How we've taken our school from ‘special measures’ to ‘truly special’

Helena Brothwell

Helena Brothwell had been employed within the Education Directorate at DALP for two years when she was given the opportunity to help lead a re-brokered academy in special measures. This is her second year as principal of Queen Elizabeth's Academy, following seven years of leadership in schools facing challenging circumstances.

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I’m starting 2017/18 after my first year as principal at a school in challenging circumstances, which has been in and out of special measures for several Ofsted cycles. We all know what a school like this looks like on paper, but I hadn’t considered the damage that this does to the core fabric of a school. The climate at Queen Elizabeth's Academy was broken and needed urgent attention.

Neil Holmes, our executive principal, is an inspiration to me. He saw the potential within the place, was able to “I have seen schools successfully use Unicef’s Rights Respecting Schools to create a change in practice.”pick out quick wins that would show the staff that we were here to stay and to help, and he shouldered much of the burden of the finances and the strategy for moving us forward.

I am very proud of what we have achieved in the first year; with huge support from our MAT we fixed broken systems, addressed staffing issues and invested time creating our vision, which is now well embedded into everything we do. However, I knew that this would be a critical year in the academy’s future success, and so we needed to instigate an impetus for large-scale change.

Instigating an impetus for change – fixing a broken climate.

When people are downtrodden and lacking in confidence, creating a common goal is difficult, but vital. Impetus for change can be anything which makes the school feel different, something which everyone can understand and has clear advantage. I have seen schools successfully use Unicef’s Rights Respecting Schools to create a change in practice and to align philosophy, to create an impetus for change. Others have changed the school day, changed the uniform, imposed a ‘Mocksted’ inspection. We have introduced a knowledge-based curriculum.

When it comes to choosing the right instrument for change, it is good enough to trust your instincts. You know your students, you know your staff and you know what the school needs – that’s why you’re there. We know that introducing a new teaching pedagogy will make every lesson feel different enough to improve aspiration for every person in the building. We know that it will go a long way towards filling in gaps in knowledge that students have, following years of poor leadership and management. We know that it will bring the staff together with a common goal, and the practice is different enough to level the playing field for staff regardless of their experience; it will unite us all together.

Being explicit about your philosophy – ‘The QEA Way’.

We also have been aware of a need to be explicit about the philosophy of the academy. Recruiting the right staff who align with your philosophy is so important, and retaining the best staff within the building is critical to success, so you need to be clear about what you hold dear. Evidence suggests that staff value the climate and philosophy of a school far above any other factor, such as career progression or salary. We have shown staff our commitment to wellbeing and to their professional development, and this year we have built on that. To do so, we have developed a ‘This is how we do it’ document which explains how staff should speak to one another, how they should operate in each other’s classrooms and whilst on duty, and how to support their teams. When writing this, I took great inspiration from the book When the Adults Change, Everything Changes by Paul Dix. Here is an excerpt of Queen Elizabeth's Academy’s ‘The QEA Way’:

It matters less what we do, more that we all do it. For example, if Teacher A doesn’t follow the entry/exit protocols with their class, then the next teacher will seem unreasonable. This undermining of our core principles is not to be under-estimated and will damage the culture that we are trying to create, therefore it must be challenged.

The booklet goes through various scenarios and explains how we do things at QEA. This is unapologetically direct, as it removes any grey areas for people and takes time to explain the reasons behind these fixed priorities. We take for granted that people will have some kind of agreed notion of what ‘good manners’ are for example. We try and train our students to have good manners, therefore we need to all agree what that looks like.

We started the year with an exciting buzz around our new teaching approach and curriculum plan. Staff have worked extremely hard responding to the new knowledge-based curriculum, planning knowledge organisers “We have a school-wide agreement as to how we do things.”for every unit and preparing their lessons in the ‘I do, we do, you do’ format. They believe in this method, and they feel that it values them as professionals. We also have, as staff, a school-wide agreement as to how we do things. This means that it is clear what we feel is important, and this gives us the language to challenge if things are not done in the agreed way. Above all else, I believe that we have put staff at the front of the agenda, acknowledging that it will only ever be the teachers who write the script for the school. Leaders, support staff, parents, governors and students are vital, of course, but teachers determine success in my opinion. You put the right teachers in the right classrooms, with the right support and an agreed goal, and you are well on your way to success.

I cannot wait to see how this year goes, or for the staff and students to experience and rise to the change that we all want. I think that it will be revolutionary for us, and I am very proud of our team.

How do you unite your staff? Let us know below.

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