Educating Norfolk: Can Norfolk learn lessons from one Wandsworth school’s journey from results misery to success?

Jacqueline Valin, principal at Southfields Academy, teaching in the classroom ,Wandsworth, London. 
Picture by Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd +44 7813 022858
14/02/2014 Jacqueline Valin, principal at Southfields Academy, teaching in the classroom ,Wandsworth, London. Picture by Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd +44 7813 022858 14/02/2014

Wednesday, February 26, 2014
7:00 AM

When Norfolk County Council looked for a model to improve the county’s schools, it found inspiration in the London Challenge, a government-backed programme which since 2003 has helped propel the capital to the top of the national league tables.

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“Your heads have to be really open, and not frightened to change.”

When Ofsted held a closed meeting with parents as part of its 2001 inspection of Southfields Community College, one mum stood up and complained vocally about her experiences.

Anita Neale told the inspectors her son Luke was unhappy and doing work he had done in year five, the school took 10 days to tell her he had played truant, and it was all but impossible to contact the school.

Headteacher Jacqueline Valin invited her to join the board of governors, which she now chairs.

Ms Neale said: “It had a terrible reputation in the local area. It was everything – results and behaviour.”

She said the parents now want their children to come to the school, and it has a very good reputation, especially for special educational needs. She said a key part of the London Challenge was an attitude that school leaders are not frightened of outsiders coming in and challenging them.

“You have got to have the leaders who have good foresight. They have got to have aspirations. They know where they want to be and London Challenge allowed them to find their way to get there. It was supporting them in their decisions,” she said.

Asked what Norfolk could learn from the challenge, she added: “Your heads have to be really open, and not frightened to change.”

It is using the London Leadership Strategy, the improvement arm of the Challenge, to help deliver parts of its strategy, and other ideas for collaboration and challenge are drawn from the capital.

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Student Ebyan Ahmed pictured at Southfields Academy, Wandsworth, London. 
Picture by Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd +44 7813 022858
14/02/2014Student Ebyan Ahmed pictured at Southfields Academy, Wandsworth, London. Picture by Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd +44 7813 022858 14/02/2014

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One school which benefited was Southfields Community College in Wandsworth, which became Southfields Academy in 2012.

Students pictured at Southfields Academy, Wandsworth, London. 
Picture by Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd +44 7813 022858
14/02/2014Students pictured at Southfields Academy, Wandsworth, London. Picture by Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd +44 7813 022858 14/02/2014

Although it was graded “good” by Ofsted, London Challenge knocked on principal Jacqueline Valin’s door in 2003 to say its results were not good enough. Then, 11pc of pupils achieved five GCSEs at A*-C, including English and maths. Now, the figure is 63pc.

Year 12 health and social care student Ebyan Ahmed said when she was at primary school no-one wanted to go to Southfields. Now everyone does.

She said: “From year seven to now they have been pushing you to your extreme limits to get your grades. We have been trained since year seven for the outside world.”

Like Norfolk, Southfields had a number of factors it could have used to excuse low standards: half its pupils speak English as an additional language, 60-70pc have some sort of special educational need, and 35pc are entitled to free school meals.

Jacqueline Valin, principal at Southfields Academy, teaching in the classroom ,Wandsworth, London. 
Picture by Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd +44 7813 022858
14/02/2014Jacqueline Valin, principal at Southfields Academy, teaching in the classroom ,Wandsworth, London. Picture by Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd +44 7813 022858 14/02/2014

But when Ms Valin talks about the London Challenge, two themes reoccur: no excuses are accepted, and schools must be receptive to being challenged.

She said the main support was not financial, but came in the form of advisor David Woods. He would come in one or two days each half term to talk through what she and senior leaders were doing, and challenge them.

“We were not frightened by being challenged. There was no fear with the challenge. We were not being hit over the head with a hammer – the support was there,” she said.

His first question was why no-one was responsible for standards, and on his advice a deputy head for standards was put in place, which Mrs Valin described as “the key appointment”. A deputy head for teaching and learning soon followed.

The focus was on improving accountability at the top and cascading it down the structure. Mr Woods made governors more aware of how to hold school leaders to account, and ask what they were working on. Mrs Valin said: “The challenge that came from David is now innate in what we do, and he gave us the confidence to challenge ourselves.”

The London Challenge also put her in touch with other London headteachers from whom she could not only learn from, but also be challenged and supported. It made London school leaders part of a club, and she said was proud to be a London teacher.

When Ofsted reviewed the London Challenge in 2010, it found a feeling of responsibility among school staff for all London children, not just those at their own school.

That continues, and every half term conferences allow schools to showcase what they do, listen to others, and make links.

Ms Valin is now a recognised national leader of education, and says she has a “tremendous moral purpose” to use what she has learned to challenge and improve other schools. Norfolk County Council’s own two-year Norfolk to Good to Great strategy aims to replicate this sense of community and school-to-school support in an effort to have a system that will keep improving itself when the programme itself ends.

Asked what Norfolk could learn, Ms Valin said: “You could take what London Leadership did by sharing good practice. It’s not about competition but collaboration. As soon as you collaborate, every school moves up.

“They have got to find this core team of local leaders and make sure they are given the training and support to challenge and support each other.”

She reiterated the ‘no excuses’ rule, and has simple advice for any Norfolk teacher who “whinges” about the challenges of being in a rural area or a coastal town: work elsewhere.

What lessons should Norfolk learn from elsewhere? Email martin.george@archant.co.uk

What are the main issues facing education in Norfolk, and what is being done about them? See tomorrow’s EDP.

12 comments

  • Amazing that the woman in the top picture is only 30......but that's what teaching does to you.

    Report this comment

    One Horse Town

    Wednesday, February 26, 2014

  • I agree with you djw support is needed for our schools. My concerns are that officers of NCC along with Headteachers who have failed Norfolk Schools are popping up as sponsors or trusts in Norfolk Academies. These officers, teachers and Governing Board members have cost the public purse a lot of money, have a poor record of Management and yet are able to strut their stuff in another role as so called 'experts' or 'consultants'. Where are Corbett, Cook and Christensen now?

    Report this comment

    namaste

    Wednesday, February 26, 2014

  • I've seen this sort of thing before as well - the idea that if something worked at one time in one particular set of circumstances, it's a magic bullet for all ills and nothing else will do. It's a line of thought that's particularly common in the public sector, but it ends up resembling a cargo cult more than any sort of evidence-based policy. The EDP survey results suggest that few people have faith in NCC to act sensibly and collaboratively - I'd be very interested to see the results if only teachers are included - so the idea of building up a positive relationship with the people who have spent the last few years beating schools up and ruling them like tin-pot dictators is a non-starter.

    Report this comment

    djw

    Wednesday, February 26, 2014

  • Oh and before V makes his usual objectionable right wing rant London Challenge happened from 2003-8 under Tim Brighouse and a Labour administration not that politics should have anything to do with it......just pre-empting the usual Tory v Labour cries.

    Report this comment

    Sportswagon

    Wednesday, February 26, 2014

  • In 2012 they were both directors for a short while of a company named ABLEACADEMY. I can't work out if this company was anything to do with the school. Perhaps they were contracted by the school as a company rather than as individuals.

    Report this comment

    Rhombus

    Wednesday, February 26, 2014

  • Were there not many more comments on this ... that don't seem to be on view now?

    Report this comment

    Patrick

    Wednesday, February 26, 2014

  • Note Mr Gove.....London Challenge was (and remains) about COLLABORATION which is totally at odds with your barmy separatist academy and free school programme.

    Report this comment

    Sportswagon

    Wednesday, February 26, 2014

  • I am not sure that it is good for a school to be run by a romantic partnership. Jackie Valin (Head) and her partner Wanda Golinska (Deputy Head), run Southfields Community College between them. All very good until they fall out over a lovers tiff or jelousy. I am not anti lesbian by the way, just think that it is better if top management in schools are not lovers. By the way they pull a salary of £326,000 per year between them. (2010 figure so it might have gone up).

    Report this comment

    Rhombus

    Wednesday, February 26, 2014

  • Fairly typical academy and free school salaries...what is Dame DeSouza's?

    Report this comment

    Sportswagon

    Wednesday, February 26, 2014

  • The more important point to this isn't the need for schools to be "open to change", but the need for them to be supported, not beaten over the head. How many would trust Norfolk County Council in this respect, when they've spent so much time and taxpayers' money on persecuting schools based on what appears to be a personal grudge, and forcing them into ineffective and damaging academy orders? We've seen just this week how many flaws there are in the academy agenda, but they persist in forcing it through as punishment. That's no basis for a productive, trusting relationship.

    Report this comment

    djw

    Wednesday, February 26, 2014

  • perhaps money should go to the kids front line services; instead it is going on refits of senior management luxury office spaces and BMW's - then some teachers are in classes with 38 children

    Report this comment

    curlysaysgo

    Wednesday, February 26, 2014

  • What a headline!! Can Norfolk learn ...? Of course it can, but does it have the people leading it who actually WANT to learn? To me this seems to say that the failings are to a large extent in Leadership: good Leadership, good Motivation for all. But it doesn't often happen --- Leadership and Management skills are overall very sadly lacking in this country. Too often organisations and institutions that fail simply don't have strength in Management: banks, NHS, government, big companies, small companies. That's what it's about, not just 'education'.

    Report this comment

    Patrick

    Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The views expressed in the above comments do not necessarily reflect the views of this site

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