From special measures to School of the Year [interview]

Malcolm Drakes

Malcolm Drakes is a national leader of education and the executive headteacher of The Learning Federation. Situated in Harold Hill, Romford, this two school federation serves 1,300 pupils in one of Havering's most deprived areas. Malcolm joined Broadford Primary in 2011 when it was in Special Measures. By 2014 it was graded Outstanding. Broadford & Mead federated in 2016. Prior to this headship, Malcolm worked in two other Havering schools, and spent four years overseas teaching in a British School in Saudi Arabia.

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Images courtesy of interviewee. Images courtesy of interviewee.

When a school wins twice at one of the world’s biggest education awards ceremonies, the sector takes notice. Here, we sit down with Malcolm Drakes, executive headteacher of The Learning Federation, to see how Broadford Primary School has developed since its 2017 victory.

Last year, Broadford Primary School won the TES Primary School of the Year and Overall School of the Year (in a rare unanimous choice). What were the key factors in your incredible double-win?

We strive to do all we can to make every day an amazing day. A key factor is the incredible buy-in we have, from the whole staff team, to our vision that we do not accept a child's background to be a limiting factor in what they can achieve. This vision underpins all that we do. We want pupils to feel excited about what is going to happen at school, that if they stayed at home they'd miss something special.

This sparkle factor takes a range of forms... For one, we have a high visibility of staff on the gate in the morning to welcome pupils “Just be better tomorrow than you were today, one step, 1% at a time.”and families into school with a warm, cheery hello (and possibly a hug or two), and a chance to have a chat before the day even starts. We have created richly-resourced environments, so that pupils are genuinely free to investigate their own ideas and apply their learning and interests independently. We also love to use exciting trips and visits to bring aspects of the curriculum to life - especially those aspects that our children will not have experienced before: Chinese dragon dances, meet the author days, getting to use a real pottery wheel.

Our curriculum is also specifically designed to inspire pupils to choose careers they may not have thought of, and begin to develop a real understanding of why further education will be so important. The Broadford University runs for 12 weeks each year, and offers all pupils from Y2 to Y6 the chance to learn a degree course of their choosing. These inspirational opportunities are occurring every day, ensuring that there is always a real buzz around the school for staff and pupils.

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You helped Broadford Primary go from special measures to outstanding in two years. What advice would you give to schools looking who want to up their game?

1. Start small, but think big. We began by focusing on getting phonics and literacy right. Without the ability to read, pupils will never achieve. Once we had got this vital skill being taught confidently, we could focus on other aspects of the curriculum.​
2. Invest in high-quality CPD. Making sure that you follow rule #1, don't overload staff with too many new ideas at once. Keep ‘the main thing’ the main thing. Make sure that CPD is part of a rigorous cycle of training, observing, reflection, tweaking and re-training. Often schools are guilty of too many 'fire and forget' days, and not backing up implementation with a proper monitoring and evaluation cycle.
3. Say thank you. We try to ensure that we notice the small and the big things that staff do everyday. So much of what we achieve has been based on the extra mile that they have gone and the sacrifices that they are prepared to make. From 'Whale Done' postcards, to kind words in the corridor, to subsidised Christmas parties and cakes on a Friday... you can never say “thank you” or “well done” enough.
4. Be relentless. The standard you walk past is the standard that you accept. High standards of presentation, behaviour, environment... we are all responsible for ensuring that we never ignore something that doesn't match our standards.
5. Build a culture where everyone realises the need to continuously improve. We are only interested in being the best we can... which means that we have to relentlessly review every aspect of what we do. It isn't overwhelming - just be better tomorrow than you were today, one step, 1% at a time. Over the course of a year, that means we are all progressing at a steady, incremental rate. If you aren't improving you are declining; there is no such thing as standing still.

One of the school's visions is "No pupil's educational success should be limited by their socio-economic background". Tell us more about this attitude, and what the staff do to make it a reality.

​We have a very high percentage of pupils who come from very deprived backgrounds. Staff have seen how this is manifested in a wide range of ways: poor parental experiences with education, lack of certainty about housing and food, chaotic family and home arrangements. We ensure that all staff are very aware of these additional challenges from the moment they read the adverts or come to visit. This ensures that everyone who joins us is committed to improving outcomes for Havering's most disadvantaged.

We are very open and honest with our teams about the challenging circumstances faced by our pupils and how they need to seek to understand before they try to be understood. Pupils who have just witnessed domestic violence, been evicted, been taken into emergency foster care or not been fed will not be ready to learn at 8.55am. We have to mix high expectations with compassion and understanding the motivators for our pupils.

Our staff are also regularly briefed on how this inequality is reflected in local, national and international contexts, emphasising the “Through social media we have changed the perception of our school.” continued importance of what they do. However, what staff have also seen and experienced is that, if they are 'desirable and predictable' in their approach, our pupils can flourish. This 'can do' attitude and relentlessness of high expectations means that the school that was in the bottom 10% of all schools nationally has been ranked in the top 1% for progress from KS1 to KS2 for the last five years.

The @BroadfordSchool Twitter account is tremendously active. How do you go about championing learning achievement and community engagement through social media?

Our vision is to place the community at the heart of what we do. It isn't practical to have the community physically in school with us everyday, but through social media we can ensure that parents get a much fuller understanding of what happens at Broadford. Our social media feed allows us to:

  • ​​Celebrate pupil's achievements both from in school and beyond.
  • Inform parents about key events from school plays and visits to parents' evening.
  • Signpost parents to local services and support: housing, health, community events and parenting support.
  • Open up events to parents where they might not be able to attend or normally be included. Facebook Live and our YouTube channel have had huge success if allowing parents to really see what is happening in school.

At the start in 2011 there had been so many negative stories about our school that few parents placed it as their #1 preference. However, a constant newsfeed of great events, proud children and happy parents have meant that we have changed the perception of our school. People who have never even visited our school know so much about what we stand for and what we do.

As executive headteacher at Broadford, how do you go about reducing teacher workload?

​1. Google’s G Suite for Education - this amazing cloud-based system has enabled our teachers to plan collaboratively. Up to 50 people can contribute to the same document at the same time. This has allowed more effective sharing of resources, reduced task duplication, and has cut down planning time.
2. Team PPA - we ensure that all teachers in a team are released at the same time, in both of the schools. This gives them meaningful time to plan together. Their PPA is also delivered in one complete amount, which means they can achieve much more than if it were delivered in smaller chunks.
3. Marking Policy - we aim for just three principles. Pupils should know what they have done well (and why), know what they need to do better (and how) and be able to show visible impact. This can be done through key word marking or verbal feedback. We encourage marking to be done at the point of learning - we don't want to see teachers taking home huge piles of books, as it isn't good for them and it doesn't have the required impact on the pupils.
4. Fewer staff meetings - we meet when we need to, and no more. When we do meet the sessions are broken up into smaller groups so that staff are getting something useful from the session. Often, the sessions are used for the teams from both schools to get together and plan. This meaningful time cuts down on workload, and allows them to do their job within normal working hours.
5. Corporate approaches to parents' evening - we use bespoke printed resources to support the teachers in their conversations with parents. This reduces what they have to prepare and ensures that parents get a consistent high quality experience.

What do you hope to achieve in the next year?

The Strategic School Improvement Fund (SSIF) project! We were chosen by the DfE in Round 2 to deliver a £331,000 project that will improve outcomes for disadvantaged pupils in EYFS. Our aim in the next year is to reach 1,500 EYFS pupils and contribute to improving their early language acquisition.

Then there’s the Teaching School development - we were accredited in October 2016. This year we really expect the CLPD part of our offer to take off. It will give us the opportunity to work with teachers and leaders across Havering and beyond, growing capacity in the school system.

At our Mead school, we are looking forward to establishing a new ARP for autistic pupils and readying ourselves for an expansion to 4FE. At Broadford, we are seeing the completion of our £5 million new building, which will allow us to complete our 3FE expansion​.

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