Walking into any school as a new head is not easy, but when you are taking on a school that has been deemed as inadequate in all areas, you face a unique set of challenges.
When I joined Heron Academy in September 2022 (formerly the Michael Tippett School), the Ofsted report was unequivocal and staff morale was low. The school was also in the process of transferring to a new trust, adding to people’s uncertainty and apprehension.
I took a deep breath and looked at exactly how the organisation had got to where it was. Supporting 11- to 19-year-olds with PMLD and SLD, this special provision has an important role to play for many families in the local area. The genuine desire of staff and governors to improve things was clear.
The prospect of a new trust ‘taking over’ the school just as I had arrived and trying to find my own feet was initially a concern. Yet my fears were quickly abated. Far from trying to take over, the trust provided invaluable support ahead of the official transfer, with expertise ranging from health and safety to estates and payroll, right through to HR, marketing and IT. I was able to develop great relationships with key individuals and knew exactly who to turn to whenever issues arose.
Ensuring staff felt supported and secure was key for me, while also being upfront about what needed to change. The trust’s deputy CEO was instrumental in helping with this, spending a day a week with us and giving the trust a human face.
This enabled me to confidently set out my own expectations on day one. I wanted and needed staff to be on board with my vision, taking on the challenge collaboratively. INSET days on safeguarding and curriculum gave me the opportunity to reinforce the message that every decision taken would always have the pupils’ best interests at heart.
Despite the challenges, many good things were already happening. So while I was bringing new experience and a fresh perspective to the table, I knew it was important to embrace these. Building on some positive foundations, we were able to create a rich and exciting programme for pupils. The trust’s approach gave us the autonomy to lead on this, accepting that as expert practitioners in PMLD and SLD, we were best placed to identify and implement positive changes.
Any initial concerns I may have had about the trust expecting uniformity across its schools in terms of managing pupils’ needs and their learning very quickly disappeared. From the outset, they showed absolute understanding of how best to teach young people with very specific learning needs.
But we had to re-build trust with parents and carers too. To that end, I held coffee mornings to listen to their thoughts, concerns and suggestions – and then acted on them. The trust’s openness allowed us to be fully open and transparent and build their confidence in the school.
Many other initiatives, big and small, have followed – from providing branded waterproof fleeces for staff, new signage and improved facilities (including our sensory room) to support from DfE with infrastructure and building issues that had long been neglected while the school was in decline.
These practical measures have brightened up the school and reflect everyone’s commitment to the pupils and the community, and the trust has been central in brokering the support to make them happen.
I am in no doubt that our journey is being expediated by belonging to a trust that is committed to transforming communities. It is empowering my team and I to do exactly this through their openness, reciprocity and flexibility.
Other trusts may have different approaches, but this is the best way for Heron Academy’s pupils and families to get the school they deserve. As for me, I’ve learned not to fear trust take-overs, but to be on the front foot about deciding what’s right for the school.