How we became London’s #1 Primary School

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Stephen Scott is the Acting Headteacher of Cathedral Primary School, ranked #1 in London in 2018.

The is a massively over-simplistic three-minute article. I don’t know your children, school’s context or challenges. But it’s a three-minute article… you know what you’re getting into. Here are the first 7 things that come to mind.

1) Relentless Focus on Excellent Behaviour

We are strict on behaviour and make no apologies for it.

We pick up on the small things, so the big things seldom happen. Consequently, we haven’t had to exclude anyone in the last decade.

Long term, the path to excellent behaviour is instilling that children have to behave in certain ways so everyone can learn, everyone feels safe and everyone can have fun. Of course, this takes time. It has to become part of the ethos of the school.

Meanwhile, instant impact can come from looking at the behaviour policy and lowering the threshold for what staff see as inappropriate behaviour. Don’t tolerate other children knowingly steal learning time from others. It cannot be ignored and is never acceptable.

If behaviour isn’t good enough, you need to take swift action. Staff want you to take action. Children want you to take action. Parents want you to take action (unless it happens to be their child – but then they have a declared interest).

Don’t ignore incidents. When you let things go unchecked, it quickly becomes habit. When others see you let things go unchecked, it quickly becomes school practice. And when others try to excuse misbehaviour (including and especially parents) don’t let them.

Forget the silly bolt-ons and initiatives: for instance, mindfulness is not going to be silver bullet if you can’t get children to sit on a carpet in the first place.

Whole-school ill-behaviour will never improve unless massive and unrelenting action by all staff is taken.

2) High Expectations

Does any teacher NOT say they have high expectations? I doubt it.

The phrase ‘high expectations’ is almost white noise now. So really explore what ‘high expectations’ means with staff. Do all your staff have a clear idea what is good enough at your school? Of course, attainment-wise this will be different in each year group. However, the strands of excellence and high performance are the same in every year group and classroom.

For each individual pupil, knowing what they are capable of, comes with experience. But like most things that ‘come with experience’, exploring specifically and directly instructing to staff the principles of this, will speed this process up.

3) Environment

An experienced head once said that the first thing you should do when you start headship is hire a skip. The second thing? Hire another.

Whether you like it or not, tidy schools are, more often than not, high performing schools.

So get rid of everything that doesn’t serve a purpose or hasn’t been used for the last two years.

Make classrooms attractive so children take pride in them. I’m not getting into the argument of the merits of backing work, or even double-backing work. But, I firmly believe the environment of a classroom shapes children in ways that haven’t been fully quantified yet.

Showcasing vocabulary in display we found is important too.

Show staff what the school expects. Model what you mean. (I made the Iron Man one photographed above with a Year 4 class before introducing the new expectations in a staff meeting). Primary children spend the majority of their waking day in that classroom so aim to make them places of awe and wonder. Why wouldn’t you?

4) Focus on reading

You’re a fool if you don’t. 😉

It is everything. It unlocks the curriculum.

For instance, take teaching children how to use correct sentence punctuation: You teach what a full stop is. You teach where to put it. You model using one. You explain your thinking. You show examples. You give time to children to practice. 30 children have the same teaching input.

But… the children who have read a lot will do better at this.

And you can say that about 90% of things in schools: “The children who have read a lot will do better at this”.

So encourage reading. Make reading popular. Check and monitor how much and how often the children read.

And if you still do guided reading – monitor its value. Many school are moving away from this.

5) Tracking and Pupil Progress Meetings

I didn’t fully realise the impact these meetings have. When our new SENDCO joined the school, she said these were the one thing we did that she saw had the most value.

We do them every half term for every class. The class teacher, the SENDCO and at least one member of SLT are present. We review interventions and discuss progress.

We are extremely disciplined about the agenda for these meetings. It is very easy to go off on a tangent.

We use two resources for these.

This primary school tracker which is probably the most inexpensive one available but does everything and more we need. If you are paying thousands of pounds every year for a tracker – ask yourself why.

And this pupil progress meeting toolkit which really helps frame the meeting.

6) Direct Instruction

New teachers leave their training with myths around exploratory and ‘active’ learning. It means they enter the profession with one hand tied behind their back. They feel guilty for imparting knowledge directly. They feel they aren’t teaching properly unless the children are ‘doing’ all the time.

In reality, often, their tasks are just activities where children wallow in their collective ignorance (a phrase I coined and use a lot for effect). Nothing new is learnt.

So, the importance of imparting knowledge, modelling and practice is quickly instilled. We do INSET on this every year.

Read Barak Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction. They ideas there should form your teachers’ approaches to the majority of their lessons.

Clear Learning Objectives are paramount too. We use these primary objectives as a basis.

7) Cut out unnecessary meetings

One year we did an experiment. All of the leadership team stopped going to meetings/briefings just to ‘show our face’ and ‘fear of missing out’.

We were quite ruthless actually.

The way information and training is accessible online now meant that we didn’t miss out.

I’d spent time at too many meetings thinking I could be doing a booster session (or anything else!) right now and it would be having more impact.

Results increased by 22% that year.