A remarkable turnaround in the performance at Jarrow School was based on tackling the issues that matter most to staff, demonstrating the power of stakeholder evaluations
When Ofsted inspectors gave Jarrow School in Tyne & Wear a school improvement notice in 2009, little can they have imagined that their demands would be met so quickly. The school has been testament to what can be achieved with a highly motivated group of staff.
In many ways, the timing of that Ofsted visit was unfortunate, says Ken Gibson, executive head of Jarrow School, as much of the groundwork for turning the school around had been put in place. This included, for example, the construction of a new state-of-the-art building which the school moved into in November 2010.
But the Ofsted notice was the tipping point; the school was forced to act. Jarrow formed a partnership with an outstanding school in the area, Harton Technology College, becoming a National Challenge Trust School. At that point Ken, who had been head of Harton, was appointed executive head of both schools in January 2010.
“From my perspective, one of the things I wanted to do at the outset was to find out what people within the school community thought needed doing,” says Ken. That’s when he decided to use the stakeholder surveys developed by Kirkland Rowell Surveys, the specialists in school self-evaluation.
Any school looking to drive through improvements and raise the bar needs two things: the support of everybody involved in the school and a willingness to tackle any issues those stakeholders have. This is where Kirkland Rowell Surveys come into their own.
Jarrow had previously used Kirkland Rowell Surveys in 2006 and had repeated a similar exercise in 2008, but using questionnaires the school had developed internally. In both cases, however, the surveys were restricted to parents and pupils.
“Obviously it’s important to delve into what parents and pupils think about a school but I don’t think you should shy away from asking staff too, even if you expect some of what comes back to make uncomfortable reading,” says Ken. Given Jarrow had been suffering from high numbers of pupils with behavioural issues, poor attainment and poor attendance, he knew that not everyone would be happy.
But while it may be tempting to avoid potential difficulties, strong leaders recognise the benefits that come from identifying staff concerns and addressing them.
In March 2010, Jarrow sent out the Kirkland Rowell Surveys to parents, pupils and staff. Kirkland Rowell has years of experience in identifying mechanisms to ensure the response rates are as high as possible. It also has a dedicated team to collate the results and rapidly return them in an easy-to-digest report.
Having asked people to give their views, it’s important to discuss the results of the surveys with all of the stakeholders, says Ken, if nothing else, demonstrating that you’ve listened to what you’ve been told.
At Jarrow School, the results were talked through at staff meetings and in assemblies for the pupils, while parents were invited in especially to go through the results. “One of the big benefits of the report is that it is easy to incorporate any relevant part into feedback, as the tables are self-explanatory,” says Ken.
The results of this initial survey were used to fine-tune the school improvement programme, ensuring that the entire school community would be engaged.
“Previously, I’d conducted stakeholder surveys every two years,” says Ken. “It’s essential to repeat the process so that progress can be tracked and hopefully show those involved that their concerns are being addressed. But given the level of change underway at Jarrow, we opted to repeat the stakeholder surveys the following year.”
The results were testament to the huge improvements made by the school. In the first surveys, just 51 per cent of staff thought that discipline was good or better; a year later that had rocketed to 91 per cent. That change in behaviour laid the foundations for improvements across the board. Staff were now rating the school as outstanding in 19 out of the 20 categories they were asked about.
The turnaround in perception was accompanied by vast improvements made at the school: the proportion of students achieving five grade C GCSEs had risen sharply, attendance rates dramatically improved and the proportion of pupils getting 5+ A*-C grades, including English and Mathematics, is now around the national average.
These results are evidence of what can be achieved when school leaders lead by example, says Ken, and get involved in delivering lessons. Time and effort were put in to build that team spirit among the teachers, recognising that workloads had been too high and putting in place an additional four periods per fortnight of non-contact time. The increased collaboration with Jarrow’s partner school, Harton, and a determination to step up the that standards of behaviour expected of pupils also helped motivate staff and pave the way for improvement, adds Ken.
While the results of stakeholder surveys were immensely gratifying, it is important to be able to put the improvements into perspective, says Ken. Because the survey report benchmarks results against similar schools, school leaders, parents, staff and pupils can really appreciate how their own school stacks up against comparable institutions.
But it wasn’t just the stakeholders that had discerned an improvement – so had the Ofsted inspectors. According to the subsequent Ofsted report: “Virtually all outcomes for students and aspects of the school’s work have improved significantly since the inspection a year ago.” Students’ behaviour was also praised for being both “mature” and “exemplary”.
Surpassing the Ofsted improvement targets is hugely rewarding, says Ken. Having the Kirkland Rowell Surveys was an important part of that, he adds. “The results were concrete evidence that everybody in the school community appreciated the momentous turnaround. It is a massive help with Ofsted inspections to have the information from the stakeholder surveys to hand,” says Ken.
Ken says the school remains committed to continuing to improve but he is reassured that the team that has delivered the immense progress to date will remain intact. The summer break will be the first time for many years that no teachers are moving on – a sure sign that the effort put in to addressing staff concerns is delivering a contented and motivated team.