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Extraordinary people 1: Jane

By Cordelia Myers (March 2023)

“Jane” is the Headteacher of a school in rural Cambridgeshire. There are just over 100 children on roll with four teachers plus TAs. Over one in ten children have EHCPs and there are high levels of children with individual needs. The area is a “Priority Education Investment Area” and was formerly an Opportunity Area.

Jane’s passion for her school, the children in it and her staff is extraordinary. When I arrived, she told me she thought she has ADHD; her energy levels are exhausting for those of us who look on in awe. She told me a little about her background. She was born to a young, single mum with spina bifida who had “school phobia”. The Headteacher at Jane’s school identified her potential and went out of her way to support Jane. They played scrabble together, a game she hadn’t played at home. She was taken out for trips to watch ballet and opera. I suppose, not dissimilar to what we would do today for our PP children, but it was rare in those days and was dependant on the vision of the Headteacher. “Nobody wrote me off because of my background”.

We’ve been working with Jane’s school for about 5 years, supporting them in improving the teaching and learning of maths. Prior to this, children were grouped according to “ability”. Staff had expectations in line with stereotypes for social disadvantage. The attitudes and attainment are very different now. I asked Jane how she had embedded change.

Unusually for a Headteacher she cited the periods of lockdown as times when her staff could absorb many of the new ideas and explore new resources and pedagogy. They, like all schools, had a rough time through the lockdowns. Forty children were eligible to attend school during the second lockdown. The high level of need meant all teaching staff had to be in school along with the Head; two of the four are clinically extremely vulnerable. Of the children at home, twenty-four qualified for DfE computers. The school received four. It was three weeks into lockdown before all children had access to a device. The DfE-supplied laptops would not accept downloads and the BT hotspot in the village was not adequate for all children to work online. However, once they had crossed these bridges, they made the most of the time they had and invested in professional development to upskill the staff.

The move to mixed attainment groups with everybody in a year group having access to the same curriculum changed teacher expectations. Now, for example, all year 1 are taught together including a non-verbal child, in the care of a hospice, who communicates using technology. Staff have enabled the other four children with EHCPs to demonstrate their thinking using equipment. All children are accessing the same curriculum and making progress. Last year the Year 1 children took part in the Mastering Number programme; Jane told me they are the strongest group she has ever had in terms of fluency and number sense. She described a key change as being staff moving their thinking from “What work can I give them?” to “How can I best scaffold this?”.

Jane identified her “fab team” as the reason why children are making unusual progress. Her staff are all committed to the children and this single, united focus helps. She cites her Chair of Governors as a key person in all this. She feels free to call her at any time to offload or discuss issues. Her governors are supportive but offer boundaries so that she feels protected by them.

Jane gave me a tour of their school (quite a contrast to my secondary school with 1200 students). They have extensive land including a “forest”, a swimming pool (which she told me was too grim in winter to show me) and an area for children to do cooking. It turns out this was purchased for her last birthday -she asked for cash-only presents and with it bought the children a small area where they can learn to cook.

It is a privilege to work with Jane and to learn from her inclusive attitude to learning.

To discuss:

1. What do you think might be the advantages and challenges of trying to embed pedagogical and/or mindset change in a small school?

2. The school has offered parental support sessions for reading. Some parents attended. No-one turned up when they offered sessions around maths. What can schools do to develop more interest in maths from parents?

3. Jane thinks she is unlikely to reach the government target of 90% of children reaching age related expectations. How far should this influence her decisions about intake?

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