Tackling culture and resources as a new head
Principal Jenny Nimmo discusses how addressing the persistent problems in her school transformed Potterspury Lodge into one of the highest performing special schools in the South East of England.
In the leafy Northamptonshire countryside sits a grand 17th century estate. Formerly Henry VIII’s hunting lodge, the site now plays host to Potterspury Lodge School, a residential school for young people aged 8-18 who have diagnoses of Asperger Syndrome, challenging behaviour or complex needs.
In surroundings from a bygone era, headteacher Jenny Nimmo is applying a contemporary, research-based approach to school leadership, in order to drive the opportunities available to her pupils.
When starting her headship in 2019, the school had a culture without a pedagogical focus, and a daunting six-figure financial deficit.
“I first asked the team what their priorities were for school development. They said they wanted new shuttlecocks and the trees on campus to be trimmed. I knew then the challenge I had ahead of me.”
Jenny knew if she wanted to give her pupils the best possible start in life, an incisive school development plan was crucial.
A shift to pedagogy
Jenny’s first priority was re-establishing what she calls the “bread and butter” of running a school; establishing a culture of learning.
“There wasn’t a vision, there wasn’t a set of values. It had become a free-for-all. I saw 40 children with 40 different timetables. There was a culture of low expectations, with an aim to get pupils through the day.
“There had been no pedagogy, no focus. I needed to shift the school culture to one of teaching and learning”.
Jenny gave her staff development opportunities, strategic briefings, and whole-school training on what good lessons look like. She also knew it was important to get her staff to align, and “buy into” into her vision for the future.
Based on her learnings from her time as a Future Leader, she also used data and conceptual thinking to create a new band of middle leadership, and a clear progression pathway for her staff.
“I said to my staff: if you’re not bought in, if you don’t believe children are here to learn, if you’re not here for learning and you’re here for behaviour, maybe you want to rethink being here.”
“It wasn’t as hard as I thought. I had to give a lot of staff what I call ‘the talk’. I needed them to know I wanted children to leave with good outcomes and a strong social toolkit. I want a child to live as independently as possible and access whatever they want to go on next."
Jenny recently asked her pupils how they interpreted the school’s vision statement of ‘dream, believe, achieve’, posting large pictures around the school of her pupils holding up their GCSE results.
On one of the displays, a pupil called Tom wrote: 'I want to get onto a course that gives me the right qualifications to achieve my dreams'. The photograph shows him opening his exam results and achieving a level 7 in music.
“It meant the vision statement was more than just words. Staff could see how their teaching was helping pupils to achieve their dreams”.
The shift to a culture of learning played a major role in the staggering improvement to pupil performance. Potterspury Lodge achieved 50% of all English and mathematics passes at grades 9-4, against the national average of 2.4%, with 25% at grades 9-5, against the national average of 1%.
“The key change was shifting attitudes: I’m not just setting this person up for when they’re 16, I’m setting them up for when they’re 25. Setting up life skills and creating a pathway to adulthood.”
Like many heads across the country, when Jenny first entered the role she was faced with a financial “black hole”, with unnecessary external services and massive overspends draining the school of crucial cash. It became clear that any future efforts to improve performance would be taken on with one eye kept on budgets.
Jenny unravelled financial irregularities and swiftly brought an end to numerous unnecessary external contracts, filling these roles with staff already at the school.
“We were paying a company £5,000 to do careers when we have two staff members who are more than capable of running a careers programme. I found a company we were paying £2,000 to for work placements, and only two children went on to do placements last year.”
There was also an issue with role alignment. Staff members’ responsibilities were mismatched, and a heavily operational senior leadership team was fulfilling duties covered by other staff members’ roles.
“I undertook a large piece of work with the aim of creating fairness and consistency. Some staff were not being remunerated for the hard work they were doing.
“The question was how do I improve performance with a low budget? It came back to accountability. I looked over people’s contracts and at what they were doing, and people were not being held to account.”
By balancing roles through accountability, Jenny has created a school that her teachers want to be a part of. Against national trends, retention rates have rocketed, eradicating a significant overspend on agency resources. Teachers from outside the school are now approaching Jenny, looking to be taken on.
"It meant the vision statement was more than just words. Staff could see how their teaching was helping pupils to achieve their dreams."
Keep getting better
As well as developing her staff, Jenny is determined to keep learning herself. She’s developed her own learning by meeting with others in the sector, and learning from their experiences as well as her own.
She recently arranged one-to-one meetings with a finance director to train her on how financial makeup differs depending on your type of school.
“I’ve gone in and upskilled myself and improved my armoury by visiting schools, and I’ve learnt from other people that are already in the system. I’ve approached them and said ‘let me learn from you about residential schooling’ or ‘let me learn from you about commissions’.”
Looking ahead, Potterspury Lodge will be undertaking joint research with University College London, working with Dr Amelia Roberts to look into the teaching and learning of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Jenny plans to use the findings as an opportunity to take part in research, develop herself as a leader, and inform her school’s future development.
“That’s how I’m developing myself as a leader: upskilling and putting myself in unfamiliar territory.”
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