You have to be brave to lead a challenging school

  22 February, 2019

Article first published by the Tes on 22 February 2019.

Being ‘badly bullied’ at school and having a son with special needs helped Tes Schools Awards head of the year Jane Nolan to succeed in one the country’s most deprived areas.

We are the Champions by Queen plays out as children at Ormiston South Parade Academy in Grimsby file into assembly.

And these 570 pupils are certainly champions.

This is one of the most deprived areas of the country, according to government figures. There are high levels of crime, drug-use, homelessness, children in care, long-term jobless families… you name it.

Yet these pupils are flying well above the national average when it comes to progress and attainment. The academy is in the top 2 per cent of primary schools in the country for progress, and is ranked in the top 1 per cent of schools in this year’s Real Schools Guide 2019, which looks at 44 different measures.

The school’s leader is another champion. She is the Tes headteacher of the year Jane Nolan, who has transformed the school from being on the brink of special measures since she took over five years ago.

She admits it was “very tough” at the start of what is her first headship. And there are problems she won’t talk about for confidentiality reasons, although it’s no secret that staff morale was low and teacher retention was at crisis point.

Deprivation no barrier to achievement 

The school, just outside Grimsby town centre, is in an area with high levels of domestic violence and alcohol and drug abuse. And there is cultural deprivation too. Some children don’t know what a pineapple is, for example, and can’t identify certain farm animals, while some are not used to sitting at a table and using a knife and fork. Some have never been to a beach, despite the resort of Cleethorpes being a couple of miles away.

But Nolan doesn’t see deprivation as a barrier to achievement, and she has built a team around her who share that belief.

“I say to my staff all the time that success is all about relationships. At primary age pupils want to do well for their teacher or their teaching assistant and you’ve got to show that they matter to you and take an interest in them and be warm and really be supportive.”

By her own admission, she works “really, really hard” and “lives and breathes” for her children. It’s not even 11am and she’s already walked 4,700 steps around the school (out of her daily target of 10,000), according to her pedometer.

She has a double-first in psychology (from Cambridge) and trained as an educational psychologist before becoming a teacher, so it’s no surprise she understands how pupils’ brains work.

“Our pupils absolutely thrive on clear systems and routines. For many of them, this school is very much a safe haven and they like the predictability of having those systems and routines that are consistent throughout the school. That’s really, really important.”

Ring the changes

Changes she brought in include being positive about behaviour rather than punitive (which had been the old way). And there’s now “a massive focus on enrichment,” which includes three residential trips a year, including to the Peak District and Lake District.

There were changes to the staff too, and Nolan “took a risk” on very young teachers who showed talent (who now make up her leadership team).

Her approach isn’t “my way or the highway,” she says, but includes collective decision-making (for example, on whether to implement the Shanghai Maths model, which the school did).

“Staff have to feel happy in order to pass on that positive relationship to children,” says Nolan. 

“It’s about appreciating staff and treating them with respect and being mindful of their workload and wellbeing.

“Just as with pupils, you have to remember the small details like, say, whose husband is in hospital or who’s looking after their mother at home who might need to leave a little bit early. It’s all give and take to make a happy working environment because if staff are happy they will radiate that to the children.”

And then there are the parents.

Nolan says the best parts of her day are the pupil arrival and departure times when she and her staff will go outside the school gates to meet the parents.

“I’ve got to know the parents really well and they trust me. They approach me and we sort things out in an informal way, so it is very rare that I have any appointments for parents to actually come in and see me.”

The fact that parents still come to her about their children’s problems – even after they’re moved to secondary school – is a reflection of the level of trust and regard she has established in the community.

She has empathy, she says, through being a parent herself. In fact she is a single parent, with a son with special needs, now aged 16, who has just passed eight GCSEs.

“The years up to him being 14 were very challenging, partly because of the varying levels of support from the schools he was in. It has given me a huge understanding of being a parent.”

“I was badly bullied”

Another life experience that has shaped her, she says, is her own experience of school.

“I had a really difficult time at secondary school on the outskirts of Hull. It was really tough and I was really badly bullied, mostly by boys. I’m quite a tough cookie and I can hold my own, but it was bad.”

She says she stood out because of her family background and because her parents were “a bit like hippies”.

“I was embarrassed about my packed lunch because I had falafal and weird-smelling things and the other kids all had white bread and Walkers’ crisps, and that’s what I wanted. No child wants to stand out at that age. I was also bright and had a passion for reading so that made me stand out as well.

“The thing about the bullying was that I just didn’t know how to stop it. I would never describe myself as a victim. I am tough. But it was relentless. It was that daily grind and it just ground me down. They would hit me from behind when I was walking down the stairs and try to trip me over and all that kind of stuff. It has definitely shaped me and it has given me a huge empathy with people who are bullied.”

Needless to say, at OSPA there is a strict policy on bullying, which is sorted through restorative practice sessions.

“We talk to all the parties involved in a timely fashion,” says Nolan. “All of the senior leaders are involved as are all the teachers. We communicate so staff are all up to date with it and we have parents in.”

Role model

Nolan says she has always worked in “challenging contexts in areas of deprivation”.

“It can be very rewarding working in a challenging school, and you can make a huge difference, but you have to be brave and go for it.

“You have to have a real core belief in what you’re doing. And it has to be something that matters to you that is going to get you up in the morning when you’re facing what seem like insurmountable challenges. It has to come from the heart.”

Her first teaching job, aged 31, was as a KS1 and 2 teacher in Prescott Primary, in Knowsley, Liverpool, which is another of the most deprived areas of the country.

It was there she worked for a headteacher who became her role model. “She was inspiring and had really high expectations and she was really dynamic and engaging, and she clearly communicated that she wanted the very best for the children.

“But she was also really great fun and she was really stylish and fashionable – and had a fantastic shoe collection!”

Overcome with emotion

So what of the glitzy award night at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London’s Park Lane?

“It was fantastic,” says Nolan. “I absolutely was not expecting to win or I wouldn’t have had the three glasses of cava if I’d known I was going to have to stand up in front of 2,000 people!

“I can honestly say it was one of the proudest moments of my life. I was really overcome with emotion because I just couldn’t believe it. The whole team just works so, so hard here. We live and breathe everything for the children and to get that recognition it was just an absolutely huge honour. And it was lovely that I was able to take my leadership team with me and my PA and my business manager because we so rarely get a chance to do anything together.

“It’s had a really big positive impact on the community in raising their aspirations, and it has put Grimsby on the map.”

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