School improvement stories: Rising above a carping inspection report

Reading time: 5 minutes. Relevant programme: SSAT School Improvement 2018

Adapted article from SSAT Journal 7, December 2016

How a West Midlands school progressed from special measures to ‘good’ in under two years – starting with a focus on teaching and learning, and behaviour

Ofsted inspected High Arcal School, Dudley, twice in less than two years. The contrast in the inspectorate’s findings make interesting reading.

In December 2013, their findings included:

  • Achievement, particularly in English, is inadequate.
  • Disabled, SEN and more-able students make inadequate progress.
  • The academy has not made effective use of the pupil premium.
  • Teaching is inadequate.
  • Teachers do not make sufficient demands on students.
  • Behaviour requires improvement.
  • Leaders have an overly generous view of the academy’s effectiveness.
  • Plans for improvement fail to focus on raising standards.
  • Leaders do not make good use of information to challenge… lack of progress.

Their conclusion? Special measures.

In November 2015, their findings included:

  • Rates of progress in all subjects, including English and maths, have improved significantly.
  • Gaps between the attainment of disadvantaged pupils and others in the school are closing in all year groups and all subjects.
  • The most-able disadvantaged pupils are making better progress than their peers.
  • Teaching is consistently good.
  • Teachers in all subjects use assessment information effectively…. As a result pupils make good progress.
  • The principal and senior leaders have effectively communicated a culture of high expectations.
  • They have established rigorous systems to monitor the quality of teaching and learning.
  • Middle leaders are effective… well-supported to take a key role in monitoring the quality of provision… to inform actions for further improvement.

Their conclusion? ‘This is a good school.’

What caused such dramatic changes in such a short time? A rigorous and accurate assessment in 2013 that told the school some home truths it was not previously aware of and which it then actioned, with striking results? Or a fair and accurate assessment in 2015 that reflected work the school had already been undertaking two years before, but which had been ignored in the earlier inspection?

Even if the first explanation were correct, it would be hard to image such a range of dramatic changes in such a short time. In fact, the principal and leadership team had already identified and were working to overcome some of the issues identified, though this was not recognised by the 2013 Ofsted team (who were all additional inspectors [AIs], which would not have been allowed later).

Follow-up communication from DfE did not help. The school was told they had no capacity to improve – ‘but we knew (before Ofsted arrived) there were things we needed to do,’ said Jo Manson who was principal at the time (she retired in April 2016). ‘We felt they were questioning our capacity and trying to push us into a multi-academy trust.’ New headteacher Jo Bull explained: ‘We have formed alliances with other schools, that has always been our policy – but on our own terms.’

They also knew they would have to restructure the senior leadership team, as the two deputy heads in 2013 were both about to leave the school, for different reasons. But some very good assistant heads had already been identified to appoint in the roles.

Getting over their immediate disappointment with the 2013 inspection outcome, Jo Bull added, ‘we just said, “right, let’s get on with it”.’

A lot happened in the ensuing two years, and the announcement of another Ofsted inspection in 2015 came almost as a relief. Indeed, as the principal explained, ‘the moment we met our allocated HMI we knew we were ok. When Mel (the lead inspector of the most recent team) came in, very early on she said, “you want to come out of this with “good”, don’t you.’ And at every termly visit, she said things like, ‘this is improving, but we’d like to see more of this.’ One of the additional inspectors during a monitoring visit said they couldn’t understand why this school was in special measures only two years before.’

Putting the whole episode into perspective, she added: ‘How Ofsted’s approach has changed is interesting. Perhaps partly because of Progress 8, it’s so much fairer. What they are looking for now is: is the school improving? Are children making more progress than before? They now look at all the positives that contribute to progress. Before, it was all about 5A-CEM.’

High Arcal’s intake: some facts

  • 55% boys, c90% of whom are white
  • 38% eligible for pupil premium
  • over 30% lower ability (Fischer Family Trust)
  • 22% SEN
  • 6% mental health issues
  • 20 looked-after children (LAC).

Because of the high levels of deprivation in the school community, this large 11-16 comprehensive is a Teach First partner school.

A closer team making best use of the data

Deputy head Dave Cook is responsible for teaching and learning, and for self-review. He oversees the assessment system, ensuring all three deputies liaise very closely together on curriculum and data.

For each performance measurement, they all have access to lists of who is to report, with what frequency, and who is in charge of resulting action. ‘How we all fit together – it’s a leadership and management issue,’ he said. The key point is unrelenting focus on data – about progress, attainment, and attitudes to learning. Teachers input data about all students’ current performances and anticipated outcomes, which is analysed for subject leaders by a knowledgeable data team overseen by the senior deputy.

Any concerns lead to intervention. Every 8-12 weeks, each teacher chooses five students who will benefit most from short interventions on specific aspects. It’s a self-review system, with Jo Bull attending all review meetings.

Every 8-12 weeks, each teacher chooses five students who will benefit most from short interventions on specific aspects

At 7.30 am and 3pm every day, subject teams run sessions for key intervention groups. All the information from these interventions is coordinated so the principal can access it at the touch of a button. ‘That’s the kind of school we’re in – you can’t ever take your eye off the ball,’ said Dave Cook.

A leadership manual incorporates all the Ofsted review points and those from the school’s own self-review. Each half term the whole leadership team follows a map of all the school’s CPD programmes. ‘We had already highlighted before Ofsted arrived that we needed to work on stretching the more able, and some aspects of learning and marking,’ he added.

Jo Bull commented: ‘Looking back, 2013 was awful, but it made us put everything under the microscope and ask, “is that really working?” Our middle leaders have been transformed. They no longer need to be spoonfed by us.’

Staff morale

One of the first things the leadership team looked at, along with teaching and learning, was staff morale. They conducted a survey of all staff’s opinions on student behaviour, and discovered ‘a build-up of issues that were not being dealt with, or not quickly enough,’ Jo Bull conceded. So they made wholesale changes to the communication system, to emphasise that all staff should feel the school was supporting them. Now the school has a red-amber-green system to categorise and respond to issues:

  • red requires immediate action from senior leaders
  • amber is the responsibility of middle leaders
  • green is the responsibility of the teacher.

They also published the school’s expectations of staff and students: 20 expectations of students, and 26 of staff. For example: students are met at the door of the classroom by their teacher, who checks their uniform and equipment and gives them a task to do on entry (TOE). ‘We made our expectations very clear on what High Arcal is all about, and how we want classrooms to be managed,’ Dave Cooke explained.

Behaviour, learning difficulties and mental health

Deputy head Sukhjot Dhami gave an example of the approach to behaviour problems. ‘Analysis of referrals may mean that a student is quickly moved to the personal learning centre (PLC), which we have set up for challenging and vulnerable students. It’s an internal package. Then, when appropriate, they are reintegrated into the mainstream.’

Since this system was introduced, exclusion rates have fallen 50%.

Analysis of referrals may lead to a student being moved to the personal learning centre for challenging and vulnerable students. When appropriate, they are reintegrated into the mainstream. Since this system was introduced, exclusion rates have fallen 50%

In addition to the PLC, there is a student support centre (SSC) for students who have particular learning difficulties, but who do not have a statement of SEN or an EHC plan. Some students use both PLC and SSC, as Jo Bull explained: ‘Very often, there’s a learning issue behind the behaviour issues.’

Between 20 and 40 staff voluntarily attend developmental sessions relevant to their responsibilities or professional needs. For example there are sessions on de-escalation, motivation of challenging boys, specific students, body language in class, and relationships between staff and students (using Australian education consultant Dr Bill Rogers’ research).

‘Six percent of our students that we know of are under CAMHS,’ Sukhjot Dhami commented. ‘At the core of High Arcal has always been support.’ Yet, Jo Bull recalled a discussion with one of the AIs in the earlier Ofsted inspection: ‘When I discussed our caring approach with one of the original Ofsted team, they looked a bit scornful. But I said we use ‘care’ in both soft and hard senses: yes, I care that these students have the opportunity to move forward. But also, I care that they will achieve.’

What does school improvement mean for your school? How do you drive a school improvement agenda within a school and across a group of schools? Explore these questions and find answers from fellow schools at SSAT School Improvement 2018; book your reduced member place at this one-day event on 29 June.

Read on the SSAT blog: Overcoming special measures through curriculum, quality of teaching and culture

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