Outdated perceptions must change

It is three years ago this week that Steven Quinlan, former headteacher of Berwick Academy, handed over the baton to Alexis Widdowson. We asked her what has changed in that time and where she believes the school will be in another three years.

Friday, 22nd April 2016, 7:43 am
Berwick Academy head teacher Alexis Widdowson in a meeting with Lucy Hodgson, Community Communications Manager.

How have the school’s priorities changed?

The school’s priorities are the same as they have always been – to provide a first-rate education to all our students, whatever their background or ability. We pride ourselves on being a non-selective, inclusive, community school even if it doesn’t always work in our favour when it comes to performance measures.

It would be fair to say that the demands on the school have become more challenging over the last few years. Our students have, historically, done well in vocational qualifications. However, the number of vocational qualifications which can be included in the performance measures is now capped and there has been a general move towards examination at the end of Year 11. We have responded to these new challenges by running a full mock week for all year groups starting in Year 9. Students are now more comfortable sitting exams. It is rare that a student will not turn up for the exam or refuse to enter the exam hall. This is thanks to the complex support arrangements put in place to ensure every child’s needs are met. As a result, our children want to do well and they increasingly have confidence that they will do well.

What were the main issues coming out of the Ofsted inspection?

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Much of what was said in the Ofsted report was no surprise to the school or to the governors. The inspectors were impressed with the accuracy of the school’s self-evaluation and their recommendations for improvement mirrored the actions contained in the school’s current development plan. The Ofsted report is a ‘best fit’ and whilst they acknowledged the improvements in teaching, particularly in English and science, we will need to show sustained improvements to our GCSE results before we can move to ‘good’. I am confident that we can do this, but I continue to emphasise the part that everybody plays in creating an outstanding school.

What do you mean by that?

Well, one of my greatest frustrations is the way in which the Berwick community doesn’t always celebrate its many strengths. Berwick is a wonderful town which has a lot going for it. The young people in our community are fantastic and it’s a joy to work with them. Some of the perceptions of the school relate to old grumbles. We have moved on and should be more optimistic about what we can achieve as a community. It’s time we started a Big up Berwick! campaign and stopped assuming that the grass is always greener elsewhere. It isn’t!

Okay, but what about the criticisms of the leadership team in the report?

Firstly, I want to make clear that Ofsted were not critical of specific aspects of school leadership. They had nothing unfavourable to say about any of the middle leaders that they met. They specifically singled out for praise the head of sixth form, Sarah Flanagan, and the head of maths, Kay Laws. They reviewed the processes in place for the monitoring of teaching and learning, under the direction of Steve Wilkes, deputy headteacher, and were very complimentary. Likewise, they recognised the passion and commitment of Mark Wickens, assistant headteacher responsible for pastoral care, and acknowledged the impact that he has had in a very short space of time.

That said, I think self-reflection is an important part of any job and there was nothing in the Ofsted report which wasn’t fair and helpful. I’m confident that we have already made many of the changes which were needed, but I will only know that I am doing a good job when the majority of our students are consistently meeting or exceeding expectations across all subjects. I don’t have a problem with that.

What specifically is the Headteacher’s role within the school?

My job is to discuss the strategic direction for the school with governors and agree key priorities. We have just had a weekend strategy day to set the priorities for next year and, together with my core and extended leadership team, it is my job to draw up an action plan which will help us achieve these priorities.

I am accountable to the governors of the academy for the performance of the school. That is why the role of governors, especially parent governors, is so important. I suppose you could also say that I am the person who has to make all the difficult decisions! Not everybody likes the outcomes, but I hope that parents find me to be honest and fair when investigating concerns. When we get things wrong, I am happy to put my hand up and accept responsibility. When I think we are being blamed unjustly, I would like to think that parents are beginning to trust my judgement and respect my decisions even when it is not what they want to hear.

What keeps you awake at night?

Exam performance is always very much front of mind, particularly around the time of our termly assessments. Currently, school finance is also not far from my thoughts. I am involved in consultation on proposed changes to the way schools are funded and will submit a response on behalf of the school. School budgets have been scaled back considerably over the last five years and it is important that our community has a voice in the proposals.

If you had a magic wand, what would be the first thing you would fix?

Well, obviously, I would wish that every child found every minute of their school day fun, interesting and effortlessly easy!

If I had a second wish, I would ask for a perfect method for communicating with parents. Now that we have email, text messages, post and telephone, communicating is a minefield, particularly in education where teachers are in lessons for most of the day and can’t respond to inquiries.

We are always looking to improve our performance in this area. For example, we have recently introduced Schoolcomms, which many parents are familiar with from middle school, to continue to facilitate home/school communication.

Can I have a third wish? I would wish that nobody had to suffer from unkind comments on social media. That’s the number one thing that keeps our children awake at night and I wish it would stop.

What changes have made you most proud?

I am pleased with the changes to the Eden Centre, which looks after students who need additional support. It’s a welcoming environment and the students achieve well there. In light of what I said earlier about performance measures, we should never forget that, actually, success can be measured in a number of different ways, beyond academic performance.

I also believe that I have strengthened the staff body and that the team of people in place, right now, are capable of making this school outstanding. I have never worked with a more dedicated team of people and I am proud of the work they do. In the hectic environment of a typical school day, I don’t always get a chance to tell them how brilliant they are. Maybe this is my chance to set the record straight!

We have also decided to separate out the science faculty which has made significant progress and is now ready to stand alone. This represents the next step in our evolution and I am optimistic about the impact it will have on the pace of improvement.

Where do you think the school will be in three years’ time?

We have recently announced a decision to create two new assistant headteacher roles to lead maths and English, which reflects our continuing investment in these areas. However, our broader objective is to guarantee that, whatever subject a student chooses to study, they can be confident that they will do well.

If we continue to improve as we have been, I am confident that we will become a ‘good’ school. We will always be challenged by our location, but more and more of our students are beginning to believe in their capacity to do well. They are using their time effectively, in and out of school, to realise their dreams and be a positive force for change in the community.

By working together, I believe we will be a truly great school and I’ll keep working hard to see us get there.