Learning the rules and then breaking them – Taking a school to outstanding with Jonathan Clucas

Jonathan Clucas
Jonathan Clucas

Jonathan Clucas is the headteacher of a large, three form entry Primary school in Blackpool with over 600 pupils and 50% in receipt of pupils premium funding.

Blackpool is listed as the area with the lowest life expectancy in the UK, with the lowest average wage per household. It is the most deprived large seaside resort in the UK, and has the highest drug related deaths in the country.

In October of 2017, Layton was judged as Outstanding in all areas. The key to the school success is a combination of factors – understanding pedagogy and the most advanced research which backs this up, a relentless focus on a growth mindset and philosophy of improvement for all staff and pupils, and innovative use of ICT to develop children’s independence in their learning. The staff team are wholly committed to Growing great minds together. Standards are high and the school’s journey has taken them from the lowest 40% to the highest 100 schools in the country for achievement within the last six years.

Jonathan’s assistant heads, Claire, suggested that he listen to the Pivotal Podcast episode with Chris Dyson’s episode about his Ofsted inspection. By chance, Jonathan’s own Ofsted took place very shortly after listening to Chris and he says that it helped him a lot. Claire suggested to Pivotal that Jonathan appear on the podcast and we were delighted to welcome him!

Before Jonathan started at Leyton school it was rated satisfactory but, before he took up the post, all satisfactory schools were re-classified to ‘requires improvement’ and were given two years to improve. This meant he had less than 12 months to make a significant difference to the school.

What was the school like when you began?

What he found at the school were declining standards, a content- and scheme-driven curriculum and passive children. All learning was teacher-led and the challenge for the children was low. So the first job was to create a challenging curriculum which teachers knew how to lead. The focus was on assessment for learning.

Jonathan was very surprised to find that, in a 3-form entry primary school, the teachers were not really collaborating on planning. Changing this and implementing challenge and oversight from the senior leadership team was crucial in order for the curriculum change to be transformed effectively.

The proof of the success of this approach for Jonathan was when the whole staff were happy to listen to everyone’s feedback after the Osfted inspection. The inspectors did not have time to feed back individually but the staff were happy to let each other listen to their feedback because of the open, collaborative climate in the school.

How do you sustain improvement?

Student results also improved dramatically in a very short time but Jonathan realised that it was now important to let go to a certain extent to continue the improvement. The only way to enable teachers to keep improving is to stop making decisions for them – they needed to start making more and better decisions themselves. What they needed was a set of guidelines and to make this happen, Jonathan developed a questioning approach, to empower them to make their own decisions. At the same time, work was going on to help the children be much more independent in their learning.

Jonathan is keen to point out that teaching is so complex that nobody, including the SLT, has ‘cracked it’. There is now an open door policy in the school meaning that teachers and SLT members routinely observe each other’s lessons and give each other feedback. There has also been a shift in monitoring from judgemental to developmental – this has had a huge impact as well.

How have you supported children to become truly independent learners?

Jonathan believes that being independent means facilitating your own learning. It’s important that children can organise, present and talk about their own learning to others and also question their peers’ learning. Part of this process involves children projecting their work onto the smartboard in the classroom and inviting others to ask questions about it. They feed back where they think it’s effective and where it isn’t. The teacher facilitates this dialogue.

So you do truly end up with a system of 31 teachers and 31 learners.

What is your innovative approach to CPD?

Jonathan says that you can’t learn effectively through isolated CPD sessions – the real work is done between these opportunities. Also, the model has been too top-down in the past. So Jonathan encourages all staff to develop their own thinking via their own reading and research and to share in person and on Twitter what they have found out which could be of benefit to the school, particularly focussing on research which is outside the usual sources. For him, INSET days are just a starting point – it’s what happens between them which is important.

Jonathan on Twitter

Assistant Head Claire Jones on Twitter

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