Heathmere: a London primary school

  • By Emma Lewis and Ben Cooper

For anyone even vaguely familiar with school improvement and the tricky business of improving children’s chances in life, it’s obvious that there is no silver bullet; it’s not one thing that transforms a school but a combination of different things, at different times, and to different degrees.

That was the case at my school, Heathmere Primary, where ‘what worked’ was the interplay of a passionate and motivated team, good and great teaching, extra investment in the school building, a knowledgeable and committed governing body, support from parents and, of course, a wonderful group of children who strive to meet our rising expectations. Added to this, the local authority provided an essential mix of strategic challenge and day-to-day support.

As a result, in November 2014, for the first time in its history, Heathmere Primary became a good school. For us, that was a significant moment and an important milestone.

This article sets out the journey to good and focuses on the role of the local authority. It is written with two important caveats.

First, Heathmere is a good school but we are still a long from where we want to be – it’s still not ‘job done’ and, in writing this, there is no sense of complacency.

Second, what worked for us may not work somewhere else. But in the busy business of school leadership and school transformation, it is only by sharing our stories, talking about our professional successes, and reflecting upon them, that we begin to understand exactly what does make a difference.

The school context
Heathmere Primary is located on the outer edges of Wandsworth. Although the school is literally a stone’s throw from the open spaces and green trees of Richmond Park, it is very much an inner-city, urban environment. The school is one of two primaries which serve the Alton Estate in Roehampton, built during the 1950s when high-rise blocks were the height of architectural sophistication.

The estate itself, bordered on three sides by Richmond Park, the busy A3 and a dual carriageway, feels self-contained, almost cut-off. As such, Heathmere is very much a school of the community: our catchment is close to the school.

Like many schools in our position, we have a large number of children who speak English as an additional language, a high proportion of children who are eligible for pupil premium funding and a considerable number of children who join school during the year or stay for only a short period of time due to family circumstances. Equally, there is a very settled community on the estate who have long, deep and wide roots within the local community.

The school is between a one-form and two-form entry, in some year groups there is a single class and in others there are two classes. Class sizes are small. The teaching staff tends to be younger and will typically be in their first school or very early on in their teaching career. The leadership team is similar in the sense that nobody brings bags of experience – this is my first headship, the same for my deputy and all of the senior leaders are in position for the first time.

In addition, when I took over as head, 42 per cent of children were on the SEN register – most for Behaviour, Social and Emotional Difficulties. By any measure, behaviour was not good and it was having a negative impact on learning and on pupils’ progress. In 2010, Ofsted identified only one in four lessons as being ‘good’. There were children who were starting in Year 4 at a lower level than they had left Year 2. The projections for attainment at the end of Year 6 were dire across the whole of KS2.

Added to this was the totally unacceptable state of the school building – both inside and outside. I felt very strongly that if we were expecting children to learn and be the best that they could be, there should not be paint peeling off the walls in the classrooms, the children in Nursery and Reception should not be playing with broken toys and there should not be rain coming in between the window frames and the panes of glass.

The governing body had some capable and committed members on the team but found it difficult to be effective. Needless to say, the school had a poor reputation in the area and with the local authority. Standards were low and many local residents simply didn’t want their children to come to Heathmere. Unsurprisingly, we were not the school of choice for many local parents.

Up to 2012, every Ofsted inspection at Heathmere had resulted in the school being categorised as ‘satisfactory’. After this, the descriptors were changed and ‘satisfactory’ was replaced with the more stringent category of ‘requiring improvement’.

In many ways, this category, requiring improvement was invented for schools such as Heathmere. The very description of ‘satisfactory’ was a misnomer for Heathmere; it was anything but satisfactory. There were children who had spent the whole of their primary school years receiving a satisfactory education. As a young teacher, I remember hearing the phrase ‘satisfactory isn’t good enough’. This stayed with me and became a guiding principle.

Working with the local authority:two choices
Prior to my arrival the local authority had set up a Task Group in school. This group was made up of governors, senior leaders in school and local authority representatives, including the link inspector. The purpose of the group was to affect change; to raise standards across the board. However, the relationship between the school and the Task Group was difficult. This made it hard for the Task Group to really understand and ‘get under the skin’ of the school and its challenges. In turn this made it difficult for the school to accept support.

The new categorisation as ‘requiring improvement’ (RI), along with my appointment as acting head in January 2013 and a new chair of governors in September 2012, gave the impetus to shift the school from its long history of underperformance. Critically, a change in culture within the school was instigated which was one of being more open to external support and challenge. In turn, the local authority, through the Task Group, became firmly entrenched into the leadership fabric of the school. This group, and the work streams they identified, became the ‘engine room’ of school improvement.

Another feature of the relationship between school and local authority was that we were only the second school in Wandsworth to become RI and, with no schools in special measures, we were very much the main focus. In time, the other RI school took a different path and soon converted to an Academy, leaving Heathmere at the centre of the local authority’s school improvement priorities. The benefit of this was a ‘direct line’ – clear, priority access to support and resources. The flip-side was the level of scrutiny; Heathmere was very much under the spotlight and there was a sense, unwritten and unspoken, that this was the last chance to change the school for the better.

Fast forward two years and Heathmere is now the first school in Wandsworth to have come out of RI and therefore can be used as a model to support other schools that have since gone into this bracket. However I do often reflect and think how different the situation would have been if there had been several other schools in the local authority in my position or in special measures. Although this did mean the level of scrutiny was intense (the spotlight burnt very bright!), it did also mean that we were the beneficiaries of capacity within the local authority that simply would not have been there if more schools were in our position.

It is hard for me to envisage the journey if the local authority had not been able to provide the level of support. What path would I have taken? What other options were available?

On a personal note, I was 35 years-old, had been at the school as Deputy for one term only, was new to the Wandsworth area, and had no substantive Deputy at the time.

None of the above is helpful at the best of times, but particularly not when preparing for an HMI visit four weeks after taking over as acting head. I didn’t know a single person in London who could have helped me with school improvement; my professional network, which I had spent the last 10 years building, was in the West Midlands. Suddenly the NPQH that I passed five years ago seemed like a distant memory!

So, if the local authority had not been present and so integral to supporting the school, we wouldn’t necessarily have failed but the journey would undoubtedly have been longer and harder. I could, for example, have got the school directory out, phoned headteachers who were nearby, introduced myself and asked them to help signpost me.

I could have searched the internet for consultants and advisors. I could have gone on courses about school improvement and learnt new strategies. But how would I know who or what was effective? How would I know who the right people for my school would be? It was my first month as acting head and the stakeholders were closing in. Governors meetings, local authority meetings, local councillors wanting to visit, a budget that needed to be set, parents wanting answers and, above all, children needing a better quality of education than they had been receiving.

I always maintain that I knew innately what needed to be done at that school, but I needed a sounding board and also a sense of validation to help keep me motivated.

At this point, I found myself in the position where I had two choices. One was to do it on my own and pay lip-service to the local authority; the other option was to totally embrace the local authority, be entirely transparent with them and be receptive to their advice (this is not the same as taking all their advice!).

The second was the only realistic option. I just wouldn’t have had the time to source, filter and broker the levels of support that I needed. Of course taking this option came with its challenges but as time went on I became more confident to select the help that I requested and to say ‘no’ when I felt that ‘no’ was appropriate.

What worked
As mentioned above, every school is different and what proves successful in one school may not work in another. With this caveat in mind, the following is a summary of ‘what worked’ at Heathmere.

First, above all else, a focus on behaviour for learning ensured the school could quickly move in the right direction. It was very obvious to me that until we sorted behaviour out, there was very little point in focusing on anything else. The irony of the situation at Heathmere was that the only ‘good’ judgment the school had received at the previous inspection was for ‘Behaviour and Safety’ and yet my deputy and I were spending the majority of our time dealing with behaviour issues.

So the local authority commissioned a ‘Behaviour Review’ and also signposted me in the direction of schools that had faced similar challenges with behaviour.

The review was helpful as it gave us the evidence upon which to make some much needed changes and the visits to other schools were critical. The local authority had thoughtfully matched me up with some like-minded heads and their support was invaluable. This was quickly followed by an SEN review which again, gave us the focus to make some much needed changes. 

Of course, it was the sheer determination of the teachers and the staff that turned the reviews into reality by: introducing clear expectations for behaviour and a system for managing incidents; a focus on planning interesting lessons; making sure the right support was in place for children; and establishing warm, respectful relationships where children felt included. This focus on behaviour for learning changed the children’s approach to school: the children now want to learn and want to be in the classroom.

Second, I established a sense of corporate responsibility. When making decisions, the net was cast wide; everyone was expected to be involved in agreeing what would impact on learning. Equally, everyone was expected to stick to these decisions and hold each other to account. This meant a degree of challenge from both the local authority and governors, but also a steady flow of difficult conversations with staff to ensure the shared expectations were being met.

Third, there was transparency with all stakeholders, with the local authority Task Group at the centre of this. Only with honesty and clarity about the day-to-day
and strategic challenges, were we able to properly solve problems.

Fourth, a sense of high expectations for all: the children, teachers and other staff, all leaders, stakeholders and also for the physical environment. Everything was about children’s learning and progress. Strategically, this was driven by establishing clear and detailed action plans for the whole school, for key stages, for subjects and for other priority areas. 

Monitoring and scrutiny of these action plans, both ‘in-house’ by school leaders as well as by our link inspector, became very important in terms of managing and organising the necessary changes, as well as making sure they happened and had impact. In terms of the physical environment, I lost count of the number of people I showed around the school to express my dissatisfaction at how the building had been left. Twelve months of non-stop campaigning resulted in the local authority agreeing to invest a significant amount of money to improve the building.

Finally, there was a focus on particular areas of teaching and learning. Accuracy of assessment was one area. The marking policy was another. Improving writing across the all areas of the curriculum was also a focus of all our energies. In some areas, we began to innovate by carrying out learning studies and establishing teacher learning communities where groups of teachers investigated an area of interest and applied their findings to their practice in class. 

Professional development training was also provided by the local authority and support for subject leaders and teachers from consultants. With the support of the local authority, we put in place what I consider to be one of the key moments of change. I closed the school for half a day and every single teacher and teaching assistant went to spend the morning in another school. However, this wasn’t just to any school that would take us. Instead I sat down with the primary school improvement manager and matched every member of staff to a lead practitioner in the borough, making sure that everyone would have an experience that would move them on.

Professionally, I’ve never experienced a buzz that there was in my school that afternoon when everyone returned. People were desperate to share their experiences and talk about how they could now improve as a result. Because staff had been matched to individual teachers and also to targeted schools, they were not only clearer about how to improve learning in their own classrooms but also about how to improve our whole school. My KS1 leader suddenly saw a vision for how behaviour should look in KS2 and took a lead role in this.

Finally, there was investment in key areas with additional funding from the local authority. This didn’t always require huge sums of money but it was used wisely and clearly targeted. Some of this was able to secure relatively quick and easy wins, such as much-needed money for play equipment in the Early Years. Other investment was more substantial and needed more time and detailed planning – this included a significant building project to update the outside area in Early Years. Additionally, we stepped up the pace of routine ‘repair and replace’ work by buying new carpets, replacing old windows and having new paintwork throughout.

The governing body remained central throughout this whole process. There was a difficult meeting initially where governors were given the choice to either step up and make a proper contribution or walk away. It is a testament to the members that every single person stayed, undertook the relevant training and started to fulfil their roles. The governing body transformed from being dysfunctional into highly effective. Total transparency and high expectations along with determination and tenacity from the chair ensured the governing body were key in strategic decision making.

The Task Group
It’s worth expanding briefly on the role of the Task Group. They became my ‘SWOT team’ and consisted of: myself and my deputy from the school; the local authority head of performance and standards, the primary school improvement manager, link inspector, head of inclusion, school HR representative, head of governance; the chair and vice-chair of governors and the chair of the curriculum and standards committee. Meetings were half termly and consisted of discussions around all the key areas of the school. Data was presented, ideas shared and progress measured. Support was offered in terms of advice, expertise, signposting and financial resources.

The Task Group was used as a sounding board to discuss ideas, problem solve and challenge. As there had been a culture of openness established, these conversations were honest, and sometimes brutally so, but they always moved the school forwards. Between these meetings, highly challenging governors’ meetings and weekly link inspector visits also took place.

At one point, it felt I was spending so much time either justifying what I had been doing or explaining what I was going to do that it seemed there was no time left for actually doing anything! Looking back, however, those conversations were necessary to ensure we were focused and didn’t become side-tracked.

As we moved through the RI process, we also had an EYFS review, a KS1 review, a reading review, a Year 5 and 6 review, a second behaviour review and finally, at a point where we felt we were almost ready for inspection, a whole school learning review. At each point, the relevant inschool leaders were involved with the process and the local authority, via the Task Group, helped me to select external advisors and consultants to be involved, all of which were provided free of charge. This meant that my middle and senior leaders were involved in excellent CPD and had very
clear targets of improvement.

It’s not possible to talk about the impact of the local authority without discussing the role of my link inspector. A few weeks after becoming head, I requested that the school had a new link inspector as I knew that if I was really going to make the change, it needed to be a complete reversal with no excuses. We were both able to start with a clean slate and move forward. My inspector became my sounding board. I always felt like I knew how to get to where I wanted the school to get to but I often didn’t have the experience or ability to get there. I had the vision but not always the structure behind it. And my belief remains as strong today as it always was – I refused to deliver a ‘quick fix’. I would only ever work on something that was sustainable and therefore if it wasn’t going to benefit in the long term, we weren’t going to do it.

While I am positive about the relationship I had – and have – with the local authority, there are clearly questions to be asked about the role and purpose of a local authority, particularly when the wider political context is in a constant state of change. When I look at my school, the local authority had been involved with the school for a while but it had always been a difficult relationship. What is the power of the local authority when the headteacher doesn’t wish to engage? And in particular when both the headteacher and the chair of governors don’t wish to engage? Also, at what point should the local authority get involved? If I take a very cynical angle of the history of Heathmere, I wonder why it took an Ofsted judgment for things to really start to change.

Is the local authority role one of prevention or cure? Is it a safety net or is it there to cultivate and develop best practice?

Sometimes it concerns me how much power a headteacher has. In the current climate, heads have more and more power. This is all well and good if the school is providing a decent level of education but what happens when the school of this very powerful head isn’t providing the standard of education required? Where is the check? My governing body are very challenging to me and I don’t think would let me pull the wool over their eyes. However I am sure this isn’t the case in all schools.

The local authority has the capacity to act as a moderator. My view of politics is that it is best kept separate from school management – education should be ‘best practice’ and not politically biased – but the reality for all schools is that we work in a political context and one in which the only certainty is that there will be more change.

With the General Election looming it’s hard – if not impossible – to predict what the educational landscape will look like in a year, let alone in two years or three. The direction of travel in recent times has pointed towards ever greater school autonomy and to a more diverse range of school systems and structures, including free schools, trusts and academies. As a head, it would be perverse to argue against autonomy; I want to decide what happens in my school. I instinctively and professionally dislike being told by someone else what to do and how to do it. But equally, autonomy is a bit of a smoke screen in that it is impossible to make changes in a school, particularly one with a deeply entrenched culture that is at odds with getting the best outcomes for children, without the support, advice and challenge of others who have either been
there, know someone who has or can help find someone that fits in to either category!

For me, that ‘other’ was a combination of the local authority, the link inspector, fellow leaders in Wandsworth schools and my staff. I believe that schools are like football teams – they go up and down depending on who is on the team. The challenge now is to provide long term sustainability to these changes. The process of school transformation cannot be a quick fix. If it is to be truly effective it must be built on solid foundations and we now have to continue this without the intensive support from the local authority. The systems and structures are now in place but these are useless without the right people to drive them effectively; that’s what really makes the difference.


Emma Lewis and Ben Cooper

Emma has worked in primary schools in London and the West Midlands for 16 years in a range of teaching and leadership roles. She is currently in her first headship at Heathmere Primary School where she has led the school from Requiring Improvement to Good while honouring a commitment to build a sustainable model of school improvement for the children and community of Roehampton. She is passionate about the entitlement for all children to learn and the responsibility that schools have to provide opportunities for all children.

Ben has worked in primary schools in South West London for 10 years. Prior to this he worked in central government, developing policy in various government departments. This is his first deputy head position where he focuses on curriculum development, literacy and assessment. His current projects include setting up a school library and developing Heathmere as a UNICEF Rights Respecting School.