Last reviewed 23 February 2015

In this article, Paul Glover, Executive Head of STEP Academy Trust, explains how he has taken a school in special measures and fixed what was labelled “an unfixable school”.

Why was the school labelled one which “cannot be fixed”?

Croydon has the second largest number of failing primary schools in London, and when I joined, Applegarth Junior was one of the most challenging schools in the area.

The longer a school has been in special measures, the harder it is to turn around and when I took over as Head in January 2012, Applegarth Junior School had been in special measures for 15 months. Hence, it became known as “a school that couldn’t be fixed.”

We had a high rate of exclusion, pupils with attendance below 90%, and there was a culture of low expectation. Some pupils demonstrated extreme behaviours, which included smashing the school windows, so the environment wasn’t one which encouraged pupils to flourish. Our SATS results were in no way a true reflection of what our pupils were capable of.

Luckily, I love a challenge. I see potential as one of life’s great gifts and I hate to see it wasted. I am passionate about making a good education available to everyone, no matter where you live or what your background is.

How did you identify which areas to start with?

To make the changes we needed to, it was going to be a team effort. I consulted with staff and listened to what pupils and parents had to say. It was an eye-opening time and between us we identified some key areas that needed to be addressed to help turn the school around: behaviour, attendance, teaching and learning and the general school environment.

There was also an underlying issue relating to performance measurement. If we were to bring about rapid change, we needed to be able to set targets and monitor progress.

The recording of data was very poor so it was impossible to get an accurate picture of where children were academically. This meant all teaching staff getting to grips with the data on SIMS our management information system — the same one that most schools use to monitor behaviour, attendance and achievement.

The school had a serious issue with attendance, how did you address that?

From the start we took a very hard line and set ourselves a challenging target of raising attendance to 95% in year one. Working with parents, we ensured that every single absence was followed up. I made it clear to parents that my job first and foremost is to educate children and I can’t do that if they are not in school.

I led assemblies on the subject too, making it a whole school mission, and placed targets in huge letters all around the school. Once we hit our target, we had a great celebration and then set a higher bar of 97% as our next target.

How did you tackle the extreme behaviours?

We wanted to have 100% good behaviour which meant setting tough targets and operating a zero-tolerance approach to any issues. Essentially, we followed up on all reported incidents.

We backed this up by providing additional learning support. If the data showed us that a particular child always misbehaved during literacy time, we offered reading help — it could be that they were struggling to keep up.

As a result of this policy, behaviour has been completely transformed and what once was a high exclusion rate went down to zero and has stayed low.

How did you get pupils, teachers and parents on board with your future vision?

Target setting was required to ensure we all moved along the same continuum but we made sure these targets were personal, easy to understand and could be broken down into smaller steps.

For example, a target could be for a pupil to have no negative behaviour points that term or to be able to write their name by the end of the year.

We also worked on getting parents back into the school as they are essential in helping raise a child’s achievement. We ran coffee mornings, Bring a Parent to School Week and educational evenings so that they could help their child with homework.

We even ran free fitness classes for parents, as once parents were on site the conversations generally turned to their child’s education and so we increased engagement. This approach worked really well.

What work was carried out to ensure that the environment inspired learning?

Work on improving the school buildings started immediately, with builders working through the night to smarten it up so that the pupils were proud of their school.

We held School Grounds Days where pupils and parents were invited along to lend a hand with painting or clearing rubbish. This kept costs down and ensured everyone took ownership of the school and played a part in keeping it looking good.

Now that the transformation of the school is complete, what has the impact been?

Our no excuse, working together ethos at Applegarth Academy is paying off. Once behaviour and attendance were heading in the right direction, improvements in achievement followed closely behind.

It seems unbelievable but within six months, the junior school had been rated “good” by Ofsted.

From 2012–2013, we saw a marked improvement at Key Stage 2 SATS. In maths, we saw an increase of 17% at level 4 and 24% at level 5, and in writing, an increase of 14% at level 4 and 13% at level 5. Attendance continues to rise and the school is at last helping children get the education they deserve and need.

One of the many things I will take away from this experience is that it has further cemented my belief that improvement can take place in any school, within a timeframe that would surprise many.

What are the next steps for Applegarth?

We will be continuing on this positive path, working as a team, setting targets and measuring progress along the way, which keeps us heading in the right direction; with one goal, to ensure that every pupil’s progress is closely tracked so they get the excellent education they deserve and achieve the best possible outcome.

About the author

Paul Glover was Head at Applegarth Academy during its transformation and has now been promoted to Executive Head at the STEP Academy Trust. Since his success at Applegarth, Paul has gone on to turn around a failing infant school, a speech and language centre and Wolsey Junior Academy, a failing school that received a positive Ofsted result after just 15 days of using his same target-led approach. He is now working with Gloucester Primary in Peckham to do the same.