Gazette Article 17: “Success of school due to leaders, not dogma”

(Published in the Brentwood Gazette – 29.01.14)

“We wanted to continue with the progress that we’d seen since Ryan’s appointment”, said Yvonne Waterhouse, one of the governors of Larchwood Primary School, when we met earlier this month.

She was explaining the thinking that eventually led to the announcement earlier this year of their impending change to academy status and sponsorship by St Martin’s secondary school.Larchwood P

Having come through a period when the previous headteacher and their deputy had been on long term sick leave, the school appointed Ryan Duff to lead the school in 2012. Progress was noted by the inspectors in their Ofsted report last year but the legacy, which Mr Duff had less than two terms to address before the visit, led to an “inadequate” judgement.

The preferred response of the Department for Education (DfE) in these cases is currently to press for “academisation” of a school, as they believe that removal from local authority control is the magic wand that leads to school improvement.

In many such cases this has led to the DfE imposing private “academy chain” sponsors on governors and parents, often prompting protest as a consequence.

Larchwood’s board of governors anticipated the likely government response and instead focussed on what they believed would be most likely to provide the best outcome for the children in their school and sought a local solution to support the progress that they had seen since replacing the previous leadership team.

By expanding to become a “multi academy sponsor”, St Martin’s were able to expand the trust set up to run their school to partner with Larchwood. The partnership is likely to see economies of scale benefits in buying supplies for the school but more importantly will also provide a supportive local connection that is keen for Mr Duff to continue leading the school.Larchwood Tree

Comments by the secondary school’s head, Mike O’Sullivan, supports that view as does a positive Ofsted report published in December following a monitoring inspection. Mr Duff can also point to results gained since his appointment to illustrate progress, “our Phonics Test results rose from 28% to 81% this year”, he told me.

Larchwood is only a couple of miles away from me but I have to confess to not having visited prior to this trip. I was given a full tour and was genuinely surprised at the quality, and size, of the facilities.

The school grounds are vast and include three separate playgrounds and large green space with “trim trail” type apparatus and outdoor learning areas. Inside, in addition to the school kitchen, there is a large room dedicated to teaching cookery and, in one of the separate IT areas, a “blue screen” to aid creativity on the computer.

Aside from the calm atmosphere in each classroom I entered, I was also struck by the decoration throughout the school which had been created, with some direction from Mr Duff, by one of the school’s parents. The highlight is a large tree painted on the wall of the main hall which has begun collecting hand “leaves” by the pupils.

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