It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it, according to American investor Warren Buffett. When a school’s reputation is damaged, it can bring a lack of trust from parents, and difficulties around attracting staff and students.
This was the situation at Regents Park Community Primary School, a three-form primary in inner-city Birmingham, when I took over as headteacher in the summer of 2014. The school had hit the headlines the previous summer for the wrong reasons. Maladministration of key stage 2 tests had led to the suspension and eventual resignation of the previous head and deputy.
Just months later, in early 2014, the school was named in the infamous – now debunked – “Trojan Horse plot” letter [which alleged that a conspiracy was underway to take over Birmingham schools and run them according to strict Islamic principles]. Then Ofsted removed our “outstanding” grading, stating that the school required improvement in all areas.
The staffing crisis began straightaway. Over the following two years, about a third of the teachers left. Jobs were advertised, but didn’t attract much interest; a quick Google search was all it took to reveal that the school was going through turmoil.
But in the summer of 2016, we hit on the solution: what if we could fix our recruitment crisis by taking experienced teachers out of the classroom and giving them the task of nurturing and developing new teachers? Growing our own, if you like.
So how did we do it? And more importantly, did it work?
For the 2016 school year, even though our budgets were shrinking and we were expecting a follow-up visit from Ofsted in the autumn term, we decided to overstaff and take two of our experienced teachers out of the classroom to become what we called New to Teaching (N2T) leaders.
We advertised internally and selected two teachers who had an interest in developing new staff and who had previous experience of mentoring newly qualified teachers (NQTs). Then we filled the gaps by appointing members of staff who were new to the profession. The school had always supported trainee teachers, taking on students from local teacher-training colleges on placement, and we were able to encourage some of those teachers to apply. Having already worked with us as trainees, they knew that there was more to our school than a Google search suggested.
Trust in your team
In September 2016, across the school, we had six NQTs, plus four teachers in their first year of teaching after the NQT period, and a number of trainee teachers from Teach First and School Direct. All these staff were collectively known as N2Ts.
The role of the N2T leaders was to work alongside these new teachers, helping them to grow into confident, well-supported practitioners. To allow the leaders to do this in the most effective way possible, we gave them complete flexibility and control over their timetables. This was a new way of working, so it took a little time to establish, but I put my trust in the leaders and let them work together to organise things themselves.
Some of their support was weekly and involved going into class to work alongside the N2Ts, modelling or team-teaching. Other support involved meeting with N2Ts outside of class in supervision sessions, guiding them through planning or offering support based on specific targets.
Over time, support was targeted according to need – some N2Ts didn’t require as much assistance, while others were struggling with a particular aspect of their practice. The timetable flexibility meant that the N2T leaders were able to target their efforts where they were most needed.
It wasn’t smooth sailing all the way by any means. N2T leaders took a little while to adjust to working in a needs-based way, rather than with a class of their own, according to a rigid timetable.
It also took time to establish strong working relationships between the N2Ts and leaders. At first, some of the N2Ts weren’t always sure who to turn to – the leaders, mentors or year-group colleagues? And the N2T leaders needed guidance in coaching, rather than telling new teachers what to do. However, over time, these issues were ironed out through discussion, and the roles and responsibilities eventually became clearer for all.
But what about the outcomes? By the time Ofsted returned in late November 2016, we were confident that the quality of teaching and learning had improved, but it was still a nervous time. We weren’t sure how the inspectors would feel about the large group of inexperienced staff working in the school.
I was pleased, then, when the inspectors’ final report gave us a “good” rating and recognised the positive impact that the N2T model was having.
All six of our NQTs successfully completed their induction year and five of them are still with us at Regents Park, developing into highly competent and effective post-NQTs.
Earlier this year, we also became the first school in Birmingham to receive the Early Career Development Quality Mark, which is awarded by charity Services for Education and evaluates how schools work with new teachers.
Crucially, since September 2017, we have had far fewer vacancies. I no longer check for the teacher-resignation dates, worrying about a slew of letters appearing in my pigeonhole.
Alan Beale is the headteacher of Regents Park Community Primary School in Birmingham