This is now my fourth year as principal of Ormiston Meadows Academy in Peterborough, though before that my background was in secondary, having previously worked at a number of challenging schools as a deputy head and later as a school improvement consultant.
We’re a mainstream primary school with 200 on roll and a specialist hub for physical disability, offering specialist physical disability provision for up to 12 full-time places and outreach support for other schools in the region with children who have similar needs.
Our pupils tend to be drawn from more from socially deprived areas nearby than from our immediate catchment area, and 35% of our children qualify for Pupil Premium.
When leading a school in a challenging area you have to be mindful of the need to work closely with parents. When I started here, the children were presenting with various issues, the main one being behaviour. Having worked hard to address that, our next immediate priority was to tackle low expectations. Our job became about how we, as a school, could raise the aspirations our children had for themselves and those among the community as a whole.
To do that, we carefully built up the relationships we had with our parents, many of whom had little trust in the school. We organised a range of events aimed at bringing parents in and making them like feel part of the school, while at the same time celebrating their children’s achievements.
Throughout all of this, the question I’d always come back to was ‘What is our ‘why’? What’s our purpose?’ Ultimately, we want all of our children to have an outstanding education and we intend to achieve that by having really high expectations. Setting out that vision clearly has been a key task for us that’s involved staff, parents and children, and included coming up with a motto summarising our school values. The final wording agreed on by the school’s stakeholders was ‘Be your Best, Expect the Best, Succeed Together’. Everything we do is contained within that motto.
The process of building trust with our parents remains ongoing; we don’t think of there being a destination we’re travelling to, but rather see it as something we need to constantly work at.
We try to educate parents and ensure they’re kept as well-informed as possible. Schools can sometimes take parents’ existing knowledge for granted, which is why we host phonics workshops, for example, that parents are invited to. There’s also a Parent Voice group that meets monthly to discuss any issues the parents feel we as a school should be addressing.
School leaders in challenging areas need to have a clear moral purpose and rationale for doing what they do, which can then be linked to their school vision. When we created our vision, we examined what it meant to the school’s children, parents and staff and shared it widely, and continue to return to it every so often to check that it’s still aligning with everyone’s needs and expectations.
Ensuring that your school vision contains a moral element can help you answer those ‘What’s our purpose?’ questions in a way that’ll give you confidence in your decisions and keep you going when things get difficult.
Jean Watt is the principal of Ormiston Meadows Academy.