Committed to continued improvement

Walking into Perry Beeches school, any trepidation about encountering large and intimidating groups of youngsters melts away. The school is a haven for respect, hard work and achievement, with both pupils and staff seemingly happy to be there.

But it wasn’t always like this. Walking into the school just three years ago and you would have been faced with a very different situation: “On an average day there were fights, a fair amount of bullying and no real respect for each other,” remembers head teacher Liam Nolan. “It was on the floor academically and very quickly put into a failing category by Ofsted.”

In 2007, just 21 per cent of pupils gained the benchmark five A* to C grade results at GCSE including maths and English. Now, 74 per cent of its pupils achieve the benchmark, making it the most improved school ever over a three-year period. Not including maths and English, it has a 100 per cent record for pupils gaining five A* to C grade passes.

What makes this transformation so incredible is that it is not the result of buckets of government funding or a shiny new building: “We have not received a single penny more money in order to achieve what we have done,” explains Nolan. “We ourselves had to go into deficit – £580,000 worth – but none of this came from the council. I’m pleased to say that we are now close to paying it off.”

Understandably, this transformation has gained a great deal of interest nationally; Education Secretary Michael Gove has requested a meeting to find out the secret to this success and Ofsted are considering laying on visits so other schools can learn from their achievements.

Leadership strategy
So how was this transformation achieved? Nolan explains: “I was appointed head teacher in April 2007 and Ofsted came in September 2007. I knew the school was well below target and I actually asked them to put us in the ‘notice to improve’ category.

“It was part of my leadership strategy. This way there had to be changes and I could rally together pupils, staff and parents and say ‘look, we’ve got a year to turn the school around otherwise we will be put in special measures’. It was a way to get everyone working together for a common goal.” And to reinforce this team message, the school adopted the title ‘team PB’.

It was a back-to-basics approach that formed the foundation of this transformation. “The first thing I did was re-introduce standards. I insisted on proper uniform, attendance and punctuality. If students turned up without the correct uniform, I would send them home. When this first happened, we had to send back about 140 youngsters.”

In order to get staff on board, Nolan made sure teachers felt appreciated: “Even the little touches like making tea and toast for staff at breaktime was a major moral booster.”

While strict changes were put in place, surprisingly, Nolan met little resistance: “It helped being in ‘notice to improve’. The school was failing so there had to be changes and the majority were behind me. I did have to be fairly dynamic and strong to follow it through. People were very clearly told that this was how the school was to be run.

“But some people don’t get it even now, I still have parents who want to take children on holidays during school time and students who are not behaving how we want them to. But that’s life. What you must do is be consistent and reinforce the agenda at all times.”

A mark of respect
When the head teacher or senior member of staff walk into a classroom, the pupils and teacher stand. The original reason for this, Nolan explains, was to stop any fighting that had broken out. “Before when I walked into a room, there were often pupils fighting and I had to shout over the noise to get them to notice me. By getting everyone to stand was a real simple way to get the fighting to stop – it’s instant and non-confrontational. I’m then able to say ‘good morning year 10, it looked a bit lively in here. Could you wait outside a moment’ to the pupils involved. This means I’m in a position to talk to them about what happened privately and in a non-confrontational manner.

“Now we are at the stage where if we are disappointed in a student, that’s punishment enough.” The fact that there have been no permanent exclusions in the last two years is testament to this style of leadership and discipline.

While the ethos and attitudes have changed, the school is still in the same catchment area as before and still suffers from the same issues as it did three years ago. Deprivation is significant; over 38 per cent of pupils are on free school meals, 38.4 per cent come from households that are in the lowest 20 per cent income bracket and 75.5 per cent are from the lowest 40 per cent income bracket. “We’re still a tough, inner-city comprehensive,” explains Nolan. “We’ve achieved what we have by creating relationships, not because we sedate our youngsters.”

Focus on learning

Nolan prides himself on creating a learning school, where it is not only the pupils, but also the teachers and staff that are engaged in some form of training. Nolan himself has been taking GCSE English classes for some of the non teaching staff – and all have passed.

Since taking post, the budget for exams has gone up to give pupils better chances at passing. “Gaining qualifications should be like taking a driving test; you don’t only get one chance to pass and you can’t drive until you pass because you are not ready. Likewise you can’t move on to level 3 qualifications if you don’t have GCSE maths and English because you are not ready.”

Another initiative that Nolan and his team started was the Academic Mentoring Programme. This involves a group of non-teachers that have come from industry, such as IT and banking, to focus on pupils that are seriously falling behind. A pupil is assigned an individual mentor outside of the time table to focus on the areas where they struggle. Pat Short, lead academic mentor said: “We’re not teachers and therefore are not interested in the bureaucracy that schools can get caught up in. We’re just here to focus on our pupils – to give them the individual attention they need.”

To be or not to be an academy
The school was offered the option to become an academy but it was originally refused. “I was adamant that we were never going to be an academy, we were proud to be a normal state school. But my attitude has changed. We had a couple of engagements with the local authority that really made me realise how held back the school was.

“We have reached a fullness and are now considering changing to an academy because it offers us the freedoms we need to grow. We’re even considering expanding the team of PB schools to incorporate other failing schools.”

“Our achievement was really a result of getting back to basics”, Nolan concludes. “Schools need to realise that it is absolutely attainable, but you really have to believe and get pupils, teachers and parents to believe. So much can be achieved just by making simple changes – focusing on standards, building on the positives, and creating relationships.”

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