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Leadership that overcomes discord and creates united efforts towards excellence

School improvement
Patrick Ferguson, principal of Hope Academy, St Helens, reflects on some of the factors behind the remarkable turnaround of an academy comprising two failing schools, which had been suffering drastic senior staff turnover levels and major disaffection among staff and students

Hope is about leadership

I think that there are a number of key attributes which characterise a good leader. Leadership requires humility, and it is very important to listen to what others are saying, as this gives one the opportunity to tap into collective wisdom. It is often helpful in making decisions to get a variety of perspectives, and a leader should be prepared to change his/her mind. But it is important that a leader has the last word in any decision. If it is possible, I always find it helpful to sleep on decisions.

It is important to demonstrate competence, and to be a credible leader from the outset. However, all leaders make mistakes, and one must accept that this is going to happen. What is crucial is to learn from mistakes, as how one responds to adversity is a strong element in improving leadership. Be flexible, but be strong.

It is crucial for others to believe in a leader’s honesty and fairness, even when they disagree with his/her decisions. In this regard, emotional intelligence is another key attribute in leadership. I have also found that it is essential to resolve conflict as quickly as possible.

One of the enduring influences on me throughout my career has been my father, who always counselled honesty and decency in all aspects of life and work. I have met many individuals whose attributes and practices I have incorporated into my leadership style to improve my practice. One of my strong formative experiences was my MSc in leadership, focusing on researching teamwork. I believe that this formal training significantly accelerated my development as a leader.

Two schools thrown together with little thought about the culture

Both the predecessor schools to Hope Academy, which I took over as principal in December 2014, were deemed to be requiring improvement, and results were falling, as were pupil numbers. Results in the (larger) faith school seemed good, but it had been identified by Ofsted as a ‘coasting’ school. Some feel that there was a sense of denial about this, and many staff at the faith school vigorously opposed the transition to a two-school academy.

For some time before academisation the two schools were federated, with the head of the faith school becoming executive head. The two schools were very different, however. The faith school had larger numbers, a ‘better’ perceived catchment area, a smarter building and a strong ethos and culture. The community school was smaller, had no sixth form, many ‘naughty’ children and a very dilapidated building. They sometimes felt like the ‘poor relations’.

The staff at the community school initially welcomed the opportunities an academy would bring. Those at the faith school felt even more opposed to change when their head applied for the post of principal of Hope Academy, and was unsuccessful. She later declined the post of vice-principal.

Many who had not been cynical beforehand felt less enthusiastic when the competitive interviews were staged as late as the July before the academy opened. There was a perceived lack of communication between the new leaders and the staff. Many thought that the jobs had already been decided, mostly to the detriment of the community school. This led to suspicion and hostility in some quarters, and bringing staff together was just as challenging as bringing pupils together. Some staff who did not want the challenge of change began to seek alternatives, and some became long-term absentees.

It is interesting that the number of staff remaining at the academy from the smaller school far exceeds the number from the larger school, especially in more senior positions.

Staff disillusioned and multiple changes of headteacher

Hope Academy opened in 2011 with a newly-appointed principal who did not come from either of the two predecessor schools. After successive disappointing Ofsted inspections, the academy was put into special measures in February 2014 and the principal and chair of governors resigned.

A new principal was appointed in May 2014, but was unable to start before January 2015. Two vice-principals were also appointed. None of these three appointments took up their positions, all withdrawing by October 2014. Hope Academy was being led by a retired principal from the Anglican Diocesan Education Service, who was focused on stopping the gap and healing wounds until a permanent appointment could be made.

Two new vice-principals were appointed to begin in April 2015, and I was appointed as principal in December 2014. One of the two vice-principals chose not to continue in post. This paved the way for the current team to be appointed in the summer of 2015, and they have been together since then.

Staff members were dispirited and demoralised; not only had their academy been branded as inadequate, but multiple potential leaders had apparently abandoned their posts. The high level of discontent was reflected in staff absence rates, especially long-term absence. This particularly affected the science faculty.

The academy was fully staffed; in fact it was overstaffed due to the TUPE transfers from predecessor schools and three years of falling pupil numbers. However, many of these staff did not want to be at Hope Academy and had not been seen by the then leadership team as part of any renaissance. The consequences of this were a downward trend in attainment, increasing pupil absence and deterioration in standards of behaviour. The Weltschmerz (melancholy, anxiety) of many of the teachers was rubbing off on the pupils.

People-focused approach has brought the staff together

After my appointment there were a number of issues to address in the first weeks. I spoke to staff, pupils and parents, and was careful not to talk about what was wrong with Hope Academy, but to focus on what was positive. It was also an early imperative to identify a potential leadership team.

I thought it crucial for staff to revisit the core values of the academy, and so I brought in corporate culture experts Sycol, through whose consultancy the staff took ownership of a new set of core values, vision and mission statement. I also extended the ambit of an existing training programme for teaching and learning.

I brought in on a part-time basis two people whom I had previously worked with, one to advise with financial issues and one to help with planning and documentation. This led to the introduction of budget-planning software (HCSS) and the production of a rigorous development plan which would be used to drive improvement and remove the academy from special measures. I used governors’ meetings to realign the academy.

The next steps in the first term were to introduce the Frog data platform to facilitate teaching and learning, and to ensure that professional development and performance management were closely linked to teaching and learning. Data management systems and the target-setting process were strengthened to enhance teaching and learning.

Before the end of the first term, it was crucial to carry out an analysis of staffing structure and staffing needs, and to rationalise the staffing in line with the projected budget. There were a number of staff on long-term absence, and it was desirable that they be allowed to leave with dignity by means of voluntary redundancy. The timing of this was important, as the professional associations needed to be given the statutory period of notice so that the changes could be in place in September 2015.

The academy’s curriculum was redesigned to promote a growth mindset approach, and the collective leadership decision was to move to mixed ability classes.

Responding to change

The leadership team in general responded well to these changes, and their growth as leaders was visible. They wanted to be involved, showed flexibility, and were open to new ideas and to learning about leadership. Above all, they showed a strong work ethic. However, two individuals who felt unhappy in their roles moved on from the academy.

Staff not affected by the restructuring process responded positively to what was happening, and took charge of their roles in the improvement process. By the end of my second term we were ready to face the scrutiny of HMI, with growing confidence in the quality of education at Hope Academy. That inspection resulted in a judgement of ‘good’.

Restructuring the SLT

In some respects the leadership team had been restructured before I took up the post in January 2015. Two vice-principals had been appointed to start in April 2015, though one of these was seconded to us for two days per week from January. I identified two assistant principals who had the necessary vision, flexibility and diligence to move the academy forward, and gave them clearly defined roles within the leadership team. When one of the vice-principals decided not to continue at the academy, these assistant principals were promoted, giving the leadership team three vice-principals, each with key responsibilities.

We now have a dynamic leadership team, and a change in culture within the academy. Results, attendance and behaviour have all improved greatly, pupils are satisfied with the education they receive, and staff work purposefully and feel part of the success. Relationships with our local primary schools are excellent, and the academy roll is rising. We now have a new website, and a new academy uniform which we sell from a shop within the academy. The leadership team is proactive and energetic in continuing to improve our key outcomes. [The academy was shortlisted for Educate Awards’ ‘Most Inspirational school’ in November 2016; the award was won by Winstanley College.]

Persuading governors to keep the sixth form

An example of how opinions and beliefs can be changed by persuasion based on a challenging but realistic ambition for the academy is the fate of its sixth form.

A previously-appointed principal who did not actually take up the post was nevertheless doing preparatory work for the academy between May and October 2014. His response to his budget analysis, as I understand it, was that the sixth form was being subsidised by the rest of the academy, and that given the problems facing the academy, focus needed to be on years 7-11. Ofsted had also identified the sixth form as an area of weakness. He therefore wanted to discontinue the sixth form provision. He conveyed these views to the governing body, who were eager to back his judgement.

My view was that we should hold on to our sixth form regardless of cost, as sixth forms give pupils something to aspire to, and we should remain committed to an 11-18 offer within the community. I felt that we would not grow the academy by surrendering sixth form provision.

The governing body accepted this, and no governors were lost as a result of this decision. The sixth form is growing, and results have improved. It will be a long-term project to have an outstanding sixth form, but this is our aim, and the development is being closely monitored by one of our vice-principals.

The main challenges now

The main challenge is to become an outstanding school. This incorporates sustaining our improvements in attainment, attendance and behaviour. It requires attracting and recruiting staff of the highest calibre, while retaining and developing those staff who have the skills to push us higher.

We need to continue to increase pupil numbers until we are fully subscribed.

To become an outstanding school also requires an outward-looking approach, networking with a range of other schools and academies so that we can learn from others, and also help others to improve. We must continue to offer an engaging and diverse curriculum to our pupils, and strive to maintain and extend our improvements at KS5. Prospective future funding changes are another challenge that has to be addressed.

Having previously led a school to ‘outstanding’ status, for me it would be a major milestone to take a second institution to an outstanding category. I know that my leadership team will work with an energy bordering on zeal to move Hope Academy towards this standard, and I am confident that they will carry colleagues with them.

Patrick will be responding to Key Question 1, “What does school improvement mean for our schools?” at this year’s School Improvement Day in Manchester on June 26.

Book your place soon to ensure your attendance at a day full of possibility in reshaping education and school environment.

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