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FEATURE: The journey of Wadham School in Crewkerne
ASK most people where they envisage themselves being in five to ten years’ time and many could not give you a concrete answer.
At Wadham School, the journey has been a transformation – it has not finished yet but everywhere you look are smiles.
That has not always been the case – eight years ago the school found itself under fire and in the spotlight of government inspectors.
The school had just gone into special measures in late 2005 when David Derbyshire looked at becoming head teacher.
He asked himself three questions: Can the school be turned around? Are there people to do it? And was he the right person? After his interview, he said he could answer ‘yes’ to all three questions.
Mr Derbyshire, who moved from Worcestershire and now lives in Hatch Beauchamp, said: “I have never subscribed to the ‘heroic head’ idea, it is about working with people to secure change and develop and improve.”
The school’s first step on its ladder of success saw it come out of special measures in June 2007.
Key elements towards that first step included good classroom practice, improving behaviour and bringing back the confidence of the community.
Mr Derbyshire said: “We focused on good practice for teachers, preparing lessons which engage and involve students with clear objectives for learning. Behaviour was not great but that was very quickly improved. It was all about consistency, setting the standards, ensuring they are met. Students were not seriously disruptive but we have now created an atmosphere in which learning can flourish – that is what we are proudest of.”
Mr Derbyshire said that during his interview he knew there was no reason why the school could not get to where it is today.
He added: “There was huge disappointment in the community at the outset because of the position the school was in. Once we came out of special measures and over time, long before we got the ‘good’ label, I think people recovered a pride in their school, shown in the involvement of all local groups from right across the community.”
Exam results have also progressed at the school, which has 660 students.
The next chance to impress inspectors came in September 2009 when the school was judged ‘satisfactory’, now called ‘requires improvement’, despite an improvement in exam results to 54% A*-C, including English and maths.
Mr Derbyshire said: “There was a lot of acknowledgement of the distance we had come and a lot of positives on the journey we were on. I think at that stage it was a reasonable judgement – we could see where that was coming from, we knew the goalposts had changed and it was more demanding. More was being asked and expectations were higher. I do not think you can quibble at that because you are looking after people’s futures.”
A head student team, introduced five years ago, has helped the school listen to students more.
He said: “When I joined, we had a head boy and girl, but I emphasise working in teams, so for this student team we have interviews and a consultative vote. Students form a selection panel with me and other senior leaders and the panel also decides who is president – it is more effective.”
Over the next three years the exam results at GCSE level improved to 60% A*-C, including English and Maths, in 2011 but dipped to 58% in the summer of 2012.
The inspectors were back in Crewkerne again in November 2012 to have another look at the school.
It was not good news – it still ‘required improvement’ – and Mr Derbyshire admitted it was a kick in the teeth for him, his staff and the school community.
Mr Derbyshire said: “It was disappointing but at that point you have a choice, you can say ‘okay, that is the judgement, we are just going to get on and get the good rating’, or you can keep picking over the scab and berating the fact that you didn’t get what you hoped to get. If you do the latter it is unproductive and it is sapping of people’s energy. School leadership is about saying ‘okay, that is the judgement, what do we do next?’ “We knew we were making the improvement – there was real disappointment and we had to pick people up. You don’t have any choice, you pick yourself up and get on with it, and it is not about us anyway, it is about the children and their education and learning.”
After the disappointment of a second ‘requires improvement’ had settled, the school worked with an inspector to help achieve the desired ‘good’ rating.
One of Mr Derbyshire’s tasks was to get the school more involved in the community. He said: “Schools are a reflection of their community, they exist to serve the community they are part of. They can’t operate in isolation because there is too much out there to benefit the youngsters and benefit local groups as well.
“Ultimately the youngsters are going to be the citizens, the leaders, councillors of our community and an awful lot of them may well come back and make their own contributions.”
The school had two years to become ‘good’, or run the risk being turned into an academy, but after just 18 months the Ofsted inspector recommended it should be judged again.
And last month the school received the news it had worked all those years to achieve – it was classed a ‘good’ school.
Mr Derbyshire said: “We were pleased to get there early and we feel the report is not just good, it is very securely good. No one could read our report and say it was a scraped good.
“There are things in our report like the consistency of quality marking and often you see this as an area for improvement in even outstanding schools.”
Despite the school being in Crewkerne, about 40% of the students come from Ilminster and outlying villages. Mr Derbyshire stressed that Wadham sees itself as a school for Ilminster as well as Crewkerne.
He said: “We have worked hard to make that connection again and we have strong relationships with Swanmead Community and Greenfylde First schools in Ilminster. All three schools met recently so children can discuss what they would like to see develop in their areas.
“We have very strong connections with Ilminster in the Rotary Club, town council, Mayor and we hold our carol service award evenings in the Minster.”
Turning a school’s fortunes around is not an overnight task but Mr Derbyshire said doing so was about seeing youngsters develop and achieve.
He added: “Watching children realise their potential inspires me and also seeing young people supported to develop, change and become the best they can be. The other thing is working with so many other people who have the same aim.
“I learn a huge amount from my colleagues – when you get to a point when you think something can’t be done and somebody else comes along and reminds you that there is maybe something else we can try, that is inspiring.”
He pinned down five elements to the school’s success: n Professional development – teachers who are willing to learn and improve.
- Promoting good attitudes to learning.
- Listening to the students – the student voice.
- Supporting students when they have difficulties, academic and otherwise.
- Engagement with the wider community and the other way round.
Despite its recent success, the school still wants to improve. Mr Derbyshire said: “On the day of the inspection, a lot of staff waited until gone 5pm after the final meeting to hear what the outcome was. I told them it was good across the board. I said tongue in cheek that now work began to get outstanding and I realised there had been an in joke, how long it would take me to use the outstanding word.
“What that told me was they expected me to come in and say that and secondly they were up for the challenge. Everything that has happened in the four weeks since has shown real enthusiasm and there is a real sense of we are not stopping but there is a real buzz.”
Mr Derbyshire said the judgement had given people the self-belief and confidence that Wadham could become an outstanding school.
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