This week I had the pleasure of hearing a presentation from Armando and Innes, Head and Deputy Head at Eastern High School in Cardiff at a Headteachers’ conference run by the school improvement team GwE in North Wales. The story of how they have turned this school around is truly inspirational.
Joining the school (Armando January 2015 and Innes September 2015), they inherited an organisation in total crisis. Behaviour was so poor that teachers had been regularly dialing 999 to get help. Only 14% of students gained the Welsh national 2+ standard and the school roll had crashed as a result of its reputation. Staff were battered, bruised and defensive about observations and feedback. It was a mighty challenge. The very first set of expectations which had to be established highlights where things were:
- Stay in the room
- Don’t run away when teachers want to talk to you
- Don’t run around the building smashing things up.
- Stay on site during the day.
From the very start, Armando realised that the senior team would need to attack the challenge in phases and set out an impressively clear five year roadmap. They explained this as having three phases – with clear priorities.
The three phases fed into a detailed strategic plan which helped provide them with a degree of protection from unrealistic expectations. They were not going to get everything sorted in the first year; some issues were deliberately set aside until the school was in the right state.
(Open the Road Map as a pdf here. Eastern High Road Map The four areas : Approaches to Learning; Relationships and Partnerships; Mind, Body and Soul; Resources and Environment)
Innes described the first ‘didactic’ phase as being essential. There was a need to be prescriptive about basic expectations for teachers and students, keeping to a small set of very simple clear rules to establish order and consistency. This included providing standard powerpoint slides for teachers to set out learning objectives indicating details like the noise level required for any task. It also included teachers taking responsibility for how students exited their room to support transition. Staff recognised the need for schoolwide consistency and so were willing to take on the highly controlled approach. It took the first year focusing relentlessly on embedding these basics for them to make the impact.
In parallel, the senior team worked hard on the school ethos, developing the idea that teachers had to create an environment where students belonged, feel valued and could learn and achieve. Relationship building was a key emphasis – unless students felt a connection to the staff, nothing was going to change. As systems began to take shape, fixed term exclusions quickly fell to zero and working in partnership with the Local Authority, permanent exclusions also fell to zero. This wasn’t a case of ‘take it or leave it’ or simply chucking kids out who didn’t quickly fall in.
Armando and Innes describe the extent to which they have prioritised monitoring and visibility. They each spend most of each day around the school checking in on lessons and making sure that things are being done. As Innes put it, ‘non-negotiables’ without monitoring soon become negotiables.
By year 3, the school was ready to move forward with a more expansive view of teaching and learning. They appointed some teaching and learning champions and started to run regular weekly CPD sessions. They had learned that unless expectations are modelled and reinforced each week, staff can interpret expectations very differently.
This then evolved into the full-blown coaching system they put in place during this year following the Bambrick-Santoyo Leverage Leadership model. Impressively, every teacher in the school now has weekly coaching from a nucleus of trained staff including senior leaders and some key middle leaders. This allows them to push forward with professional learning very rapidly. It’s a world away from Year 1 when Innes describes having to glance into classrooms through windows to get a sense of what was happening: the union-reinforced culture was very much against anyone being allowed in. Now everyone welcomes someone in every week… all through incremental culture shift and patient, step-by-step trust building.
Other features of the school that stood out include the introduction of daily ‘prep’ time. In vertical tutor groups, students go to tutor bases for daily silent study time, using sets of coordinated resources for self-quizzing. All students and staff were trained via demonstration video on how to use the resources – thus ensuring 100% consistency in the message received by everyone. This has replaced homework – a source of hassle, negativity and failure. All the resources are online so students can and do return to them for more practice at home if they choose. The silent atmosphere makes students develop a degree of self-reliance; they have all the resources and techniques needed for meaningful study. It’s helping to engineer a major shift in students’ default attitude to learning.
Armando gave examples of the ways the curriculum is developing and how various core values are being built into the fabric of the school. As they move into the ‘Collaboration and Autonomy’ phase, this applies to students as well as staff. They’ve built a new building the students are proud of; they’ve given them opportunities for personal development and the focus on building relationships remains a strong focus.
For me, the best part of the presentation was the charismatic humour and candour of both leaders. They cared about this school; they did what had to be done; they didn’t patronise staff or students – trust needed to be built, not merely assumed; autonomy had to be established not simply given. Basics needed to be attended to and embedded. It worked. It wasn’t always easy; they had to make hard calls; it took time; it didn’t always work first time; not all staff were up for the journey. But those who were are now in a school that is safe, calm and thriving. It’s a school the students are proud to belong to.
The impact so far is impressive. Whilst there is still plenty still to be done, not only did the school come out of a category in the last Estyn inspection, attendance is up, exclusions are down to virtually none and outcomes have gone up significantly. The school has doubled its roll and is oversubscribed.
What a story! Huge thanks to Pam McClean for putting the GwE conference together, giving us all the opportunity to hear it and to Armando and Innes for allowing me to share it on this blog.