Turning around a failing school

Being parachuted into a school that’s in trouble is never an easy task, but it is a role where, if you get it right, you can help bring about substantive change.

My own experience of this was in 2011, when I was appointed as headteacher at Severn View Primary. It was initially on a short-term basis after working for the National Strategies school improvement and change management programme. The school was in special measures at the time and was suffering difficulties that will be familiar to many principals up and down the country: challenging SATs results, high staff turnover and disappointing Ofsted reports. The school converted to sponsored academy status with Academies Enterprise Trust (AET) in September 2012, when I took over as the full-time headteacher.

Many of the challenges faced at the school were cultural. Dedicated teachers had lost touch with the passion and enthusiasm that drew them into the profession in the first place and, as a result, they were failing to challenge themselves and their pupils.

In circumstances like this, merely reorganising the curriculum and asking teachers to improve their teaching is not enough; it was clear that the problems went much deeper and needed a more wholescale answer.

Together, we developed a programme built upon John Hattie’s research on visible learning and Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets, and drew on evidence from schools around the world using an “enquiry-based” approach to teaching. We were keen to draw upon children’s natural imagination and position them as the directors of their own learning.

First, we had to re-evaluate the teachers’ relationship with education: what made them want to be primary school teachers? Why were they still teaching? These were difficult questions. But posing them was essential if we wanted to develop a positive direction of travel for Severn View.

Before you can improve outcomes, you need to improve the input; in this case the input was the teachers themselves. I saw myself as somewhat of a provocateur at this stage, posing questions that challenged the teachers and their attitudes towards education as a whole.

This process occurred alongside our laying of foundations for our own national curriculum-aligned, enquiry-based approach. We presented children with broad topics and asked them to identify what they already knew about it, what it was that intrigued them and what they particularly wanted to learn more about.

As an example, older students learning about the human body wanted to find out how many internal organs you could remove before you died. We decided to help them find out by inviting in nurses to talk about internal organs and answer their questions on the topic. This sparked their intellectual appetite and made them want to further investigate their questions about anatomy. It’s an approach that offers children the opportunity to set their own learning path in a way not usually experienced until undergraduate or even postgraduate study.

The approach also has the added benefit of cultivating pupils’ imaginations. Imagination is the key building block needed for primary learning; children are unable to write creatively or paint if they lack the experiences and vocabulary to draw upon. The enquiry-based approach encourages the inclusion of field trips into the curriculum to allow pupils to cultivate their imaginations and become more thoughtful and inquisitive students.

Since adopting this approach, academic outcomes at Severn View Academy have improved greatly. This year, 92 per cent of pupils achieved level 4 or above in reading, writing and maths, while 100 per cent made at least two levels of progress in every subject. However, the improvements go beyond test results; enquiry-based learning has altered the culture at the school. Teachers have challenged their own preconceived notions about what makes a good learner and they now trust the pupils to follow their own path. As a result, lessons have become more rewarding for all involved.

You cannot move a school out of special measures overnight; there is no golden answer to unlock improvement. However, I would encourage all schools in similar circumstances to ours in 2011 to step out of their comfort zone, challenge their thoughts about teaching and find new ways to unlock their students’ imagination and intellectual curiosity.

Claire Wirth is principal of Severn View Academy in Gloucestershire

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