New head teacher sets out clear vision for the future

New head teacher sets out clear vision for the future

11th March 2015


After enduring a period of extreme turbulence a North East academy, sponsored by the Diocese of Durham and Crossland Academies, is looking at brighter skies. Its newly appointed principal explains why.

In the principal’s office the noticeboards have been wiped clean and given over to the students.

“It’s the principal’s office but the noticeboards reflect the ongoing success of the students and staff of the academy, and I want them to record their journey on these walls,” says newly appointed principal of St Aidan’s C of E Academy, Darlington, Nicole Gibbon.

After three years as assistant principal, witnessing teachers, students, parents and reputations being battered, a time during which she contemplated swapping the classroom for a cake shop, she is now at the controls of an academy sponsored with the best intentions by the Diocese of Durham and Crossland Academies.

The first picture on the wall is the mark of a cross, a landing point, comprising happy, smiling children on the stairs.

“Following the latest Ofsted I took an act of worship and explained my vision,” says Mrs Gibbon, 44. “I asked students about their expectations of staff and they said they expected us to be here every day, they expected their lessons to be planned and they expected us to look the part. We expect the same of them.
“The school belongs to the students and staff and my vision is to hit the ground kneeling. As assistant principal I tried doing everything myself and I spent my time literally running around the school and burning all my energy but not achieving what I wanted.

“Hitting the ground kneeling means that my staff are going to be leading their academy. My senior team, the majority of which have PE backgrounds, are used to being hands on with the students. The middle leaders have more than enough energy and ability to motivate and mobilise the whole academy. In fact the whole staff are an inspiration and after experiencing incredibly hard times, whoosh, they have regained their enthusiasm.”

Mrs Gibbon, of Houghton-le-Spring, was educated at Sunderland Church High School and trained as a teacher at Chelsea College, Eastbourne, 22 years ago.
“We want to see young people grow, flourish, spread their wings and all the staff are here first and foremost for the students,” she says.

After the school’s troubled history Mrs Gibbon is determined to put St Aidan’s on the map for the right reasons.

“If I can get the students, parents and staff on board how can that fail? How can it be hard if we all work together? If someone falls down we will be there to pick them up. It is so basic.

“The criticism by Ofsted and in the press has hurt us all, not least the children. They blamed us and the mood in the academy changed instantly with all the negative press, because they felt we didn’t care about them.”

So the academy is undergoing a huge cultural shift based on core values of care, respect and responsibility and a can-do attitude.

“It’s a lovely academy, it is immaculate, but my job is to give St Aidan’s a heartbeat,” she says. “And I have massive support, not only from inside the academy but across the town, including Darlington’s other head teachers and its MP. Our chair of governors, Sheila Bamber, is fabulous. She has been through such a lot but has never left our side.”

Very soon the writing will be on the wall, literally, with inspirational and aspirational quotations decorating classrooms and corridors.

“I want everyone to see that life is there for the taking, that no one should ever feel inferior because they will not give others permission to think that way about them.”

And the transformation has already gone way beyond wise words on the wall.
Already new systems have been put in place to ensure learning is of the highest quality.

These include after-hours revision classes, open clinics, parent information sessions and the Year 11s have retaken their mocks because the results weren’t good enough.

“To boost student behaviour we have introduced the Year 11 privilege tie, which students designed themselves,” Mrs Gibbon says.

“They have completely bought into the concept and wear it with such pride. Any negative behaviour sees it being taken away and students have to earn it back. It’s unbelievable seeing a strapping 6ft 2in teenager getting upset because he has lost his tie for making the wrong choices and walking round covering his normal school tie with his hand because he feels ashamed.

When Ofsted inspected the school last October they highlighted serious weaknesses. They have just published the findings of a return visit to the academy in January. They spoke with Mrs Gibbon, Sheila Bamber and the sponsors.

They also talked to the staff including the senior leadership team and a group of Year 11 students. Action plans were evaluated and the quality of leadership and management assessed.

Inspectors found:
• With effective support from the governors and sponsors, the principal has responded effectively to address the findings of the previous inspection
• The academy is now taking appropriate action to address the points for improvement
• The action plan provides clear strategic direction and appropriate benchmarks for checking progress
• Students report a significant improvement in behaviour thanks to the introduction of a clear and robustly monitored approach to behaviour management
• The introduction of a robust approach to the management of teachers’ performance
• Greater feedback on marking allowing students to understand what they need to do to improve their work
• Improved parental engagement.

Overall the lead inspector judged the academy’s improvement action plan fit for purpose, a view he passed on to the Education Secretary.

What they will not be aware of are recent academy successes including Year 11 student Stephen Johnson being selected for the GB Taekwondo team; a team of Y10 girls has recently won a town wide Foundation for Jobs hovercraft building contest; Year 8 student Stephen Johnson taking part in a Paralympian basketball event; Jay Louise McCabe being selected for the GB Paralympic swimming team; and Year 11 student Ethan Harker scoring the winners in the last two county football matches for Durham.

In the principal’s office the boards have been wiped clean – but they are already starting to fill up with the many success stories St Aidan’s has to tell.

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