When I joined the school as principal in June 2014, I was the sixteenth head in six years and the school was going through a particularly difficult period. Student behaviour was extremely poor and in most cases violent. There were attempts to burn down buildings, and we even had incidences of pupils stealing food from catering delivery vans.
Prior to my arrival, staff had resorted to locking the windows and doors to keep pupils in the classroom. The focus was on damage limitation, leaving little time for teaching.
With attendance hovering at around 50 percent and exclusions topping 218 in one year, safeguarding was a huge problem – staff didn’t know which pupils were in school, or where they were at any given time.
As a result, the majority of our pupils left without any qualifications. Clearly there was an urgent need to make changes, and quickly. But with so much to do, where do you start?
Time for change
In a school like this, the longer it takes to make changes, the more children get left behind so there was no time to lose. Our approach was to aim for the top of the mountain by setting exceptionally high standards, and getting staff and pupils working together towards achieving our goals.
The key steps on our journey to improvement were to make essential wins on attendance and behaviour, as this would allow us to focus on what was the core of the issue, improving teaching and learning.
Present and correct
If half of your pupils are not even at school, then how can you start to change their lives? Attendance therefore was the very first step to tackle. We started recording attendance electronically, in our SIMS management information system (MIS) and with all our student data in one place, it was easy for staff to see whether each student was where they were supposed to be.
The improvement was immediate. Now that staff knew exactly which pupils were in school they could immediately follow up on those not attending. We could also put a stop to any truancy before it became a habit. Once pupils began to realise we would follow up whenever they were not in school, many simply agreed to toe the line, leaving staff with time to deal with the more persistent truants. With pupils safely in school, the next priority was to get them ready to learn.
A fresh start
To enable pupils to focus on learning, schools need to create a calm and purposeful environment. For us, this meant getting on top of behaviour issues, so we introduced a zero-tolerance approach to all behaviour incidents. Every incident which was reported in the MIS and followed up by staff, so that pupils knew exactly where they stood.
We also felt though that all pupils must be given the chance to move on and learn from their mistakes. Each day at Peak is a fresh start, so if there was poor behaviour yesterday, that’s exactly where we leave it. Pupils respond very well to this approach, and are motivated to behave well when they are given a new start. These changes meant teachers now had calmer classrooms where learning could take place.
Many of our pupils suffer with high levels of anxiety and previously they had felt unsafe, so to unlock their full potential we needed to turn that around and make school a place they trusted again.
We created two nurture groups, the boys’ community is called Everest and the girls’, Serenity. These areas are designed to build positive attachments, reduce anxiety levels, improve classroom conformity and empower pupils to make positive decisions. The group environment has made it easier for many pupils to open up and build their confidence while reducing anxiety.
We have also improved the pupils’ life experiences by offering those challenges and rewards outside of school. One of these is a climbing expedition to Pen y Fan, Sugar Loaf Mountain and canoeing 29 miles down the river Wye to help our pupils build resilience.
The tasks are challenging, but more importantly, they take pupils outside their comfort zone. We translate these achievements and new found confidence into a greater appetite for learning back in the classroom.
A few months into our improvement journey, the school had another mountain to climb – a visit from Ofsted. However, the inspection team gave us a glowing report and praised us for our ‘strong leadership team’ and the ‘accelerated progress’ made by pupils since last year. The school moved from ‘Special Measures’ to ‘Good’ in all areas in 50 weeks.
Rising to the top
I’m happy to say that we now boast a 90 per cent attendance rate, behaviour has been completely transformed and there have been no exclusions since November 2014. We will continue to work with our pupils and parents to equip our young people for the happy, successful lives they have ahead of them.
Pupils are no longer limited by their mental health issues and they are leaving us with strong GCSE and BTEC exam results. Pupils believe in themselves and they are looking at a brighter future, thinking about attending college or apprenticeships. Finally, these young people are getting the education they deserve.