This section of the site is intended to be a potted history of my experience at William Booth School. This is work in (long and slow) progress so please bear with me; also while I struggle to learn the ins and outs of building, editing and arranging bits and pieces on WordPress. Thanks!
CONFESSIONS OF AN OFSTED FAILURE
After working with physically disabled adults and children in the charitable sector, I became a teacher in 1990. I loved helping people and felt a real calling to this sort of work. My own school experience had been very successful – as defined by exam passes – but I had very strong memories of being bullied in secondary school. By teachers. Who could hit you if they felt like it, treat you with contempt and desperate unfairness, and there was simply nothing you could do about it.
I taught at a new primary school in Newcastle upon Tyne for a year before moving to Nottingham. After several years in an overcrowded City-estate primary school I became Deputy Head in a Junior School and joined William Booth Infant and Nursery School, in an inner-city area of Nottingham called Sneinton, as DeputyHead in 2000. I became Acting Head soon afterwards due to the absence through illness of the Headteacher, and was permanently appointed in her place in October 2002. In 2009 the school became a Primary School, with a phased introduction of the 7-11 age range from 2009-12. After successful Ofsted inspections in 2002 and 2007, the school failed its inspection in December 2010. It was removed from Special Measures in May 2012. I resigned in August 2012. I worked for 15 months for a private company as Headteacher of a tiny school attached to an ‘assessment centre’ in Derbyshire until November 2014.
William Booth School
In April 2000, I joined William Booth Infant and Nursery School as Deputy Head. I would have preferred to move back to a full primary (I was then DH at a Junior School) but in retrospect it was an ideal move – and anyway, I was keen to move on. WB (so called because William Booth was born nearby, but the school has no connection to the Salvation Army) was a friendly and caring school, with no set uniform but a conventional curriculum and normal routines for such things as lining up, playtimes etc.
At that time, I had been teaching for nearly ten years, across the whole Primary age range (5-11). I badly mis-timed my entry into the profession, managing to make it concurrent with the implementation of the National Curriculum and the start of the current mania for levels, ‘expectations’ and testing, as well as the attack on local government . I knew I didn’t like those things, but I lacked a coherent ethos of pedagogy or education as a whole.
I first wrote the following two short passages in the first teaching application I wrote, in 1990, and repeated it in all subsequent teaching applications:
- I have a very deep commitment to the practice, process and principle of education and a passionate belief in its power, throughout the whole of life, to inspire, transform and renew; to provide opportunities for the realisation of individual potential; and to improve society and human relationships, forming the bedrock of a humane, democratic society
- In schools, I believe in child-centred education and in enabling and encouraging children to be confident, independent, self-disciplined, well-motivated, imaginative, curious, expressive and happy in their work, and co-operative, tolerant, empathic, friendly and caring in their relationships. While this philosophy acknowledges the crucial importance of children acquiring and valuing academic skills, it places such skills in a wider context of emotional, social, physical and aesthetic development, and emphasises that intellectual and social progress needs to rest on a secure base of self-regard, security and motivation, and good relationships for children with each other and with their teachers and schools. This, I believe, places personal and social education, inclusion and equal opportunities at the heart of the curriculum.
I liked kids and loved helping them to learn, but I was (still am, I’m sure) that teacher who was over-fond of the sound of his own voice, and shouted all too readily when things were not going well. In retrospect, this reflected a lack of respect for and understanding of the needs and struggles of children, and also a frustration borne of really wanting to help children to succeed and not understanding why it wasn’t happening. Reading and re-reading John Holt’s wise and wonderful ‘How Children Learn’ and ‘How Children Fail’, among other helpful and inspiring books, helped to slowly breed enlightenment for me about how and why kids might just not ‘get it’, what tactics they use to deal with the quantity and intensity of rubbish that life, and school, can throw at them, and how we might better organise schools to promote a more caring and useful education.
Circumstances threw me the chance to become Acting, and then full, Headteacher after quite a short time at WB. I was very happy to take on the role, and felt ready to do so in terms of experience and skills, but did not have a route map and guide book showing how and where to proceed in terms of this more child-friendly education. I worked in close partnership with Christine Beard, who was appointed as Foundation Stage Co-ordinator and then became Deputy Head. Christine was highly experienced in early years education but we were both unsure about exactly what the more child-friendly school we wanted to make would exactly look and feel like.
Except in one initial thing: I wanted children to feel free to call me by my first name. This is not just because the default mode of address for teachers in nursery and infant classes, as I discovered on moving to WB, is ‘Miss’ – that was something of a shock but I soon got used to it – but actually I’d always wanted this and had grown to be both exasperated and amused by headteachers’ rather embarrassed explanations of why it wouldn’t be appropriate. So my very first executive decision as a newly-minted Headteacher was to announce that henceforth I wanted to be on first-name terms with everyone and that I hoped other staff would follow suit. In the event, most – but not all – did, and it gradually became universal practice. We later made it an aim that all teachers should make a point of trying to learn parents’ first names too and I think that the determined effort to break down barriers between home and school was a key part of the school’s success.
Our starting-point beyond that was trying to examine routines and procedures from a child’s point of view. Aspects of the school’s development can be well summarised in relation to three particular issues: Assemblies, lining up and school uniform. Click on link below for more information
We were inspected by Ofsted in May 2002. In those far-off happy days we had plenty of advance warning so we were well prepared for their arrival, until the last weekend when I spent most of the Sunday evening, before the inspectors’ arrival first thing on Monday morning, clearing up the mess left by contractors installing new play equipment – minor stuff like spilled cement and handy bits of hard-core in little piles on the grass. All looked presentable when they arrived on Monday morning and the fact that the kids were very excited by their new equipment didn’t ruin things – we co-opted the lead inspector to officially open it and nobody fell off until after they’d gone.
The inspectors really liked the atmosphere of the school:
- ‘The joie de vivre in learning is infectious and productive fun is at the head of the agenda for staff and pupils alike.’
- ‘The caring attitude seems almost to be part of the fabric of the building.’
- ‘William Booth Infant School is a very effective school. It builds very successfully on children’s starting points and every pupil is treated as a valuable individual whose needs are met with conspicuous success.’
This felt like a real vindication of the way we were going
In the aftermath, we were listed in the Chief Inspector’s list of the 300 ‘most improved’ schools nationally, and by chance (he’d certainly never been to visit) he, David Bell, picked us out by name in a regional TV interview. This meant a bit of follow-up media interest and a TV crew turned up for a ’good news’ story. My interviewer began the practice run-through: ’12 months ago this was one of the worst schools in the country …’ I interrupted him to correct his several misapprehensions about us, Ofsted and the inspection process. His face fell. ‘Then we don’t have a story’ he lamented; I managed to convince him that maybe a successful inner-city school prioritising good relationships and care for children merited some attention, but I think he remained gutted about his lost rags-to-riches narrative.
How to Move Forward?
Trying to do things better was very exciting journey, but the lack of a definite route-map was rather frustrating. The lack of precision within a mass of good intentions and generalised aims can be seen in this document circulated for staff discussions in Feb 2003 (click on link below):
What emerged, slowly and in a slightly haphazard way, was what we described as ‘Using Foundation-Stage-style approaches with older children’ – learning through play and experiential, personalised learning; limited amounts of formal, whole-class teaching; focusing on emotional and social development; valuing and organising a broad curriculum.
The following were the broad principles we tried to follow:
- Child-centredness: We tried to base changes, and ultimately the whole organisation of school, on the genuine needs and interests of children, not the need to fulfil inappropriate external requirements. We wanted to make education genuinely child-centred and personalised ie recognising the crucial importance of confidence, motivation and self-regard in underpinning learning and thus seeking to know children very well, to put in place support for these attributes, and to provide genuine choices in learning within a broad and deep curriculum. We aimed for teaching based on sound understandings of child development, psychology and neuroscience and their implications for every child.
- Respect for children’s rights and choices: this is implicit in a genuinely child-centred approach. We tried to give children genuine choices in their learning, their classrooms and the wider school environment and to do away with procedures which treat children disrespectfully.
- Unconditional support: We sought to provide unconditional love and affection for all children and to provide the appropriate balance of support and challenge for all aspects of their learning and development. For troubled and damaged children, we tried to make our school a place of refuge, safety and therapeutic renewal. We tried to be strong and consistent advocates for children: we sought to work in close partnership with SEN support services and Social Care but would challenge them when appropriate.
- Partnership with parents: Recognising the vital importance of working in partnership with parents and thus providing support and challenge for them in often very difficult and challenging circumstances.
- Informality and non-authoritarian approaches: Being on first-name terms with children and parents. There was no uniform and we removed unnecessary rules and restrictions eg lining up and asking permission to go to the toilet. We developed a Relationships Policy, rather than a Behaviour Policy, and tried to make managing relevant issues solution-focused and respectful, rather than punitive.
- Inclusion: We welcomed children excluded from or unhappy at other schools. We celebrated the multicultural nature of our school and community. We made the school entirely wheelchair accessible and sought to ensure that all children understood the needs and wishes of their disabled peers. All members of the school community learned signing to assist communication with children with Down’s Syndrome and ASD. I passionately believe that being in such a school, even with children who can be very challenging, is of great benefit to all children, and believe that our experience demonstrated that.
- Focus on Learning: We tried to avoid an unhelpful and unrealistic distinction between ‘work’ and ‘play’ by talking all the time about ‘learning’; recognising the importance for young children of play-based, experiential learning; not having formal ‘playtimes’ and giving children the choice to stay inside at lunchtime if they wished. We aimed to develop a deep, lifelong love and appreciation of learning, rather than focusing on short-term test-score goals.
- An attractive Learning Environment: See values below. When very few of our children had gardens, and most lacked the material home advantages of wealthier areas, we aimed to provide a beautiful and stimulating environment which would stimulate interest and enjoyment in learning and provide a very wide range of resources and learning opportunities.
- Focus on Values: We developed this statement of Core Values:
‘We are aiming for:
A Learning Environment which promotes: Support; Choice; Fun; Excitement; Challenge; Wonder; Excellence; Inclusion
Learners who show: Enthusiasm; Motivation; Involvement; Resilience; Independence; Creativity; Confidence; Curiosity; Responsibility
And Relationships based on: Trust; Love and care; Empathy; Tolerance; Respect; Honesty; Self-awareness; Co-operation.
Over several years, with some false starts and many tweaks and changes, we developed
We abandoned the Literacy Hour and the Daily Maths Lesson with their stultifying and learning-unfriendly rules and regimens.