Tony Hillyard charts a gruelling but successful journey
As governors we had seen the clear signs that things weren’t going quite right at our 200-pupil primary school:
• There had been inconsistent results and progress for some time, though the head had provided us with reasonable explanations about why this was and how things would improve.
• A dozen parents (including two governors) had moved their children to other schools saying that the school “didn’t listen”. I spoke to each one to understand their reasons. The reduction in roll led to a move to mixed-age classes.
• Staff and parents were saying there were issues with communication.
• The chair of governors before me had resigned two years previously after his relationship with the head deteriorated.
• The local authority (LA) was providing lots of support, but it wasn’t really clear where the underlying problem lay. They were carrying out a leadership and management review but it was taking a very long time to conclude.
When Ofsted came in April 2010, governors were initially surprised that they judged our school (and us) as ‘inadequate’ and placed us in ‘special measures’. We soon realised that what they said was correct. Although we understood the weaknesses, we had not ensured that they were being tackled effectively nor challenged leaders sufficiently.
We began to see the report as the opportunity to make rapid progress and provide each child with the quality education they deserved. We realized that quality of leadership was key. We created a day by day plan for what we were going to tell parents both before and at the parents’ meeting to be held when the report was published (late May).
"A number of teachers left over the next two years, and it became clear that the two key underlying problems had been that unsatisfactory teaching had not been addressed"
We also needed to reassure parents of pupils coming into the nursery in September and the local community. We found a parent who had PR experience to help craft the letters, a Q&A and a press release with a positive quote about the future from another parent. I offered to resign as chair, but the LA felt that it would be better for me to continue and that imposing an interim executive board (IEB) was not required. We carried out a governance review with LA support. Having recently retired from working, I was able to devote pretty much all my time to organising things, well supported by the LA, as well as continually reassuring our own staff. A head from a nearby ‘good with outstanding features’ school was drafted in, and the existing head eventually resigned, just before the parents’ meeting.
At the meeting, we introduced our interim head and handed out the report and Q&A. We emphasised that we took responsibility and that, with the support of the HMI monitoring visits and the LA, things would improve rapidly. We answered questions, and sent out the Q&A to all parents, inviting them into school to meet the interim head and me.
Things improved rapidly, as the interim head put relentless (and ruthless) emphasis on quality of teaching and high expectations. A number of teachers left over the next two years, and it became clear that the two key underlying problems had been that unsatisfactory teaching had not been addressed, and governors had not made sure there was external validation of the head’s judgements. We continued to communicate regularly with parents about our progress and held a parents’ meeting after each HMI monitoring visit.
We managed to recruit the interim head into the substantive post and she created a quality of teaching standards document which is now used across much of the LA. As governors, we refocused our meetings on to the School Improvement Plan areas, began asking more challenging questions of the head, and now ensure there is external validation that her judgements are sound. We also established a Standards & Effectiveness committee that regularly looks in detail at assessment and progress data for individual classes and groups.
We came out of ‘special measures’ in 2012 and, having revisited our aims and values, rebranded and renamed the school shortly afterwards. The numbers on roll have increased, we’ve returned to single age classes and Ofsted rated us as ‘good’ in all areas in July 2014.
Tony Hillyard is chair of governors at a primary school in Yorkshire
This article first appeared in Governing Matters magazine. Governing Matters is published by the National Governors' Association (NGA) for its members. For more information about joining the NGA visit: www.nga.org.uk/join