the governing body, as a result of which I drew up an action plan. This got the OK from Estyn. But how do you begin to turn around a school that has hit rock bottom?

My immediate concern was to prioritise the school's needs and boost its recovery without placing extra burdens on staff and pupils. But staffing problems were endemic. There was a redundancy at the Christmas, which did little to foster unity within the school. On top of this, a staff member who had been on long-term sick leave became incapacitated once again and was off work indefinitely. I had to fill the post through word of mouth with a newly qualified teacher as I didn't have time to place an advert, but this worked out well. Then there was also a retirement. All of this ate up time.

Meanwhile, Estyn continued with its termly two-day inspections. This was stressful for the staff as they were put under the microscope, but it was informative. Each time the inspectors visited, positive improvements were reported.

The local authority also put together a package of measures to support us in our endeavours. Essentially, the governing body had to become more proactive, and many meetings were held with the aim of bringing the school back on track.

Of course, throughout all this, there were still the children to teach. It is very often forgotten that they are an important part of the recovery process. We introduced many new measures - a new behaviour policy, a "playground buddy" system, financial investment in playground games equipment, the strengthening of the school council, improved after school clubs - and the children responded well.

One of the key areas where improvement was needed was self-evaluation. I developed a robust system, but there was also room for flexibility within the new curriculum.

We redefined our medium and short-term planning documents, we evaluated our assessment system, we developed a computer-based pupil tracking system and deployed a curriculum co-ordinator. We embedded effective monitoring throughout the school, both by senior management teams and co-ordinators and by peers. We re-evaluated our data alongside standard measures and matched the outcomes against Estyn's seven key inspection questions.

Quickly, we went from being a failing school to one that was functioning well.

Our fourth Estyn inspection in December 2008 proved to be the defining moment. The inspectors' verdict was that Ysgol Dyffryn Trannon had made good progress and, as a result, they removed us from special measures. It was truly a day to celebrate. What a turnaround.

The inspectors said there had been significant improvements in standards, with listening skills described as outstanding. There had also been significant progress in the wider key skills of working together and working independently. In addition, outstanding progress had been made in improving the behaviour of a significant minority of pupils, and expectations at the school were now high.

I must admit, I was just as pleased to read the comments made about myself and the senior management team: "The school has gained significantly from very effective leadership and management. The head established a clear agenda for improvement and has cultivated a very strong sense of teamwork characterised by shared purpose and direction. Leadership is the main factor behind the substantial progress the school has made."

How often are we heads and teachers praised for the good work we do? It was gratifying to receive these comments and incredibly uplifting for the whole school.

What a result. In four terms, we had gone from being a failing school to a vastly improved one with lifted spirits and high expectations.

So, what of the future? There's still a lot of work to do, but we are on the right path and optimistic.

A new head starts in September 2010 and I will ride off into the sunset - to retirement - with the satisfaction of a job well done, knowing with absolute certainty that it really is possible to turn around even the most struggling school.

Nigel Jones, Advisory head of Ysgol Dyffryn Trannon in Trefeglwys, Powys.

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