Outstanding Schools: Water Hall Primary

  • Outstanding Schools: Water Hall Primary

There’s no quick fix when it comes to engaging emotionally with children and parents, but making the effort, like staff at Water Hall Primary School, can pay real dividends

There’s an unusual tranquillity to the start of each day at Water Hall Primary School, Milton Keynes. It’s part of the very fabric of the grounds – from the decorative (and suitably water-themed) entrance that serves every child and parent, to the classical music-filled courtyard, leafy and well-stocked with standing stones, through which they must pass to reach the bright, modern classrooms. It sees children of all ages, many from challenging backgrounds, prepared to learn, their anxieties and challenging behaviours left at the door… well, stowed under their desks, at least. And it’s made a real difference – but it’s just part of the story.

“When I go into a classroom today, everyone is engaged in their work – 13 years ago it was just a warzone,” Water Hall’s headteacher, Tony Draper, tell us. If the name sounds familiar, that’s because Tony is the current president of the NAHT. The role is severely restricting the time he gets to spend at the school at present, but that it’s running like clockwork under the stewardship of deputy head, Karen Roberts, in his absence is testament to the transformation that has occurred. Kids and parents have decommissioned their guns; peaceful learning has broken out. The staff have even picked up an Ofsted ‘outstanding’ along the way (though Tony makes it clear where Ofsted sits in his list of priorities…).

“I’ve missed this place, the people in it,” he admits as we sit down to talk about how things have gone so right at Water Hall. “We play here – with kids, with staff. The atmosphere, the values, the behaviours, that’s what makes it work.”

1. Starting early

When Tony arrived at Water Hall more than a decade ago – back before the school’s new building was even a glint in its architect’s eye – he was under no illusions as to the scale of the challenge he faced. There were a variety of problems to grapple with. Issues posed by the school’s intake – the proportion of children eligible for the Pupil Premium, and with SEN at Water Hall is well above the national average, while mobility is high – couldn’t be avoided, but the responses too them could be changed.

“At the time the Foundation Stage was in a dire state – and if your Foundation Stage isn’t right, then the rest of the school isn’t,” Tony says. “In the early years you’re developing children’s values and their perception of school. You’re developing their parents’ perception of school as well. If the staff blame children for where they come from, as happened here many years ago, they pick up on that. They know whether or not they’re valued by the school. And if they’re not, why on earth should parents support you?”

It was Karen, prior to Tony’s arrival a Year 2 teacher, who was tasked with implementing a new approach to the school’s youngest children, the first step on Water Hall’s long road to recovery: “It was about having high expectations, distinguishing what was learning through play and what was play with little or no purpose – and, importantly, improving communication between staff and parents, which was very, very difficult,” she explains. “Things were quite hostile at the time; there was a lot of friction. Many of the parents had been bullied at school, and therefore felt they were sending their children to school to be bullied.

“We had to break down those barriers and let the parents know that we cared as much about their children as they did. It began with listening and not being judgemental. Agreeing, to an extent, and then being seen to do something about their grievances.

“At the same time it was a matter of getting rid of the staff, too, which sounds awful. You can put in as much support as you like for teachers, but there comes a time where people need to face up to the fact that they aren’t doing their job. It’s hard.”

2. Shared values

Changes in practice, attitudes and personnel weren’t confined to the Foundation Stage. As time went on it became clear there was a need for a complete shift in culture across the school as a whole, a need to ensure that every adult and every child was pulling in the same direction. At the same time, improvement strategies imposed by those in power beyond the playground gates were stalling, just as the pressure to demonstrate progress was growing.

“When I came in I said to those in the local authority back then that the school was a huge mess, and that it would take six years to turn it around – to which they said ‘absolutely’ and that they would support me all the way,” Tony says. “Of course, after a year, they were on our backs, and it was ‘your job’s on the line’. That’s how quickly things can turn.

“We had years and years of local authority intervention, of being told our maths and English results weren’t good enough. We had the same people coming in to work with the staff, over and over, and when that didn’t work we were just told we needed to try harder, to do more of the same. And it doesn’t bloody work – all you end up doing is driving yourself closer to madness.”

It was a keynote by consultant Mike Brearley at a local NAHT conference that gave Tony a strategy he felt could make a difference. “We started working with Mike on the values of the whole school – full spectrum values that we as a staff felt were important to move the school forward,” Tony explains. “We then looked at the behaviours that should underpin those values, that every adult in the school should be displaying. We had the same conversation with the children, too. Karen did a lot of work with Human Givens and we linked those to the values as well.

“That was about looking at which of the children’s needs weren’t being met, issues that would mean they might not be able to display the behaviours we identified,” Karen says. “Then we had to think about how we could meet those needs, be they emotional or something as basic as needing to eat.”

“The behaviours underpinning our values are embedded across the school today,” Tony says. If somebody is not displaying those behaviours around the school, be they adult or child, then anybody has the right to challenge them.”

3. Emotional engagement

Establishing the school’s values and desired behaviours provided a consistency of vision but more was needed to improve children’s learning outcomes. “We were absolutely convinced that the key to switching children on to learning was emotional engagement,” Tony says.

By chance both Tony and Karen stumbled upon a means to achieve just that: Kaleidoscope, an approach based on aspects of colour therapy and developed by headteacher Anne Lubbock, also based in Milton Keynes. Water Hall has embraced Kaleidoscope, placing it at the heart of every child’s school experience. Its practical application takes various forms, but the end goal is always the same – to foster self-esteem and a state of mind conducive to learning. 

It is Kaleidoscope that has brought about the tranquil beginning to each school day described above – first thing each morning every class sits down for a short group session: “It allows children to unpick or to get off their chests anything that has gone on at home or outside of school; it gets their shoulders to drop so that they’re ready for learning,” Tony says. The school’s shared entrance and courtyard were features requested specifically to maximise the effectiveness of this part of the timetable, we hear. 

Classroom sessions present children with a sensory focal point – for example, a battery-powered candle and piece of tactile material – and see them engaging in different relaxation techniques; after that they might play with play-dough or pipe-cleaners, or blow bubbles. “In this context it’s very much about getting 30 children relaxed and ready for the day,” Karen explains.

But Kaleidoscope’s impact doesn’t end here. At other times, children also benefit from small group therapy sessions in a specially designed Kaleidoscope room – a soothing environment, equipped with multisensory equipment. “These sessions run for at least 10 weeks,” Karen explains, “but some children will use the programme throughout their school lives, because they need that space and time to re-engage with themselves.”

Tony and Karen are clear that while Kaleidoscope is for everyone at Water Hall, it is particularly effective in supporting the many children who could be classed as emotionally vulnerable. The approach helps children to express their emotions by assigning them colours, a step designed to help differentiate different feelings that may be proving difficult to process; teachers work to build self-esteem, too – “A lot of our children find it very hard to look at themselves in the mirror, so we draw on mirrors, put sequins on them.”

While Karen led Water Hall’s adoption of Kaleidoscope, training as a consultant, today every member of teaching staff is trained to implement it with their children. “If everyone buys in, then it’s going to make a bigger difference,” Karen says. And that difference, she says, comes to the fore in Year 6 when all the efforts to scaffold self-esteem translate into significantly improved attainment.

4. Go your own way

That Tony, Karen and the team at Water Hall have turned things around is an achievement made all the sweeter by the fact that the local authority at the time was dismissive of their approach. “Our belief in emotional engagement was not shared by the powers that be,” Tony explains. “We went through a very difficult time where we had to hide what we were doing to improve this school, and play the game with what they were imposing on us.

“It was a huge risk,” he admits, “but we put our heads together and said, look, all this stuff, all this ‘more of the same’ just hasn’t worked. We’re working on something here and we’re seeing changes – in staff and children, in parents. There’s something happening. We’ve got to do what we believe in.”

“We were still doing the things we were being told to do,” Karen says. “We still had the consultants coming in, we were still doing the extra literacy and numeracy. But alongside that, we were doing more and more of the emotional engagement. As things slowly started to improve, we were doing less and less of what we were told, and more and more of what we wanted. It was really, really tough, but we decided we were going to go down fighting for what we believed in!”

“It’s worked for us,” Tony concludes, “and we now have a local authority who are very supportive of what we do, thankfully.”

Sustainable improvement

Water Hall’s transformation took several years, as Tony had predicted – alongside the focus on behaviour and emotional engagement, it involved the construction of a new building (deliberately placed to put it at the heart of the community) and careful recruitment, resulting in staff who are “all here for the right reason”.

In light of this, it’s no surprise that Tony’s views on the prevalent ‘quick fix’ culture are scathing: “We were really lucky in that we had time to change the school before the rabid, Govist purge on heads who were genuinely in post and working towards something – that was all brought crashing down by a ridiculous diet of floor standards and forced academisations.

“It does take at least five years to turn a school around effectively. I’ve seen places where super heads have gone in and made rapid changes; they get everyone wound up and working in a whirlwind, and the results are fantastic. Then the super head moves on and everything comes crashing down because it can’t be sustained. It’s got to be sustainable.”

Meet the staff

Tony Draper, Headteacher

“We had a huge problem a few years ago with lunchtimes – there’d be a big mêlée, arguments, and the teachers would spend half an hour in the afternoon picking up the pieces. Now children start off with a planned exercise with a TA, developing a skill; then they have lunch, then the teacher collects them. It’s enjoyable, but it’s not a free-for-all run around.”

Karen Roberts, Deputy Head

“Tony and I are not here making all the decisions, telling everyone what to do. It is a team. There is an SLT, but everybody has a say. That doesn’t mean we’re happy-clappy either – there are clear guidelines, and if push comes to shove it falls on us to make the hard decisions. But day to day we play together. ”

Charlotte Purves, Literacy Coordinator

“We have ‘learning cafes’ for staff, as well as for the children – and the ideas that are developed in the school are based on what we’ve talked about in the cafes. We all help each other, and everyone gets to have their say. We always assume that the answers we need are in the room, in the school.”

Jamie Atkins, Year 5/6 NQT

“I left this school as a pupil 10 years ago and the way the school was set up then is very different to how it is now. There’s been a huge change in the behaviour of the children and I think a lot of that is down to Kaleidoscope. I think if I had had Kaleidoscope, I would have been much calmer and ready to learn.”

Pupil voice

Jack Sharp
“Kaleidoscope is good because it relaxes our minds and helps us learn. We do it every day. There’s music too – calm music without words. Everyone in the class says it’s very relaxing. I think things would be noisier without it.”

Owen Wright
“Our 4D room is where we go for learning topics. There are screens on the floor and curtains. We’ll watch pictures and films, and then have a discussion. Afterwards we go back to the classroom to write about what we’ve seen.”

Shintel Mariera
“Learning cafes get our minds working so we don’t just keep our ideas to ourselves; everyone knows what they’re doing and gets a say. We want to have a growth mindset, where you accept other people’s comments and things you can improve on.”

Philip Gustov
“At playtimes we have different groups, for example, football, skipping and table tennis. People used to just run outside and wouldn’t always join in, or do silly things. But now we’re together and we know what we’re doing. I like the new way.”


Pie Corbett