How do you turn a failing Ipswich school around?
- Credit: Archant
Your school has been roundly criticised by inspectors, its reputation is damaged, children are leaving with poor exam grades, bad behaviour is disrupting lessons and parents are demanding better. It is a difficult scenario few people would relish facing, but is one Helen Winn was confronted with at Ipswich Academy.
Two years after it opened as an academy in 2011, education regulator Ofsted rated the school in Brazier's Wood Road "inadequate".
After three monitoring visits to check on progress over the next 18 months, Ofsted judged things had not improved and once again gave the school bottom marks in another full inspection in 2015.
It criticised weak literacy skills, pupils' poor attitudes to learning, including low attendance. It also said: "Teachers do not have all the necessary skills and understanding to teach their subjects."
But today, it is a remarkably different story.
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The same inspection body rated the school - taken over by the Paradigm Trust in 2015 - as "good" in March this year.
It praised the "dynamic leadership of the principal and senior leaders" who they said had "transformed the culture of the school".
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And Mrs Winn was also named principal of the year at the 2019 Raising the Bar Awards to recognise educational achievement in Suffolk.
So how did she and her team of about 100 staff manage such a great turnaround?
Even though she is personally praised for her "clear, ambitious vision" and the way she has "galvanised other leaders", Mrs Winn is clear that the turnaround is very much down to a team of people rather than her alone.
Whereas many leaders might be expected to take a more top-down approach, Mrs Winn takes a much more democratic view.
"I have a very open way of working," she said.
"I bring it to the whole staff so we can decide what we'll do as a collective."
Mrs Winn said there were "a lot of challenges" that go with being in special measures.
"Those challenges are the reputation of the school and difficulty with the recruitment and retention of staff, as well as the morale of the staff and students,
"It's also really difficult for communities and also you're under constant scrutiny."
Mrs Winn believes her approach has helped to motivate teachers and "has created a real buy-in from the staff".
A laser-like focus
Running a school of nearly 900 students is busy enough at the best times, even without the additional Ofsted monitoring visits to check on the school's progress.
With lessons, exams, meetings and paperwork all to think about, one would be forgiven for thinking it's difficult to know what to focus on. Even during lunch breaks, teachers are having to keep an eye on the students to make sure they are safe
Part of the school's new approach was therefore to "work really efficiently and strip away anything that's unnecessary, particularly around paperwork or activities that aren't contributing to teaching and learning and the broader learning experience", Mrs Winn said.
She added: "That takes a lot of pressure and burden away and means you can spend your energy on the things that are important, rather than the things that peripheral or don't serve a purpose."
The 'lesson rubik'
"The quality of teaching and learning has to come first," Mrs Winn said.
Yet this was one of the area Ofsted had most seriously criticised, commenting on the "variable" marking of students' work and saying the "pace of learning in lessons is often very slow" - with students becoming "distracted, bored or restless".
It also said previous strategies to improve the quality of teaching "had little impact".
In today's world, there are several theories about how to inspire students using modern teaching techniques.
Yet Ipswich Academy opted for a much more traditional style of teaching that some might describe as old-fashioned, but which Mrs Winn says has "had a dramatic impact on progress".
Called the "lesson rubik", each class follows a set structure.
Students start with a five-minute recap of what they learned in the previous session, before the teacher explains and shows them what they want pupils to do in the lesson - this part of the lesson is called "I do."
The lesson then moves to the "we do" section, where students practise what they have been asked to do while the teacher keeps a close eye on what is going on.
This is often repeated to give the students encouragement and coach them to improve, before the youngsters' progress is assessed at the end.
It might sound simple, but Mrs Winn believes the rigorous and consistent approach has lifted Ipswich Academy out of being below national average for pupil progress to now being above average.
The sky's the limit
With every class containing a mixture of students, learning styles and skills, the million dollar question for many teachers is: how challenging do I make my lessons?
One might think it is most logical to pitch lessons somewhere in the middle, to alienate as few young people as possible.
Yet Mrs Winn says: "We pitch learning high.
"We don't pitch in the middle. We put challenge in for the students.
"It means all of our students know there's no glass ceiling.
"If we have high aspirations as a school and as staff, the students will rise to that.
"Every member of staff has incredibly high expectations of the students and the students have high expectations of themselves."
Behaviour was one of the biggest problems at Ipswich Academy - but has now proved to be one of its biggest successes.
Many of us might have bitter experience of teachers raising their voices to assert their authority - but Mrs Winn believes keeping the academy calm is a crucial foundation to good behaviour.
Teachers therefore have a "no shouting" policy, the only exception being when someone is in danger.
"We keep the academy really calm," Mrs Winn said.
"That means reduced stress for the staff and the students.
"It's about respect. We all respect each other as people and that's part of our ethos, to treat each other with respect."
Where youngsters do step out of line though, there is a clear "consequence system" where students know they will end up in detention if they misbehave.
Detentions are held quickly afterwards and by a centralised team of staff, so the punishment is consistent.
It has resulted in what Ofsted has described as the "most striking improvement", with inspectors saying that: "Behaviour is now much better at the school."
Mrs Winn added: "We're very consistent and systematic in our approach.
"We've found over the past year that the number of children with detentions has dropped really significantly."
With the years of poor results at Ipswich Academy, it would have been easy for the community to turn on the school and its leaders.
However Mrs Winn said: "Parents and carers have been incredibly supportive. Whenever we've asked for their support with helping the children, they have responded really well.
"Ipswich Academy is not an exam factory and we don't want to be an exam factory.
"However if students are taught really well every day, that means there's plenty of time to have a broad, balanced curriculum.
"Every time I arrive at work in the morning, I'm just reminded of how lucky I am to work at Ipswich Academy.
"The overwhelming feeling I have is how proud I am of the students and the staff."