If a school is placed in special measures, it can be a long road turning it around. Headteacher John Viner starts a series on the journey of Drapers Mills Primary school to become a warm and welcoming place where students can thrive

When I came into the headship of Drapers Mills Primary School, the school was in special measures. Although I was an experienced primary headteacher, I quickly realised that my 20-odd years of experience had not really prepared me for the challenges ahead.

The Isle of Thanet

Kent Tourism Alliance promotes the Isle of Thanet as an attractive and pleasant coastal district, centred on the three historic towns of Margate, Ramsgate and Broadstairs. Its long coastline, the leaflets say, lined with cliffs and contains many sandy bays.

The reality is that, among the attractive and historic parts of Thanet, are some of the nation’s most deprived and challenging areas. Unemployment ranges from 10 to 14 %, compared to a Kent average of 5.4% and the national average of 5.6%. Eight of the wards in Thanet are in Kent’s top 50 for social deprivation. Some of these wards have male unemployment as high as 60%. Some 41% of the households in Thanet have a total income of less than £10,000 a year. West Margate Central is ranked as most deprived of all of the 5,319 areas in the South East.

Emotional bomb shelters
I had been preceded by an advisory head who was installed following the resignation of the previous headteacher on grounds of ill health. She was someone who specialised in getting schools out of special measures, and did a good job of:

  • setting up essential systems
  • developing leadership potential
  • establishing strategic direction.

But these things had come at a cost. The staff I inherited were hiding in their emotional bomb shelters. They were no longer in category; so who was I to insist that rigorous monitoring would continue or that their planning still needed to meet high standards?

As for dealings with the children, there existed not a behaviour management policy but a strict discipline code, backed with a ruthlessly applied, litigation-driven, no-touching policy. This meant that, if a child was throwing chairs and swearing, he was left to it while the teacher cleared the room. When the child calmed down, he was excluded.

So, although the school was no longer in category, it was emotionally unhealthy. The dilemma facing us then was how to change this well-embedded culture. It was to be a journey that would take four years and lead us through new and exciting lands where many of us had not travelled before.

Changing attitude to touch
It sometimes felt to me that staff at the school did not think that it was important to actually like children. Looking back, I see that this was a harsh judgement: they were mostly dedicated and committed professionals to whom their pupils were extremely important. The problem was the harsh culture that had developed as a result of emotionally arid leadership.

What many of our kids really needed was a caring contact and a loving arm. How can you not touch a distressed five-year-old who is crying out for a cuddle? I found that many staff felt the same. However, they were bound by the rigorous application of the policy.

So the first step on our journey was lifting this ban on touching kids. To do this, we needed to determine when touch was appropriate and when it was unhealthy. People needed to see that there was nothing wrong in just touching a Year 6 child on the elbow as you pass and saying, ‘How is it going today?’, or kneeling down to a crying Year 2 child and putting your arm round them.

Of course, many of our needy children do want what can be seen as inappropriate physical contact. So, along with permission to touch, has to be training in fending off without rejecting. And it works; many of our pupils will rush up to a member of staff and fling their arms around them. The staff member will respond with a kind word and a gentle hand-off. It is the contact that matters to the child, and it’s part of the trusting relationships that are the foundation of a school.

I was touched when, a couple of years back after the long summer holiday, two of the most challenging of our boys, now in Year 6, waited at my office so that they could hug me at the beginning of the year. They needed to know that, whatever they had done and would do, the trusting relationship was still there and they were still safe.

Allowing a loving touch has to be undertaken with care; staff at Drapers Mills do not see children alone in classrooms and office doors are open, both because we promote open access and because our encounters with children never take place behind closed doors.

Enabling intervention
The other side of abandoning a no-touch approach was ensuring that staff were empowered to intervene – physically if necessary – well before children got to the point of standing on desks and throwing chairs.

A new academic year began with whole-school Team Teach training. Team Teach provide training in positive handling strategies, through a whole setting holistic approach, working with leadership and management. The aim here was to achieve a situation where, when a child said, ‘Gerroff! You can’t touch me!’, we could reply, ‘Actually we can, and this is how we do it!’.

Team Teach training was the hard edge of a new, more emotionally intelligent behaviour management policy. Looking back at the records I note that, in the first two years, we recorded 36 incidents of physical restraint, several of them requiring three or four staff to tackle one student. Last year there were 11. So far this year there have been four, all with the one troubled boy.

Because we have changed the culture of the school, the most challenging child will usually respond to a quiet word from a senior manager and perhaps a guiding hand out of the room for cooling-off time.

Climate for learning
Improving behaviour is undoubtedly the first step in raising standards. You can mess about with setting and boosters, as we had to, but standards will not start to really improve unless the climate for learning is right. Looking back, I can see that some of the tensions we experienced among the staff were because some were focused on chasing academic improvement without understanding the importance of the social and emotional aspects of learning.

It is quite common for an emotionally literate approach to be misunderstood as soft and ineffectual. Those holding this view also tend to be those who look for justice and retribution rather than restoration and resolution. They are likely to say ‘this child has been very rude to me and I want him punished!’ In the climate that had developed at Drapers Mills, this was the view of a significant percentage of staff. Those of us who saw through the problem to the child beyond were regarded as a soft touch. This was despite new whole-school behaviour management approaches that were demonstrably effective.

As we approached the first Ofsted inspection since the school emerged from special measures we carried out a quick staff poll on the inspection headings. When it came to leadership and management, the overall staff judgement was unsatisfactory!

The inspectors arrive
Fortunately, our Ofsted inspection was of the old, full variety. I suspect that, if it had been the new data-centric model, we would have been dropped right back into special measures.

The outcomes were that, standards and attendance aside, all features of the school were ‘good’, except leadership, which was ‘very good’.

It was as if a switch had been thrown; hitherto hostile attitudes vanished overnight. I like to think that it was because the cynics suddenly realised I was right. A more emotionally intelligent reflection tells me that people had been afraid that all that hard work which got them out of special measures was at risk of being undone. Now, released from the spectre of inspection for at least three years, they could allow themselves to develop their own emotional awareness and join us on the journey.

Giving and maintaining clear boundaries
Just because a behaviour management system is built around the students and their emotional needs, it does not follow that it is weak. Part of being emotionally supportive is giving children clear boundaries and being assertive about maintaining them. While the consequences need to be more restorative than retributive they still need to have ‘bite’.

What we found was that, as we introduced our behaviour management strategy, so its effectiveness meant that we could abandon it and move on. Some of the things we did in those early days look quite old-fashioned from the perspective of 2008.

A good example was the Reluctant Learners’ Room; mess about in class and you could find yourself here, writing a letter to the person you had offended and engaging in quiet work for three 15-minute slots. Mess about here and you get a 15-minute extension. Forty-five minutes of successful, calm working and you can return to class. Successful for just over a year, the room worked itself out of use. Today, the space is used by the pastoral team.

A caring school

The care of pupils is a very strong feature of the school. This contributes greatly to the achievement of pupils. The headteacher is very dedicated to welfare and pastoral duties and all staff are diligent in supporting the pupils. They are determined to provide a stable and caring environment for all pupils, sometimes for the first time in their lives. They have a very good knowledge of all their pupils, and they realise that they also sometimes need to help parents in order that children are effectively supported. Office staff enthusiastically provide front line tender loving care to pupils and parents. The family liaison officer helps families in need of support and tries to convince them that their children’s attendance at school is a priority. Parental questionnaires are starting to show that parents are noticing the difference in the school’s approach, and they are increasingly approving of the care and support that their children receive.

Ofsted Inspection Report on Drapers Mills Primary, January 2005

 Pastoral team
The development of a pastoral team became a key feature of our journey. It would not have been possible without the funding, support and training offered by the Thanet Excellence Cluster. Established soon after Drapers Mills began its four-year journey, using Excellence in Cities funding and coterminating with a DfES-funded Behaviour Improvement Programme, the excellence  cluster has allowed some transformational work to take place in Thanet schools. It also encouraged us to agree that we wanted to focus on developing an even more emotionally literate school. It was a wise choice, and one whose exploration I will take up in the next next article.