‘Parents are frightened for themselves and for their children’: an inspirational school in impossible times

Posted: 22nd September 2022

Austerity, the pandemic and now the cost of living crisis have left many schools in a parlous state. How hard do staff have to work to give kids the chances they deserve?

Take a short bus ride south-east, from under the dome of the Queen’s College on Oxford High Street, past the aloof spires of Magdalen College and beneath them the tourists wobbling in their rented punts, past the botanical gardens, the cricket fields and sculls of Magdalen College school, the Iffley Road sports grounds where Roger Bannister ran his four-minute mile, past a sign for the City of Oxford Rowing Club, and the city begins to thin into green surrounding hills and a view, as Cardinal Newman once wrote to a friend from his rooms in Rose Hill, “too good for me”.

That was in 1831. A century later, in the 1930s, a housing estate was built there. It was intended for those coming, often from defunct mines in Wales, to work in the Morris (now the Mini) factory at Cowley. By the time of the second world war, the city had built 2,000 dwellings here. They fan out from a large grassy roundabout called the Oval, along the northern side of which sits a long, low-slung building, Rose Hill Primary school.

The school was built exactly 70 years ago. Its “light airy classrooms … hygienic cloakrooms and toilet facilities”, its “well-surfaced playground” and “excellent heating system should”, said the new head of the infant school, “be the right of every child”. At the time, the principal of Jesus College also gave a speech, claiming that not even at the public schools of Winchester and Westminster were the classrooms as fine; visitors came from as far away as Australia and Guyana to see them. Today, the school serves about 300 children, many of them from the estate. More than half qualify for funding for disadvantaged children. A third are identified as having special educational needs, compared to the national average of 12.2%. For almost half of students, English is not their first language; between them, the students speak almost 35 different home languages.

All British cities have their pockets of poverty, but Oxford is the second most expensive place to live in the country, which makes life exceptionally challenging for anyone on a low income. It also makes it hard to hire and keep school staff. When, in 2012, Rose Hill’s headteacher moved on, after six years during which she had taken it from failing to most improved school in the country, governors were forced to advertise the job five times.

By the time they managed to appoint a permanent head, to begin in September 2014, the school was in a turbulent state. Twelve out of 15 teachers had quit, one was on long-term sick-leave, and some children were displaying extremely unsettled and sometimes dangerous behaviour. A few were running up and down corridors during lesson time, holes had been kicked in walls, roofs climbed on to, chairs thrown. The police had been called. A complete rebuild planned by the Labour government had also been scrapped by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition. The new head, Sue Vermes, told journalists that the fabric of the school building, which had been allowed to deteriorate in expectation of imminent demolition, was “one of the worst in the county”.

Vermes, a smiling, grey-haired woman whose unusually quiet voice belies the strength of her leadership, could immediately have instituted a zero-tolerance behaviour policy – with rewards and sanctions, exclusions and off-rolling (removing, or encouraging carers to remove, a pupil from school lists without officially excluding them). And it would doubtless have produced speedy results. But Vermes chose a different way.

It is an article of faith, for Vermes, that behaviour is communication, and challenging behaviour is a sign of distress. In her view, the onus is on the adults in charge to discover what is being communicated, and why. Only after that can the child be guided toward more constructive ways of responding. This requires understanding every child’s personal situation and history, and making sure they feel seen and heard; it means demonstrating and explaining respectful choices at all times. It is not quick, flashy or easy.

Earlier this year, over the spring and summer terms, I visited Rose Hill at regular intervals, interviewing teachers and support staff as well as, over many hours, the head. I sat in on 7.45am leadership meetings and on classes all the way from reception to year 6; I observed the playground at break and the lunchroom at lunchtime; I attended assembly and staff meetings; I talked to children. It was clear that since Vermes took over, Rose Hill had been transformed. It was a bright, happy school, full of people – children and adults – who wanted to be there. Not long ago the school advertised a job vacancy. Despite the current recruitment crisis, they received almost too many applications to deal with – many attracted specifically by the behaviour policy, and the school’s insistence on a child-centred approach.

From my first visit, however, it was also clear how the health of children arriving in primary schools – of their minds as well as their bodies – reflects the health of a society. And at the moment schools across the country are dealing with a perfect storm: 10 years of austerity, followed by a pandemic, and now the cost of living crisis. Add to this the chaos that followed Michael Gove’s shake-up of the education system, the adversarial tinkering of subsequent education secretaries, a children’s social care system unfit for purpose, a mental health system unable to cope and an escalating staffing crisis in schools, and the result is “a lot of fear”, Vermes told me. People are “frightened for themselves and for their children”.

There is a widespread assumption that teachers have it easy, that they work short hours and have long holidays. When most public services are overstretched, one teacher at Rose Hill noted, it is agreed that the answer is more money and more staff. In education, she continued, “it’s just that the teachers have to step up”. But during the days that I spent at Rose Hill, I often arrived at 7am to find some teachers already there, preparing for the day. Most were there by 7.30am, and there were often still some there at 6pm. One teacher told me that until recently she had worked until 9pm every day, and most of every Sunday.

When the pandemic closed schools, these hours were exacerbated by suddenly having to improvise new systems for teaching, while also trying to reach and engage children in their homes. At Rose Hill, early-years staff telephoned frequently and remembered birthdays. With the help of Google Translate, they sent out instructions for games and recipes for modelling dough in five or six languages. During the second lockdown, in November 2020, they visited all 70 early-years families every two weeks, to drop off projects and pick them up again, and check in on the children. The three members of the team in charge of pupil welfare made hundreds of home visits, delivering food and food vouchers, pens, pencils and paper, and checked in on children to the extent that they could. Staff had known that a proportion of their community lived in straitened circumstances; now they were struck by just how many parents were key workers dealing with the challenges of a high risk of exposure to the virus, shift work, low wages, substandard accommodation and little opportunity to supervise their children’s learning.

In January 2021, when schools were closed yet again, Vermes was asked on to the BBC’s World at One to talk about home learning. “They asked me if families had access to laptops. I said the government had generously given us 14, and we had 150 families in need of them.” She hadn’t gone on the radio to plead for laptops, she told me, but listeners promptly inundated Rose Hill with donations (one private donor sent £10,000) including computer equipment. Which was great, until many parents came back to say they couldn’t afford the internet data. The academy chain of which Rose Hill is a part, the River Learning Trust, provided wifi connections by sending out dongles. But where there were language issues, teachers found they couldn’t even demonstrate how digital learning worked.

When I began visiting in March 2022, the children had been back in school for a year, but the effects of the lockdowns were still being felt in numerous ways. Having spent so little time around other children, or in playgrounds, many of the children’s immune systems were weaker, and they seemed to be “very ill, a lot”, said Sana Malik, the still, confident assistant headteacher charged with overseeing attendance. Communication and social skills were patchy. Many children were struggling with play. There were more incidents of biting, hitting, meltdowns. Toileting could be erratic. Some children were more attention-seeking, more clingy. There was much weight gain, while for some, motor skills were not where they should have been. For Lisa Scott-Russell, the warm, thoughtful woman who has run the early years department at Rose Hill for six years, this almost back-to-normal period has proved to be one of the most frustrating since the start of the pandemic. “It’s not like people aren’t acknowledging Covid was there – but they want to forget. Maybe it’s more obvious in early years education. As a proportion of their lives, it’s huge.” But government targets must still be met, and “we are being judged in early years as if Covid never happened. It was an awful lot of living that was lost.”

One day in May, I watched children from year 2 being led into a classroom to sit their national key stage 1 tests in reading and maths. The children had just finished break; I held the door open to a stream of soft thank-yous.

Inside, they were guided to wide tables, spaced out far from each other. “I can’t help you,” Natasha Kamuna, one of the two year 2 teachers, reminded them, gently. “You have to try it yourselves.”

Across the hall a piano was being played, very crashily. “That sounds angry,” said a steady adult voice.

These are the “Covid kids”, Kamuna told me later – the ones who got a bit of reception, or a bit of year 1, and then a big gap. As in all age groups, many children did well academically, flourishing under one-to-one parental tuition. But those who were not able to get this help are still at reception level: not all can read, or grasp what a number is. This is a national problem. Data from 6,000 primary schools and nearly 1.5 million pupils published in February 2022 showed that of all groups, six and seven-year-olds were worst affected by learning loss; they were also taking longer than other groups to catch up.

“Now you can turn the test paper over, and open it,” Kamuna said to the children. The room filled with small voices reading haltingly to themselves. But a couple of children just stared down at their desks, in silence.

The tendency in Britain is to sort children very early into streams according to ability. At Rose Hill, “ability” wasn’t a term they used, because it implies that what children are capable of is fixed, rather than subject to change; it also fails to take account of the influence of the family’s income, education and stability. Teachers preferred to speak of potential, and of attainment. Likewise, success could mean many things. For one child, it could mean traditional academic markers, and Rose Hill has its fair share of academic high-achievers. For another it could mean that today, they were at school, and fed, and relatively calm. Michael Gove once decried what he called the “soft bigotry of low expectations”. Teachers at Rose Hill, aware of the power of this charge, countered that they were not making excuses, but working with daily realities.

Sitting at the back of classroom after classroom, I watched as teachers dealt with these realities. I watched them explain new concepts while also trying remember, as all primary school teachers must, who had confidently counted past eight without seeming to know what eight meant, and therefore needed one-to-one help, and who had cracked something far more complex and needed something else to do, right now, before they started messing around. I watched them striving to notice and acknowledge 20-30 different sets of feelings, many of which were probably completely different from yesterday’s feelings, while never raising their voices. I watched them try to remember who might be badly triggered by a particular sight or a sound or a smell, and work out how to support them – but also make sure the rest of the class was not derailed. I listened to them describe how they needed to know who couldn’t cope with sitting on the carpet with the rest of the class, who smelled of wee or had worn the same clothes for a week, who had a bruise they wouldn’t explain, and who just had a nosebleed (“thank you for dealing with that so quietly,” said one teacher, when this happened, “without disrupting the class”).

I watched one work with a class’s joy and ebullience, rather than shutting it down, by introducing a game of musical statues to demonstrate mathematical angles; I watched them endeavour to make sure their every word and action demonstrated reasonable, respectful, positive behaviour. I watched them smuggle little bits of learning in all the time – “If your name begins with D, N or A, can you go and get your going-home things?” I watched one teacher noting details important to each child as they came in the door – “Oh, you got a new haircut!” “Well done for remembering your homework!” – and watched another, in the space of less than five minutes, ask two boys to stop their distracting fiddling under the desk; give a child some extra maths, to challenge him; then give another child, to whose home the police had had to be called the previous night, the focused attention they needed. It was like watching some sort of extreme surfing, or a conductor leading an orchestra of meerkats. It was extraordinary to witness, and often very moving.

All throughout the time I spent visiting Rose Hill, there lingered an awareness that an inspection by Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) could come at any time. Head teachers only learn an inspection is going to happen the day before. On the day, an inspector arrives to spend two days in the school examining every aspect of its operation, attending classes, interviewing teachers and children, and, at the end of the week, assigning a grade according to metrics that are liable to change according to government shifts in opinion, and indeed changed again just six months before Covid disrupted schooling. These grades, for which headteachers feel they are held personally, and very publicly, responsible, can have a huge impact on schools, from being suddenly oversubscribed, if they are judged outstanding, to devastation if they fail. Rose Hill is overdue for inspection, and Vermes spent the first two days of every working week treating her mobile phone as if it was an unexploded bomb.

What feels like a punitive way of judging a school is made worse, Vermes argues, by a curriculum that has become too focused on pouring information into empty vessels rather than enriching what’s already there. She cites art as an example. “They’re very keen on the children being able to do thin lines, thick lines, colour-mixing, shading – which is all useful. But there’s nothing about why they might want to do it in the first place. Nothing about why children’s art is so powerful.” At Rose Hill, where they aimed to help children use art to access their imaginations, colouring-in sheets, which dictate and close down options, were not allowed.

Reading was a particular bone of contention. Since 2013 all English schools have been required to teach reading using phonics, a way of breaking up words into sounds that children then learn to recombine. There are strong opinions on phonics, for and against. Vermes felt passionately that the school should use a variety of strategies to teach reading, depending on the needs of each child, and until recently schools had a certain degree of freedom in doing so. But in guidance updated this year, schools have been told they must use a type of phonics called systematic synthetic phonics, and use only the reading books that come with these systems. This was anathema to Vermes, who felt that the prescribed books, offering “limited and artificial text”, risked giving children “a dislike of reading, not to mention appalling spelling”. (Paul James, CEO of the River Learning Trust, said: “While the effectiveness of systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) is contested by some in the education sector, we have seen strong outcomes in phonics in schools that serve very similar communities to Rose Hill when SSP programmes are used effectively.”) After fierce resistance, Vermes reluctantly spent £16,000 on a phonics system called Read Write Inc.

Vermes’ beliefs about education were evident everywhere at Rose Hill. Rewards were not allowed because they stop the child developing their own motivation; they could also seem unfair. (If you give a child a sticker for improved behaviour, for instance, what about those who always behave well?) Punishments were out, and so was shouting at children. A child overwhelmed by things happening in their life, or who did not have enough tools for managing their emotions, was not to be silenced. It was better to guide them towards understanding what had gone wrong. Also, contrary to frequent practice, “We don’t make them say sorry,” said Scott-Russell. “We give them ownership. We talk to them about how they’ve made somebody feel.” Children were not to be restrained.

Vermes’ staff freely admitted to me that all this made their jobs harder. “Children will do anything for a sticker,” as Scott-Russell put it. But they just as freely asserted that they believed her approach to be right. “It’s the long game,” said one teacher. “In the short term, I can make this class sit, stand, jump through hoops. But actually it’s not in their interest, and not in society’s interest to churn out children like that. We want them to be able to behave and make choices that are good for them, for their neighbours and their community.”

Source: The Guardian

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