Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Walk the walk

Somervale school

Somervale School was placed in special measures in 2003. Deputy head Mark Kenny shares the challenging and sometimes painful journey the school has travelled in order to turn itself around. 

The moment haunts many a school leader's night terrors. The monotone voice of the inspector in grey suit penetrates the heart, your knuckles whiten on the chair. "The school is judged as inadequate and requires special measures."

Your brain tries to tell you it's not personal, it's not about you, but a shard of self-esteem has been shattered forever. You try to quell the anger and despair through professional mantras as the inspectors take their leave but it feels as though your world is in pieces.

In this case, 'the school' was our school. Somervale is a media arts college in Midsomer Norton, Somerset. It was originally part of a mining community and the school intake is broadly average in attainment judged by prior entry data, though the number of professional families living locally is well below the national average.

In March 2003, we were put into the 'serious weaknesses' category. The school had been served notice to improve but declining standards of attainment and progress were not arrested in the summer exams and, after a re-inspection in December 2003, we were put into special measures.

Rebuilding staff confidence

Anyone who has had to lead in a school that has been placed in a 'category' will know that there is something akin to a sense of bereavement that lingers after the inspection. Some staff went into 'let's blame others' mode, while many, quietly and more damagingly, withdrew to blame themselves, the judgement confirming their own inadequacy.

We were keen to look at powerful, professional examples of how schools had been turned around in similar circumstances. A headteacher from a neighbouring authority gave an account of students reclaiming the reputation of their school through the subsequent monitoring visits.

An adviser from the National Strategy team came in to watch teaching in a department classed as inadequate and helped to rebuild professional confidence by describing in a staff meeting the good teaching he'd seen throughout the day.

The school established a post-Ofsted action plan based on the fundamental principle - borrowed from a fellow category school - that we had already moved on from the lowest point and were a rapidly improving school.

Crucially, the local authority accepted its part in allowing one of its schools to slip into special measures without sufficient challenge and support or investment. It set up a coherent plan to help us achieve some quick wins, where students would see a difference - for example in re-designing student and visitor reception so the environment celebrated what was good in the school. The LA also offered consultancy support for most subjects, sharing best practice in learning from across the authority.

Where to start

The key issues from the inspection covered every aspect of school life, so it wasn't easy to decide where to start. We agreed that raising standards of achievement would be best served by rigorous intervention programmes in year 11, while creating long-term fixes through improving target-setting and self-evaluation at pupil, group and cohort levels.

Student attitudes and motivation were tackled through affiliating students to their school. Pictures of students achieving were placed everywhere and students were trained as school ambassadors with the assistant head skilfully identifying the 'change-makers' for these roles.

In leadership and management, the local authority provided training for middle and senior leaders in lesson observation and how to hold staff to account. 

We began to understand that a strong dependency culture had affected teachers' ability to resolve behaviour issues for themselves; subliminally students had learned from us that only more senior staff could handle them. The school quickly and significantly altered from an organisation resistant to change to one willing to learn.

We knew the message was getting through when someone overheard Emma, a new year 7 student, saying to her friend: "This is a really good school."

Her friend came back with: "No it isn't, it's in special measures."

"Well it's a rapidly improving school anyway," Emma automatically replied.

As students started to reclaim the school's reputation we found that they became proud of themselves as learners. Our registered inspector on his monitoring visits offered real challenge and support, encouraging us to watch lessons with him and then suggesting we give feedback to colleagues that he observed.

By April 2005 HMI judged that the school no longer required special measures. The August results confirmed this judgement with the five A*-C measure including English and maths doubling in one year to 43 per cent.

At this point it was tempting just to keep doing more of the same but innovation was now in the blood.

Selling the school

The legacy of special measures meant that our rapid improvement was still a well-kept secret. We decided to use an inset day to invite all year 5 students from all our partner schools to come in, be taught by our staff and have the run of the school.

The students enjoyed watching Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on our cinema screen and working in specialist areas on all things related to chocolate. They were given unique access to our media arts specialist equipment and specialist teaching and they loved it.

Our former HMI encouraged us to host a national student voice seminar in association with the National Education Trust to showcase innovations in engaging students in school life. We did this in October.

To confirm our unique status as a specialist media arts college, we piloted work as a community radio provider and have now successfully applied to Ofcom with a commercial partner to broadcast on FM for the next five years to 21,000 households in the Norton Radstock area.

In June 2007 we arrived back after the holidays to be told we were being re-inspected in two days. We weren't expecting another inspection so soon but self-evaluation evidence was robust and current and our middle leaders were past masters at guiding inspectors to demonstrate their success.

After two days the judgement was 'good' in all categories and 'outstanding' in care and guidance.

Nearly all who walk through our doors tell us it's hard to believe the school was in special measures less than three years ago. One year 13 student told me as he left for university: "Somervale is nothing like the school I came to in year 7."

Sitting in the inspection de-brief and listening to positive after positive cascade like a refreshing waterfall, a sense of self-worth has returned.

Perhaps you allow yourself a wistful question: was all the pain necessary to create such catharsis? I believe it was, and I only hope our own happy ending offers you a light if your own dark is rising.

Mark Kenny is deputy head of Somervale School in Somerset, an 11-18 specialist media arts college with about 750 students.

© 2018 Association of School and College Leaders