Classroom life -  Plympton Academy, Devon

This September, Ridgeway School in Plympton, Devon, became Plympton Academy. As new principal at this previously fading school I felt we needed a new name and a fresh start; a very clear signal to the outside world of just how much the school has changed. Its heightened ambition, improved collaboration and pupil expectations needed to be clearly expressed, and the community needed reminding that this was ‘their’ school.

The school was formerly the town’s ‘secondary modern’ and within its community that perception lingered – it had been an RI school for years. NOR had dwindled to 50% of capacity, and it needed a kick up the proverbial to ensure its future. However, my headship didn’t get off to the smoothest of starts. I should have known there would ‘days like those’; I’d been expecting ‘something’, but not quite this – an Ofsted inspection – and not quite so soon; just ten days into my new job as principal.

Early days

I took over the reins of the school on January 4th 2016, having been appointed principal in April 2015. I’d arrived a year earlier, as deputy, and was already passionate about the place; the students and the staff oozed potential and now I wanted to harness the leadership in the school and drive us to better standards.

So my first morning as principal dawned and, as it was a training day, it was a great opportunity to set out my stall. I met all the staff and reaffirmed my vision that ours would be the school of choice for the community. To support this, I announced, we would have a new name from September 2016. What with the previous Ofsted grades and still being remembered as the ‘secondary modern’ – as well as the results which, although improved, still needed further improving – it was time for a new era and with it new opportunities; we would inspire our students to be the very best they could be.

My first day went well; in fact, the first week did, too. I was relishing being in the driving seat, embedding my ethos of growth mindset in all that we do. I had the first tranche of meetings with individual staff, talking about supportive programmes to improve teaching and learning – ensuring better outcomes for our students. I had reshaped the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) ready for the start of term and we were all bonding during our first proper SLT meeting; my new PA was learning quickly and doing an amazing job at keeping up with me and my diary (a standing joke in the school). It was all going swimmingly. Perhaps I should have realised it was too good to last.

The inspector calls

Week two started – and on Tuesday, at lunchtime, we were contacted by the Ofsted office. I had never had to take ‘the call’ before, and I had no idea what to do. The administrator informed me I had a one day section 5 inspection – something I hadn’t heard of. But I was slightly reassured when I was told that the lead inspector would call and talk me through the inspection.

In fact I felt somewhat elated. “I only have a one day inspection,” I thought naively, believing it was because our results had improved so much. The subsequent call from the HMI soon put a stop to such foolish musings. I was told there was no such thing as a ‘one day section 5’, and that in fact, we were having the full Monty. Having run through the documentation they required, I told the inspector I had only been in post six full days.

“I know,” came the ominous reply.

The following day, everything went into hyper drive preparing for two days of greeting, meeting and nurturing the Ofsted team. But oh, the feeling when I realised it had gone well. We got our Good. It was the best day ever – coming in on the Friday after the inspection and informing staff of the outcome. There were cheers all around.

The team really pulled together and the students were outstanding. There was an overwhelming feeling it was a great place to work and learn..

So week three came along and I was still wearing a grin. After all I had survived an Ofsted in the first two weeks! I had come through my baptism of fire, and things could only get better. How wrong can you be?

Stop press

I was sitting on a train in London on the Thursday as performance tables were published. My first inkling of trouble was when I received a text from SLT to tell me the paper had printed the wrong local data for our school, and as these were our best results we needed them to be correct.

By the time I could act I was sat in the top tier in Central Hall trying to text, email and call the paper simultaneously to find out where the error was. It turned out the figures published were the 5ACEM (not equivalents) rather than 5ACEM; the correct figures were printed the following day – but still with no ‘year on year’ analysis.

Wanting to end the week on a positive note, I ensured it finished with a new, robust approach to enforcing our uniform dress code. But by the Monday morning of week four, a petition had been set up by a relative of a student. It was firmly against the uniform drive: do not teach children to judge and punish based on image! The local paper had already run a story about it and I had to deal with a small group of very vocal, unhappy parents.

By the middle of the week, there had been three more pieces in the local paper (which, to be fair published a good, two-sided article) – and it had gone national, too, in the Daily Mirror and Daily Mail.

Something to celebrate

But then, just as I was wondering what else was going to be thrown at me (I had after all been in post less than a month) the clouds began to part. The uniform story became yesterday’s news and much more importantly, the students looked amazing, and staff no longer had to spend time nagging about ties and shirt tails. Finally we could all get back to teaching and learning.

At the end of the fourth week our Ofsted report was published and we celebrated with staff, parents and students.

Fast-forward a few months to the new academic year: our GSCE results are the best in years, the Plymouth Herald has reported that we are the best non-grammar school in Plymouth, and the government’s new performance tables also show us to be top in our area – not too shabby!

This has been an intense year of change. However what is most heartening is the willingness for our staff to go ‘above and beyond’ to meet the needs of our learners. Plympton Academy is vibrant and exciting and our pupils are flourishing. The facilities are not yet great across the school, but they will be – our students are remarkable young people, who deserve the best.

There is still loads to do and we keep aiming for outstanding in all that we undertake – but every day we are inspiring success; I can’t think of a greater reward.

About the author

Lisa Boorman is principal at Plympton Academy, Plymouth.