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6th November 2015 at 00:00
In the first of a new series sharing the secrets of outstanding practice, we reveal how a former FE leader and his team transformed a troubled primary

When someone connected to the Department for Education tells you the school you’ve just taken charge of had the worst inspection report they’d ever read, you would be forgiven a moment of serious reflection on whether you really wanted the job of turning it around. But that thought never crossed the mind of David Williams, headteacher of City Academy Whitehawk in Brighton.

“I was asked to change things and I was committed to doing that,” he says. “I never had regrets, even when one of the parents shared their belief that I was ‘destroying’ the school in quite colourful terms.”

That parent should be pleased that Williams stuck around. In just two years, the school has gone from one of the worst in the UK to receiving a “good” rating from Ofsted.

The Whitehawk school had underperformed for many years – there were serious problems before it was placed in special measures in 2011 – but no amount of government money or intervention had made an impact. So how was it turned around?

The background

Under its previous name, Whitehawk Primary, the school closed in the summer of 2013. A few months later, in September, it was reborn as an academy sponsored by City College Brighton and Hove.

In the two years before its closure, four headteachers came and went, and staff turnover was 60 per cent. Attendance levels were poor and uniform rules largely ignored. Attainment was extremely low and behaviour was, in Williams’ words, “appalling”.

“It was constant disruption and often at very serious levels of aggression and violence,” he says. “Teachers could not teach in that environment.”

353

students

55 members of staff

50% of students are eligible for free school meals

70% of students are eligible for the pupil premium

4

headteachers in 2011-13

60% staff turnover in 2011-13

79%

of pupils felt safe at school in 2013

96%

of pupils felt safe at school in 2014

39%

of students reached level 4 in reading and writing in 2013

77%

of students reached level 4 in reading and writing in 2015

The headteacher

After 20 years as a secondary school PE teacher and eight years on the leadership team at City College Brighton and Hove, David Williams (pictured, right) was asked to become Whitehawk’s headteacher in 2013.

“When the college became the sponsor, they asked whether I would be interested in taking charge at the school,” Williams says. “It did appeal – I like a challenge. After six weeks of thinking it through, I took the plunge.”

But is a further education leadership style applicable to primary schools? Williams shrugs. “Leadership is leadership, whatever the context,” he says. “The only real difference is that here the students are a lot smaller.”

Staff buy-in

“The sense that everyone could and should make a contribution to changing the culture of the school was crucial to our success,” Williams says. “There was a constant referral to ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘together’, and that reinforced this message.”

Staff were empowered to take ownership of tasks and given responsibility for coming up with ideas, he adds. It was a collaborative effort, not a one-man turnaround mission.

Addressing behaviour

“It’s been a mix of carrot and stick,” Williams says.

On the one hand, the school has set out core values and a clear behaviour policy, including strictly enforced rules for uniform. When pupils don’t comply, sanctions are implemented consistently and fairly with support from the very top. “It’s simple but effective,” Williams explains.

On the other hand, good behaviour is rewarded. Each class has a “rocket” chart on which the students’ behaviour is recorded. Every half-term, the school rewards the children who behave well with a trip. Good behaviour also leads to privileges, such as taking class iPads home.

In addition, a full-time welfare manager concentrates on safeguarding, parental engagement and attendance. “We’re looking at the reasons for the behaviour, as well as the behaviour itself,” Williams says.

The approach has paid dividends: attendance is at a record high of 94 per cent and fixed-term exclusions are down 87.5 per cent. “Serious behaviour incidents” are down 24 per cent and senior leadership call-outs to classrooms are down 67 per cent.

Addressing learning

Teaching

Williams has invested heavily in CPD. Lessons are recorded using IRIS software and reviewed on video; external training is bought in where necessary; and all staff are instructed in collecting and using data effectively.

Since iPads were introduced for every pupil two years ago, for example, all staff get training once a week on how best to use the technology in the classroom.

As for pedagogy, Williams encourages creativity and is keen for staff to take risks. “I want teachers to think outside the box and feel in charge of what they are teaching, and to be unafraid to try things,” he says.

Parental engagement

This was top of Williams’ list of priorities and he has tackled the issue in a number of ways. First, pupils’ rewards are dependent on parents attending meetings at the school. This ensures that children encourage their parents to turn up.

Second, parents would previously wander around the school during the day, using the playground as a social area. Now fences, gates and monitoring by senior leadership at the start and end of the day ensure that parental concerns are met but the school “remains a place of learning”.

Williams has worked to demystify the school, too. Converting a classroom into a soft-play area open to the public has had the effect of bringing in parents of toddlers, so that they begin to buy into the school’s values and ethos. It also takes away the fear that school can invoke in some parents.

Standards

Williams wears a tie every day. He checks every display board so that they are uniformly well-presented. And the school is spotless. “This has to be somewhere children are proud of, as it has a big impact on aspiration and engagement,” he says. A constantly updated website is part of that, too.

Partners

In FE, partner work is essential and Williams has brought that attitude to Whitehawk. Current projects include collaborations with the office of the Duke of York, Brighton Marina, educational charity the Fonthill Foundation, Apple, the University of Sussex and Sussex County Cricket Club, to name only a few.

“It is not just about financial input and resources but providing experiences to these students so they can see that there is more to their world than the Whitehawk estate,” Williams says.

Looking forward

The turnaround has been swift and successful. Now, 77 per cent of children achieve level 4 in reading and writing compared with 39 per cent in 2013. The proportion of students making expected progress between key stages 1 and 2 is 86 per cent for reading, 94 per cent for writing and 90 per cent for maths. In June, City Academy Whitehawk was judged “good” in every area by Ofsted.

But Williams is not resting on his laurels. “We want that outstanding [rating],” he insists. “We have come such a long way, but we are only two years in. We are still trying to overcome enormously challenging circumstances. We are making exceptional progress but there is more we can do.”

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