This week, we speak to Fiona Rimmer, Headteacher of Oak View Academy, Winsford, following the school’s recent glowing Ofsted report. Fiona describes the incredible journey the school – once ranked as the second worst in the country – has gone on since joining North West Academies Trust in 2104.
In 2014 the future looked bleak for Greenfields Primary School, in Winsford. The school had been in special measures for two years, pupil numbers were in decline, they were without a permanent headteacher and primary school league tables ranked it the second worst performing primary in the country.
At the time, Year 6 had been taught by 15 different supply teachers in one academic year. The school draws its 194 pupils, aged between three and 11, from an area of significant social deprivation and attendance was at rock bottom.
Greenfields Primary became the subject of a forced academy conversion and left the authority of Cheshire West and Chester Council to join North West Academies Trust (NWAT) in April 2014 and new Headteacher Fiona Rimmer took up her position shortly after.
Fiona moved from a headship at Kingsley Community Primary School, Frodsham, to spearhead a raft of transformative measures at Greenfields, under the guidance of NWAT. One of the most emphatic being the redundancy or replacement of 25 of the 39 staff, a bold restructure that marked the beginning of wide-sweeping changes and some difficult decisions.
Greenfields reopened as Oak View Academy in September 2014, with a commitment to revolutionising the pupils’ attitude towards education through high academic expectations; a clear behaviour strategy; a vibrant learning environment and exposure to new opportunities through a comprehensive extra-curricular programme.
Children now enjoy residential trips; a free breakfast club; interactive educational workshops and inspirational visitors; Spanish lessons; swimming sessions; cross-school sports competitions and much more. Other highlights have included visits from Winsford-born comedian John Bishop and TV and radio appearances to promote a Christmas single the school choir released to raise funds for a speech and language therapist.
Last month the school celebrated an Ofsted report ranking Oak View Academy as ‘Good’ in all areas – an incredible turnaround for the pupils, families, staff and the wider community.
At the time Winsford Over and Verdin Councillor Mike Baynham commented: “This is wonderful news. Many congratulations to everyone. This is truly a great news story for the school and Winsford.”
Steve Docking, CEO of NWAT, added: “This report is testament to the hard work of many people who have really opened everyone’s eyes to a world of possibility. Oak View is a great place for children to learn and is a positive example of what can be achieved when you never accept second best.”
Read the full report here: Oak View Academy Ofsted Report
What attracted you to apply for the position with North West Academies Trust?
At the time, NWAT was a small, local Trust with a vision to improve the future and outcomes for all children, whatever their background. Being local meant that support would be on hand quickly when required. Being small meant that we would be a priority not just one school amongst many. The forward-looking, positive approach attracted me to apply for the post as I believed that together we could make a difference to the children at Oak View Academy.
How would you describe Greenfields Primary School when you took up post?
When I first took up post, I was struck by the poor behaviour of the children and their negative attitudes towards the school and education in general. This was not a surprise as half of the teachers in the school had been supply teachers. Because of regular changes in staff, the children did not have a relationship with the staff and this is paramount. Our children need to know that they can trust us.
What did you see as your top priorities in the first academic year?
Improving the children’s behaviour and attitudes were our top priorities; many children had been switched off to learning due to their previous experiences and so behaved accordingly. After the first bout of chair throwing, we knew that we needed a consistent approach and we needed it fast!
Steve Docking, NWAT CEO, suggested the guidance of Jason Bangbala, a behavioural consultant. After his first visit, he commented that he had never seen behaviour so bad! We acted promptly on his advice and implemented a new policy, rewards and sanctions – surely this would make a difference. The children responded badly to the changes until it became clear that we were all going to be consistent and fair. It took a few weeks, but the behaviour began to improve.
How wonderful it is that Ofsted now describe our children’s behaviour as good: that children ‘mix well together, respect each other’s views and are friendly and polite.’
What was the single biggest challenge you met?
The biggest challenge was identifying and meeting the needs of a group of children who demonstrated extreme behaviours. Several children responded badly to the changes in the school because the changes were so dramatic. This wasn’t just a change in school name and uniform.
Everything had changed; the length of the day was longer with compulsory clubs; the school was refurbished and looked significantly different; all but one of the teachers had changed and the support staff were working in different age groups.
As time went on and the new rewards and sanctions were introduced as part of the behaviour policy, including the layout of the classrooms, this group of children began to wobble – it became one change too many for them. We often heard the phrase “it’s not Greenfields anymore.”
Over time, several children were identified as having Autistic spectrum disorder. Previous unseen symptoms became very obvious and resulted in quite violent behaviour. As a result we opened our ‘resource provision’ to meet the needs of our challenging children. This enabled us to provide an individualised curriculum for a small group of children with access to their classrooms as much as possible, but with a safe space to withdraw to when this became too much.
Which of the changes you made would you describe as having the greatest impact?
Opening the resource provision in February 2015 had the greatest impact on the school. By meeting the needs of our most challenging children, we were then able to focus on meeting the needs of everyone else. With the support of the trust, we were able to appoint a resource provision leader who took up post after the half term break.
She quickly built a positive relationship with two of our most vulnerable children and was able to support them in and out of class. She helped other staff to work with individuals and to get to know them so that they felt supported and were able to access their learning in the classroom for most of the day.
We set up a designated room within the school for the children to withdraw to when they couldn’t cope and for parts of the day e.g. first thing in the morning for a ‘meet and greet’ session. Lunchtime to develop their social skills in a smaller, supervised area. Because their needs were being met, these children became calmer and outbursts became much less frequent. As a result, the school was a much calmer place to learn and work in.
How much of a challenge was it getting parents on board with such sweeping changes?
Because of the years of failure, many families had left the school and the majority remaining had no confidence in the school or the staff.
Parents had been consulted on the new uniform and it was at their request that the ‘tartan’ skirt was brought in for the girls because they had seen that other schools in the trust wore this. They were keen for our school to be just as good as other schools and to stand out from other local schools. The new uniform signalled a new start to the parents.
Unfortunately, parents had little confidence in the teachers as in the recent terms, many teachers had left. Appointing a new team of dynamic and resilient staff was a critical factor in winning back the confidence of the parents.
The new team worked tirelessly: we ran a summer school in the first summer holiday to give the children and parents the chance to meet the new teachers. Staff encouraged parents to sign up for our first parents evening in October 2014 and the feedback afterwards from parents was a resounding thumbs up for the new academy.
When the school was able to show the rapid progress that the children were making and the staff team remained in place, our parents became more confident in us. They began to talk positively about the academy and the changes that had taken place to friends and neighbours in the local community. This was a great sign of support for us.
Was there a time when you thought the school would never turn itself around?
Spring 2015: a small minority of children were struggling to cope with the changes, especially to the behaviour policy, in terms of the rewards and consequences. We were dealing with children walking out of lessons and inciting others to do so, children who were becoming violent and aggressive with staff when consequences were given and a group of children in Year 6 who were struggling to get to the expected level in their learning as they had begun the year working at a year 3 level. When all of these challenges collided at the same time, it looked nearly impossible to achieve our vision.
When did you start to see real change?
After Easter 2015 when the resource provision was in place and had started to meet the needs of key individuals, the school became calmer. The consistent approach of the staff had shown the children that we meant what we said and would always follow through with both rewards and consequences.
This allowed us to focus more on the learning. The senior leaders began to work with children on a one-to-one basis, giving them extra support with both maths and writing and this approach gave the children confidence and self-belief so that their attitudes began to change in lessons. Fewer children chose to walk out as they could see that we believed in them and their abilities.
Support for a particularly challenging child from outside the school enabled us to meet their needs without the rest of the class being disrupted. We were so pleased that they ended the year successfully and achieved level 4 in many of the tests.
How important do you think the extra-curricular activities/opportunities the pupils now enjoy are?
Most our children do not have the chance to take part in extra-curricular activities outside school. In the first term after conversion, some additional after school clubs were offered including tennis lessons but the children didn’t take these up. To increase participation in a range of sports and arts activities we took the decision to make the clubs compulsory.
The children now take part in a range of activities that they would not have otherwise experienced – Tae Kwon Do, choir, brass band, football, netball, dough gym, art club, technology club, construction club, gardening…the list goes on. The clubs are provided free of charge by the teachers and support staff including our sports coach. Feedback from the children tells us that they really enjoy the activities we offer and have their own ideas for some new clubs.
The Timpson’s Foundation provided a bursary to be used to ‘open the children’s eyes to the world of possibility’. This has enabled us to take the children out of school to places that they have never been to before including museums; art galleries; restaurants; the beach; mountains; the forest; an indoor ski-centre; The Harry Potter experience and residential visits near and far.
Our children are now taking part in activities that they would not otherwise have experienced and this is enriching their lives, their conversation and, in turn, their work back in school.
How important was the support of North West Academies Trust?
The support and working relationship we have with NWAT has been crucial in the success of the school. We have been challenged with seemingly impossible targets, but having the high targets, although we didn’t achieve them in the first two years, made me constantly search for ways to do better.
There was never a time when we had achieved our targets and so could be satisfied. We have been supported every step of the way and our achievements have been recognised by the Trust. I was never made to feel like I was failing, even on difficult days and when targets were not quite met, but I was challenged to do the best I possibly could and to think outside the box for solutions and to look for solutions from more successful schools.
The Trust has really helped us to manage the workload of safeguarding within the school. This is nearly a full-time role and as designated lead was taking up 90% of my time. When I shared my concerns, I was offered the support of an inclusion manager who is experienced in dealing with safeguarding from a partner school two days a week. The Trust and the school now share the costs of this role and it has been invaluable in allowing me to focus on teaching and learning whilst ensuring that we are meeting the needs of our most vulnerable children and families.
Was there a moment when you witnessed first-hand the impact of the changes on the pupils?
When we took Maple Class (year 2) on their first residential visit. This class included some children who had already been switched off education. The children were walking in Delamere Forest when one child asked: “What’s a forest?” The teacher stopped and explained that they were in a forest.
We were amazed that the children had no experience of being in a forest and didn’t even understand the meaning of the word, even though it was on their doorstep. Being outdoors brought the learning to life. The children collected natural materials from the forest floor, things they had never seen before; pine cones, pine needles, dried leaves and were so keen to take them back to school and use them in their art work.
They learnt about different types of trees: deciduous and evergreen, needles and leaves. This was the first time that I had seen the class look so enthusiastic.
What do you think the future would have held for the pupils if Greenfields hadn’t converted to Oak View Academy?
The school had been a ‘school causing concern’ for over ten years before it went into Special Measures and just wasn’t improving. The KS2 results in 2014 were the worst in history for several years. Without the conversion to an academy, it would have been incredibly difficult to bring in the wide-sweeping changes that were required to move the school forwards, to attract the quality of teachers who were resilient, willing to learn and bought into the vision for the school.
What advice would you give a Headteacher facing similar challenges in their setting?
- Make sure you understand what the issues are before you plan how to tackle them.
- Start with the basics: behaviour, attendance, quality of teaching (as this will impact on learning and progress).
- Prioritise! Don’t try to do everything at once.
- Make sure everyone on the team knows what the priorities are and why they are priorities, and that they buy into the vision for improvement – this is a long, slow journey.
- Recognise and celebrate the small steps of progress as they happen and keep staff focused on these positives, particularly when there are lots of negatives.
- Monitor for consistency across the school – this is essential in ensuring progress happens across the board and not in pockets.
On reflection, which part of the Ofsted report made you the proudest?
The statement about behaviour: ‘The behaviour of pupils is good. They move around the school in a calm and orderly manner and are quick to follow instructions. Pupils mix well during social times and are friendly and polite.’ This is a huge change from where we started!
The other statement that really made me smile is: ‘The principal, senior leaders and governors have secured improvement. They have been well supported by the Trust. They have also created a caring school community where pupils can learn.’
This last statement describes our school so well and was always our aim. The Trust and I have worked hard to develop our senior leaders, who have grown significantly in the process and our governors, who were all new to the role. I have seen the senior leaders and governors grow in confidence over the two and a half years to a point where I can delegate with confidence, knowing that they will carry out their roles professionally and competently.
What are the long-term ambitions for Oak View Academy’s future?
We’re ‘on the road to outstanding’. Achieving a judgement of Good from Ofsted is a huge milestone for the school and the local community but we’re not stopping there. We aim to be an outstanding school that serves the needs of our community and enables all of our children to achieve their very best and move on to the next stage of their education fully prepared.