Turnaround Schools - 'Hero to zero' and back again

6th May 2011 at 01:00
Shireland Collegiate Academy received an `outstanding' from Ofsted in 2006 and its leader was knighted. But within four years the school was in special measures. Here, principal Sir Mark Grundy continues our occasional series by reflecting on the tough climb that followed the fall from grace

In the summer of 2006, the inner-city school I have been privileged to lead since 1997 was rated outstanding by Ofsted. We had won praise from the then prime minister Tony Blair for our remarkable academic results, but getting the outstanding accolade was very special. That same year, I was knighted in recognition of my leadership of Shireland and our partner school, George Salter.

But around three-and-a-half years later, it was a different story. Ofsted said: "This academy requires special measures because it is failing to give its pupils an acceptable standard of education."

Everyone wants to know how that felt, and my response is that heads, at least, must have some idea. They live with their schools constantly present in heart and mind and are too experienced not to have a recurring sense of their vulnerability. There cannot be a single one who has not mentally rehearsed the feelings that must come with "special measures" - and many have experienced that reality.

There is a particular turn of the screw, though, in being labelled a failure (dress it up how you like, that is what it feels like) so soon after being praised and honoured.

For some commentators, schadenfreude kicked in straight away and the phrase "hero to zero" came painfully easily to lips and typing fingers. And because we had become an academy in 2007, between the two inspections, those opposed to the idea of academies were all too quick to use us as evidence for "I told you so".

To say that the months after the special measures verdict were not very pleasant is a huge understatement. I won't dwell on that, though, because the feelings were widely shared within our school family and I can't claim special ownership of them.

As school leader, I was in the best position to do something about what had happened. We didn't let the grass grow under our feet. Less than a year later, in December 2010, the inspectors came yet again. This time, we were not only out of special measures but were once again "outstanding". The headline now was "Hero to zero and back again".

After "How did it feel to be in special measures?", the next most common question is, "How did it happen?" That deserves a fuller explanation because what happened to us can happen to others.

The quick answer could be condensed into four words - "eye off the ball".

My position at Shireland Collegiate Academy in Smethwick, West Midlands, is executive principal, which means I have responsibility for two federated schools - Shireland and George Salter, the latter of which we took over as a failing school in danger of closure, in 2003.

The improvement in both schools (now academies) was and is remarkable. Each has its own leadership and management team, responsible for the day- to-day running of the school. George Salter has a principal who has been in post for seven years. There is stability there, and ability - proven over time - to get on with the job and drive steadily forward.

The equivalent role at Shireland is associate principal, and from 2007 to 2009 this position was much less settled. In 2007, Shireland's long- serving senior vice-principal became associate principal, with the task of leading Shireland in day-to-day matters after it became an academy. It was not an appointment she relished at that stage in her career, but she took it on out of loyalty and love for the school she had served for more than 35 years.

In the summer of 2009, with Shireland well established as an academy, she retired. We advertised for an experienced school leader and appointed an associate principal at Shireland that September. The problem was, during that whole time of transition, from 2007 up to the January 2010 inspection, I became detached from the day-to-day running of both academies. I was involved in the core role of the trust - supporting our senior teams and carrying out the statutory functions. I was also working to reduce our - and particularly my own - level of commitment to the many schools that were signed up to our Shireland Learning Gateway.

Not only that, but we had been pressured to expand the remit of the school-based company to honour our sponsorship pledge (it has now become increasingly clear that since sponsors rarely contribute financially, this was a rather naive strategy).

In short, it had become apparent to me that hosting 130 schools in a learning gateway and running two academies was not a clever position to be in.

It is worth emphasising, though, that my disengagement from the day-to-day running of the two academies was in line with my role as executive principal - so much so that when Ofsted arrived at Shireland in late January 2010, the lead inspector made it clear that, in effect, I didn't count. My role was not under scrutiny. The hot seat, as the head being "Ofsted-ed", was occupied by the Shireland associate principal, who had only been in post for one term.

At George Salter, with its stable and proven regime well embedded, it would not have mattered - in fact, it was inspected at precisely the same time as Shireland in January 2010 and was judged outstanding.

But at Shireland, the instability did matter and it showed in the inspection report. For whatever reasons - and it is inappropriate to pick over them here - the inspectors found leadership across the school and the overall quality of teaching to be inadequate. Some of the report was marked good. Bits of it, particularly around student welfare, care and safety were, perhaps surprisingly (though not to us) judged outstanding. Overall, though, we were Grade 4.

It was a huge wake-up call for me and the team. We would have to claw our way back, starting right away at the start of 2010. (Obviously, there was also some consternation and questioning of Ofsted because the report of the January inspection was not published until 4 June, more than five months later.)

Clearly, we could not wait for publication and I turned my attention to the support of the associate principal, the leadership team and the staff, working to build morale and address the specific concerns raised in the report.

By June, when the report was published, things were noticeably better. We had a monitoring visit on 21 June which flagged up high-quality observations in a number of areas, such as management of data, use of technology and middle leadership. All of this, of course, was less than two weeks after the publication of our "special measures" report.

That summer, the associate principal we had appointed the previous September decided to leave the academy and I took on very explicitly the day-to-day task of running Shireland. We spent the whole of the summer effectively rebuilding our school. We changed all sorts of things. For example, we extended the Year 7 competency-based curriculum across the whole of key stage 3.

Then, on 1 December, HMI returned for another inspection. The improvements were very clear. Classroom practice was stunning, attendance in Year 11 was up from 83 per cent to 95 per cent, exclusions were down to a record low, and predicted GCSE grades were the highest they had been in the history of the school. The use of ICT was a key driver in it all - the staff portal of the learning gateway was averaging 2,000 hits a day, seven days a week.

We knew we would be out of special measures. The question was, what would the overall judgment be this time? We had every reason to hope for good. If you look at raw attainment, neither of our two academies is outstanding. But if you look at the difference they make to young people, they are both outstanding. So, on balance, good seemed the most likely outcome. After all, what was the chance of moving from special measures to outstanding?

But the verdict was outstanding - and it was the first time a school had moved from special measures to outstanding within a year. Once again, the question was: "How did that happen?"

The December inspection was very different from its predecessor. There was the way the inspectors' observations supported what they were told or read in presentations. Everything they heard in meetings was illustrated in classrooms and every point made to them was backed up by someone else. The use of technology, too, attracted the inspectors' attention as a true and effective catalyst for improvement.

Most of all, though, the real key to progress during 2010 - and particularly during that autumn term - was the renewed vigour of the whole Shireland community. All I did was unleash everyone and do some orchestrating. The staff, students and families were amazing. The hours, passion and commitment they gave were exactly what you would want.

Thankfully, we had support from key people, particularly the hands-on expertise of Peter Johnson, our school improvement partner (SIP). The whole experience was a prime example of the value of this role and it is surely nonsense that outstanding schools are not going to have one.

I learnt that when it comes to Ofsted inspections, you live and die by the framework. We died by it just once and I know I won't let it happen again


- The role of executive principal in federated schools and academies is very cost effective, but there are potential problems. Sometimes it is difficult for the executive principal to intervene quickly if there is a problem somewhere in the organisation, particularly if responsibility has been delegated.

- Judgment of individual aspects of the Ofsted framework can easily slip down the scale. If enough of them slip, the decline in overall judgment can take the leadership team by surprise.

- Focus on the basics and hold people to account as simply as possible. Our lesson-planning bank on the learning gateway has had a hugely positive effect as it has allowed us to monitor and share. Technology makes a big difference.

- School improvement partners (SIPs) are invaluable as they are objective and will tell you the truth, even if you do not want to hear it.

- Be selfish for your school and do not be distracted. I focused on raising sponsorship and helping other schools and it worked to the detriment of this school. I will never do this again.

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