School improvement stories: Overcoming special measures through curriculum, quality of teaching and culture

Reading time: 4 minutes. Relevant event: SSAT School Improvement 2018

Adapted article from SSAT Journal 11, published March 2018

‘No badge yet’, but Simon Wade, principal, Beckfoot Upper Heaton School, delves into the staff and student contributions that give great cause for confidence in the school’s future

As I sat in the Alhambra theatre, Bradford, just before Christmas watching a group of our students from years 7, 8 and 9 performing Macbeth to a live audience, I was mesmerised and incredibly proud. I couldn’t help but think that our belief that anything is possible was being demonstrated to me by those children. Our school values of enjoy, learn, succeed shone from every one of them on the stage that night. It felt good to know that we were making a difference.

Our journey (we like to call it that) began officially in September 2015 when we opened as a converter academy as part of the Beckfoot Trust, a cluster of nine cross-phase Bradford schools. All of them are within a 20-minute drive of Beckfoot school, all genuinely comprehensive in character and keen to demonstrate that school collaborative practice can create exceptionally successful learning communities.

Beckfoot Upper Heaton, previously known as Belle Vue Boys School, had been in the depths of special measures when I arrived as principal, having been deputy head at Beckfoot School. It was awash with supply teachers and there was a distinct lack of trust across the staff given what they had been through in the preceding years. The school roll was falling dramatically and finances were a major concern. Other factors to note included students’ extremely low starting points, the absence of a Senco or bespoke SEND provision, high levels of deprivation, low self-esteem (staff and students), English as a second language for the majority and a crumbling site that was leaking in most areas every time it rained. Where to start?

As a trust we believe passionately in the power of leadership at all levels. So, the first and most obvious task was to restructure the leadership team. I worried about how the team I was inheriting would view me and adapt to the change. Looking back now I realise fortunate I was to begin work with a team that were so supportive and who all had a strong desire to be liberated to make a difference. We discussed what was expected of each of them, how they would be held to account and the importance of emotional intelligence. I wanted a group that understood their own roles and those of others in the team; no silos. I really wanted them to be more strategic in their work and for us to forge a unit that was impenetrable. As long as we were honest we would mature and grow in confidence.

I was fortunate to begin work with a staff team who were supportive and had a strong desire to be liberated to make a difference

Just over two years in and we all really get on, don’t take ourselves too seriously and remain resolute in our determination to make this a great school in this part of Bradford.

We prioritised three main areas:

  1. Behaviour, attendance and punctuality
  2. Teaching and learning
  3. Culture.

Placing the responsibility on students

Behaviour needed sorting and we began with the introduction of basic expectations that were clear, easy to follow and placed much of the responsibility for learning, progress and attitude on students. We facilitated a group of young people to write a strategy and spent a little money making their work come to life around the school. Within the first term, staff and students were telling us that things were different; staff could teach and students could learn.

What I had missed, though, was that this work really needed more of our own school’s stamp. So by the end of year one the students rewrote the strategy to better suit our school. We introduced tutoring and an assembly programme (I know!) and made a big issue of communicating with students, challenging them and instilling in them the importance to aim high and believe that anything is possible. At the same time, we created what we thought at the time was an absurdly aspirational school learning journey, based on at least five levels of progress (in old money) for all. Our students quickly embraced the challenge, knew and understood their targets and the importance of being supported via intervention when they were struggling. We are getting stronger all the time and our work on curriculum, quality of teaching and culture will help improve our attainment, I’m sure.

Our recent IDSR shows a school that is improving, and in the context of similar schools our vision and hard work is beginning to have impact. FFT Aspire is more positive still and, this year, our basic English and maths (4+) ranks us 11 in comparison to similar schools. Contextually it’s even better at 8, which is a positive I’m delighted to take given where we have come from.

Reviving neglected subjects

Of course teaching and learning was the number one priority but the school was littered with supply staff and there was little or no geography, MfL, music or PE happening. In science, three of the five staff were supply, and it was all a bit of a mess at the start. Again, we set out our expectations for staff, had a major recruitment drive, with the support of the trust, and by the end of year one we were fully staffed and the quality of teaching was getting stronger.

We worked tirelessly on the little things, like meeting and greeting students at the door, seating plans, using the registers to assess students’ attitude to learning. Staff understood their role in supporting students, supporting our ambition and making a difference to the lives of young people. We have a long way to go but our bespoke programmes such as Progress 9 and Take 10 are having a significant impact.

Culture is that thing that is often hard to measure. It’s the buzz, the feel, you sense around the building. It’s growing here and is being hugely supported by a few things. Firstly, the manner in which we try to communicate with students and especially how we talk to them; respect is critical. It’s about believing in them and allowing them as many opportunities as possible to experience new things and broaden their horizons. Our new building, which we have recently moved into, has also made a huge difference.

A culture of genuine student leadership

But culture also involves empowering students, in my view. We are big fans of genuine, not tokenistic, student leadership. We have a Beckfoot Upper Heaton Student Leadership (BUHSL) group, which is just entering its second year, and we take the election process very seriously. They have totally revamped our rewards strategy and are working on impact initiatives related to eco school status and healthy eating.

We believe that we are doing special things here and the school bears little or no resemblance to the place I started at over two years ago. We continue to work tirelessly on our curriculum; on how we use data to support every aspect of our work. Our three-year strategic vision (involving the whole school community), our SEF and our SIP are very simple documents understood by all. Staff share the desire to make this school great and know the role they must play on our journey to outstanding. I keep saying that while we are making a difference, the reality is that we have no ‘badge’ just yet. We’ll get there though, as long as we keep believing in our vision and our journey and we work hard!

UPDATE April 2018: Beckfoot Upper Heaton has been ‘transformed’ and is now good in all areas, according to Ofsted.

The original version of this article was first published in SSAT Journal 11. Members can access the digital back catalogue of the journals on the Exchange. If you have any queries about registering your login get in touch with your relationship manager by email:

SSAT School Improvement 2018 has been developed to address your key concerns in school. We have listened to member schools across the country to put together this unique one day event. Attend to help shape and define your school improvement plan. The event will take on 29 June 2018: Book your place today.

Read on the SSAT blog: 15 steps to transformation

Simon Wade, Principal, Beckfoot Upper Heaton School

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