Leadership

Making Wellbeing the Core Strategy for School Improvement

When Chris Dyson took over at Parklands Primary School, there had been 150 exclusions in the previous year and morale was at an all-time low. By addressing the underlying wellbeing issues, he is now head of a school that is in the top 1% nationally for maths and which has received an ‘Outstanding’ rating from Ofsted.

When I applied for the role of headteacher at Parklands Primary School in South East Leeds, I was faced with the great challenge of turning around a school which had seen five headteachers come and go within the last two years. Despite only being a deputy head, since no other teachers applied for the role, I was appointed to the position in 2015.

Before starting at Parklands I had a comfortable job as a deputy head at a successful school in a deprived area of Leeds. This school had already moved from Special Measures to Outstanding, a fantastic achievement and one that I was keen to replicate myself as a headteacher.

When I first applied for the role of head at Parklands it was a job that no other teacher had been willing to touch. The Governors offered a £25,000 bonus for an established headteacher, something which had still failed to attract any current heads to the job. Eventually the DfE were forced to take a chance on a lowly deputy head and appointed me. 

The challenges 

Situated on the locally infamous Seacroft Estate in South East Leeds, Parklands had 74% of its intake qualifying for pupil premium, 33% of its pupils’ with diagnosable SEND conditions and a 40% rate of staff mobility. The year before I joined there had been 150 exclusions and 2013 had seen the opening of the new ‘padded cell’. Tig on the roof was one of the more popular activities enjoyed at break time.

On being appointed head, it was essential to identify the main problems which had led to the school’s cycle of constant underachievement. Results were at rock-bottom when compared to the national average. However, this wasn’t a cause of the school’s problems, just a symptom of the other issues. The children were just as capable of doing well as any other any other intake. After spending some time in the school talking with pupils and teachers, the main challenges could broadly be categorised under the following subheadings: morale, behaviour, attendance and funding. 

Morale

Staff morale was the first issue which needed to be addressed. Improving a school where four out of ten teachers were new every term was impossible, and many of those who had been at the school a number of years had lost faith in the idea that it ever could be improved. Teachers felt that they were facing challenges alone, so showing the staff that their wellbeing was a priority was the first step in changing the atmosphere inside the school.  

On the first day of term, which was an inset day for pupils, we met outside the gates at 9:30am and drove to Leeds Castle where everyone participated in welly wanging and air rifle shooting. We then drove to York where everyone enjoyed a three-course pub meal, followed by a cruise down the river with drinks. Although it was only a day out, this demonstrated to teachers that their wellbeing was a priority. 

As a lot of our staff team are young teachers, one way we’ve continuously supported wellbeing is by making flexible working a possibility. On a Friday we have a whole school assembly, which enables many of our staff to leave at 2 pm to collect young children. We also strive to accommodate time in lieu wherever possible.       

Behaviour

Behaviour was another issue which desperately needed addressing before learning could be improved. Unbelievably, a previous head had banned lunchtimes because she felt children were too naughty. Instead children ate their dinner for fifteen minutes and then sat in silence for 45 minutes—you can only imagine how this impacted on afternoon lessons!

Instead of whole-school punishments, we focused on modelling good behaviour to pupils and introducing a reward-based system for excellent behaviour. Shouting—by teachers and pupils—was banned and a new behaviour policy was written in collaboration with pupils, teachers and parents. Involving pupils in this was essential—as they had written the rules themselves, they were invested in sticking to them. 

Rewards were another essential factor in encouraging good behaviour, which tied into the wellbeing of pupils. Many of our children aren’t able to have the experiences that children in more affluent areas are used to. After discovering that the majority of our pupils had never been to the beach, we now arrange annual trips to the seaside. Similarly, we have a £25 cash sponsorship reward which we give to children for making significant achievements. Unlike a book voucher, children are able to spend this money in the local area. On one occasion a boy was so happy that he would be able to buy his mum a birthday present he burst into tears after winning the cash sponsorship, a particularly touching moment which helps us see the impact teaching can have on children each day. 

Other experiences we’ve been able to provide include opening the school on Christmas Eve and serving 796 Christmas dinners to families as well as giving children the chance to meet Santa. We’ve even had helicopter rides—quite an experience for the children, some of whom have never even been on a train. 

Funding 

All of this, of course, costs money, something which is sadly lacking in the state school sector. Working with local businesses and individuals has therefore been essential in helping us to raise additional cash for activities which can’t be funded from the school budget. 

One of the first organisations we approached was a large housing developer who was planning a new estate in the local area. As part of their community outreach we were able to get their entire workforce into the school for one day to re-decorate the entire school. They also donated £180,000 worth of lighting to us.

Harry Gration, our local news anchor, also did a fundraiser for the school and we encourage local businesses to sponsor our days out to the beach and other activities. Last year we raised a grand total of £385,000 in additional funding thanks to contributions from local businesses. 

As well as financial sponsorship from businesses, we’ve taken advantage of companies’ CSR programmes to help improve the state of the school buildings. Recently we’ve had a group of senior managers from Asda pulling up weeds in our garden, as well as volunteers from Lloyds Bank who came in to paint the playground. We have 24 regular reading volunteers who come into the school each week from local businesses. In 2017 we were even recognised nationally for the work we’ve done with local businesses, winning a TES Award for Business Collaboration.

Ensuring we’re making the most of all our current resources has also been important. We have a subscription to London Grid for Learning (LGfL), which gives us access to a huge range of resources. The TechSquad team at LGfL have been hugely helpful, advising us on software such as Sophos and Malwarebytes which are available as part of our subscription, helping us avoid costly re-buys on technology and ensuring that we have the appropriate safeguarding and support in place. 

Attendance

In 2014 attendance figures were 86%. Alongside behaviour, attendance needed to be improved before we could tackle children’s learning. To get children into school, we therefore needed to create an environment which was fun and where children felt happy. 

All children love music, so to help raise the spirits of the school we began piping music in the school corridors. Having a reward-based system for attendance has also been important in seeing figures improve. Any class which achieves 95% attendance over the course of a week is entitled to ‘golden time’. Children roll a dice as a class and receive a reward based on the result; this can be anything from a lesson with me to extra time in the playground.

We’ve also worked on making the curriculum more fun and accessible. We have absolutely no summative assessments bar the Year 6 SATs and have brought in additional enrichment activities such as African drumming, street dance and art lessons from a visiting graffiti artist. We’ve also taken advantage of some of the curriculum resources available through our LGfL subscription, particularly the AR and VR resources. These are great for the children as they allow them to experience places and situations beyond the reach of many of our pupils.   

Multiplication skills were an area that desperately needed to be improved, so to motivate pupils in this area, we introduced a daily times table championship with rewards for the winners, as well as most improved students, given out in our Friday assembly.   

Thanks to these changes, attendance is now at 97%. The only exception to this is on a Friday, where we consistently have 100% attendance across the school. The main contributor to this has been our ‘Funday Friday Assemblies’ which are the high point of our entire week. Children who have demonstrated exceptional achievements or behaviour over the course of the week are entitled to the ‘best seats in the house’ for the assembly and allowed to sit on the sofas at the front of the hall. We then have music, singing and celebrations as we hand out certificates earned throughout the week. 

Parklands today 

Today Parklands School is almost unrecognisable from its position four years ago. In its latest Ofsted inspection, the school was found to be ‘Outstanding’, including for pupils’ behaviour, which had previously been unmanageable. Moving from 150 exclusions in 2013, the school has had only one exclusion over the past year. Inspectors highlighted the work of the headteacher and senior leadership team in involving the local community in the life of the school, commenting that ‘trust and respect flow between pupils, parents and staff’.

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