Outstanding schools: RJ Mitchell Primary

  • Outstanding schools: RJ Mitchell Primary

It might not be in the headteacher’s manual but ollaboration is the name of the game for Barry Read and his team at R. J. itchell Primary, says Jacob Stow...

Ten years ago, R. J. Mitchell Primary School stood on the brink, facing closure as pupil numbers in the local area dwindled and the prospect of its spacious, former RAF fighter base-grounds (hence the name, fellow history buffs) being sold off for housing development. “It got to the point where the school was losing children,” deputy headteacher, Kevin Lee, explains. “Classes had gone down from 30 to 13, and some other schools were taking the additional pupils.

Luckily, the teachers kept the children’s books because they thought there was still a chance they would be coming back.”

“The parents and staff marched on the town hall with banners and placards,” headteacher, Barry Read, continues the story.

“Thankfully, at the last minute one of the local councillors changed his mind. Bless the staff for not jumping, because they must have thought they would soon be out of a job.”

It was in the aftermath of this triumph of people power that Barry took the reins at R. J.

Mitchell, and whilst the school had been given a new lease of life, his view was that an entirely new approach was required to tackle the challenges it faced in the long term. In the years since, a core of staff has remained but much has changed – from improved levels of engagement between school and parents, to the introduction of EdisonLearning’s skills-based curriculum. As a consequence, the school, judged ‘satisfactory’ in 2008, was rated ‘good’ in 2011, and earlier this year received an International School Award from EdisonLearning in recognition of its results in English and maths – both of which have reached 97 per cent.

There’s no sense from Barry or Kevin that the job has been completed, but there’s a belief that the progress that has been made is worth celebrating, and a commitment to continue to improve…

1 Parents first

When taking on a big job the trickiest part can be knowing where to start, but for Barry, before tackling teaching and before EdisonLearning, there was an obvious first step to change attitudes at R. J. Mitchell. “I think the most important bit is contact with parents. If you want to improve a school and its children’s results, they are the people who can help,” he says.

“When I arrived, parents were very much shut out – you didn’t come into the school when you brought your children in in the mornings, you stood at the end of the alleyway behind the gate and posted them in. Within a week I’d stopped that – I told the parents to come in and up to the doors, and there was a real influx. Someone wrote to me to say that I’d put the heart back into the school.

“If a parent comes in, I will spend two hours talking to them if that’s what’s needed,” he continues, “even when I have stacks of work on my desk. It’s important that they leave this office feeling better. The children are their babies, so they’re going to defend them. You have to reason with them and hold your hands up if you make a mistake, and you need to make time – that’s where some heads go wrong.”

Simple efforts to engage with parents at the school are supplemented by more ambitious projects: there’s a new initiative – “a bit like having our own citizens’ advice bureau from 7–9pm,” Barry explains – scheduled for the day of TP’s visit, designed to provide advice on housing, budgeting and parenting skills. And there’s also a termly parent forum, open to all and presided over by Kevin, which gives mums and dads the opportunity to air their thoughts and make suggestions as to how the school can improve.

2 School development

The partnership with EdisonLearning is the most substantial change at R. J. Mitchell since Barry’s arrival, one which has shifted the focus of learning in the classroom, introduced new strategies to engage families and support children, and empowered staff.

“Because it’s a five-strand approach, you have five key leads,” Barry says regarding the latter, “so you have other people involved in the process who can make decisions and changes.

“The idea is that these elements fit together to make a whole school development ethos,” he continues, “and we decided we wanted everything they had to offer; we needed it. I was lucky in the sense that the school had a lot of money – because of the threatened closure they hadn’t been spending any – but it has proved well worth it.”

The five strands comprise the ‘learning environment’, ‘leadership and management’, ‘core learning skills’, ‘assessment’, and a ‘Student and Family Support System’ (SAFFS), all of which have been adapted at R. J. Mitchell to suit the school’s circumstances. In the classroom it’s the six ‘core learning skills’ that are most visible; alongside eight ‘core learning values’, they’re discussed, taught and modelled – the idea being to develop children as good learners rather than merely impart knowledge.

As Foundation Stage teacher and member of the senior management team, Margaret McCarthy, puts it, “If the children didn’t have the right attitudes from their values, they wouldn’t gain so much from their skills, and if they didn’t have those skills they wouldn’t access the curriculum as well as they do.”

The impact of SAFFS – a system designed to identify barriers to learning and intervene to remove them as quickly as possible – is also highlighted. “We have an Achievement Team Meeting every fortnight at which teachers and TAs can bring up anything that they think might be a concern,” Barry explains.

“There’s then either a set period of time in which to solve the problem, or it’s sent to the SAFFS team straight away, who will meet and plan an intervention.

The beauty of it is that you can have everybody in the room at the same time. You can look at data and attendance, and anything that’s coming through from the achievement teams and act based on what the child in question needs right now.”

3 Culture of collaboration

“When I arrived, there was, in some cases, a culture of worksheets on a table and children would be sitting at their desks in stony silence – which was considered good because it was quiet,” Barry says as we talk about the change in attitude amongst staff and students over recent years. “I could see straight away that deeper learning wasn’t taking place. I remember asking one of the children, ‘How do you know the answers?’ and he said, ‘Because Miss wrote them on the board earlier.’.

We’ve moved further and further away from that point. Now it’s about collaborating on ideas. Some people think it’s noisy, but I think it’s great.” Collaboration is a recurring theme at the school, at the heart of Barry’s and Kevin’s belief about what’s important in education, and the EdisonLearning model they’ve adopted. “There’s a movement towards a more collaborative culture because of how technology is changing,” Kevin explains. “In the future we won’t have jobs for 20–30 years, we’ll have a six-month contract then another; we’ll be using transferable skills. Teamwork will be absolutely crucial, so a huge part of what we do is teach children how to learn and how to be collaborative human beings.”

It’s also something for the staffroom, Barry adds: “During NPQH training they sell a line that you should be a bigger boot boy, that you should go into your school and be strong and determined in your vision, and you should chuck out those people who don’t fit in. They don’t necessarily sell what I do, which is the collegiate approach, where we discuss things and we analyse things together, and we’re honest with each other.

That’s seen as a weak model, but my personality isn’t like that and I can’t change the way I am – I don’t fit the NCSL model, but I don’t care!”

4 A principled approach

Barry and Kevin seem determined to lead the school on their own terms and to stick to their principles – they’re dismissive of the everchanging educational landscape and pragmatic in the face of meeting the demands of statutory curricula. “For us,” Barry says, “it’s about making a system work for this school. If the children need to learn facts, then let’s just teach them in a short period and get it over and done with. It’ll be the dullest week of the year, where we learn the kings and queens of England from start to finish, but then we can go back to our music, our art, our culture and our enjoyment – the things the children really get a kick out of.

“This is an easy job in which to become ground down and lose your principles,” he continues, “you could see that in the SATs boycott. That should have been 100 per cent across the board – all you needed to say was, ‘No, I’m not opening the box’, there was no need to close schools and disrupt children’s lives, and get all those awful headlines that you get. But many people didn’t because they’ve been ground down over the years and lost that ability to stand by their beliefs.

“It’s important not to give up on what you believe in, and that’s how we run this school.

The Edison model we’ve adopted, and the idea of collaboration that’s central to it, is an example of how we’ve stuck to our principles. It’s not just another school development model; it has structure but behind it what we believe education is all about.”

5 Less is more

Teaching is a tough, time-consuming job, but it turns out there’s a simple solution to trying to squeeze 28 hours’ work into a 24-hour day – stop doing what’s not important. “When I started as a headteacher here they took me to another school to see good practice,” Barry says. “The head, who was the renowned guru at that point, brought out 20 folders and put them on a table. ‘There’s my improvement plan,’ he said.

‘This is what I write each year in April and this is the most magnificent thing…’

“I think you can waste far too much time on that sort of thing. We’ve scaled down our school development plan to a point where now we have three bullet points for a subject area. Sometimes it just says ‘I’m going to develop staff knowledge and expertise’ – the most important bit. Forget your files and your colourcoordinated charts. If you spend too much time on that it’s to the detriment of things that matter, like going out and meeting the parents.

“Less is more,” agrees Kevin. “You can trim things to the nub, to what’s most effective. A lot of our systems are very streamlined, which is good too because it means people understand them. You don’t want to have an incredibly complex system. People might do what they’re asked, but they won’t necessarily understand why they’re doing it.”

Pie Corbett