Even before I was working in education full-time, the work of Professor Ken Robinson arrested my attention. His TED talks are a source of inspiration on how to put priorities in the appropriate order and do things right, even when the pressure is to meet someone else’s agenda. I particularly appreciate what he says about the things we can learn from children with special educational needs and disabilities – a humility to learn from those traditionally seen as a problem can open new insights.

In the same spirit, I wanted to say a few things about what we have learned in the past three months from working with a school in special measures. The school is not yet part of our Trust and although there is a Directed Academy Order in our favour, we are still completing our due diligence. But we are already getting to know the school quite well and one of my colleagues is offering leadership support to the Acting Head for three days a week. In this situation, we are learning some lessons quickly and here are a few that come straight to mind:

A school in special measures will cost money to turn around. It is no surprise to find that in a school which has experienced past vulnerabilities in leadership and management, there are a plethora of financial challenges. This may be through issues with inadequately-maintained buildings (health and safety etc.), an unbalanced staff team and falling pupil rolls in areas where there is not a shortage of school places. These issues can be expensive to solve, and take a time to turn around. Which brings me to…

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Some of the larger MATs boast an enviable record of ‘turning round’ schools in a matter of weeks. I don’t believe that it is possible to addresses all the weaknesses in a school and to firmly establish positive practices, performance and behaviours in such a short amount to time. What can be dealt with rapidly is the level of tolerance to poor behaviour, teaching that is less than good and a diligent approach to safeguarding. But to embed change for long-term benefit requires a different culture – and cultural shifts take time.

Every school has bright lights despite its judgement label. We have found that some of the teaching, behaviour and resilience of staff and children in the school to be exemplary. It is a tough thing to live under a label of ‘inadequate’ and if you can pull through that, believing in a brighter future, then you are made of some strong stuff.

Strong and effective leadership in schools is not a luxury. Five weeks into a term where the Trust has a firm grip of the leadership of the school, there is a tangible change in things. The Chair of the Interim Executive Board (the temporary specialist governing body) told me today that the difference this half-term to where things were before Christmas is ‘remarkable’. High calibre leaders understand the right priorities, inspire and motivate staff to a positive programme of change and build assurance in the community and parent body that things are on the right track.

The children are not inadequate and are worth it all. This of course should go without saying but it’s important to say anyway. We have found the pupils to be as full of wonder, as keen to learn and as aspirational as anywhere else. One of the heart-breaking moments for me in our due diligence was when I interviewed the student governors (school council) and they asked if Schoolsworks was going to disband their group as they knew that the previous full governing body had been terminated. Building from a sense a collective failure and enabling pupils’ self-esteem to grow through our involvement is vital challenge.

No doubt more observations will come to the fore as we develop our long-term relationship with the school. In short though we are so grateful for this opportunity to learn about the unique qualities of this school, share what we know is critical to a school’s success and embed some real improvements over the months and years ahead.

Chris Seaton
7th February 2017