“… ‘ere’, Mister… You them visitors what have come’t see school?”
The small moon-faced boy beamed up at us. He’d been waiting for our arrival and pounced upon us the very moment we set foot through the door.
It had taken four and a half hours to travel from Bristol to Leeds through ever gloomier weather until we arrived at Parklands Primary, swathed in grey drizzle on a particularly grim Thursday afternoon. I had warned my colleagues from South Gloucestershire that the North would indeed be grim, and, on first impressions, it didn’t disappoint.
“Do you think we’ve come to the right place?” commented one of my delegation as we picked our way through a desolate car park, towards the worn looking 50’s building beyond. We’d heard great things about Parklands but this school was no gleaming temple to modern architecture – quite the opposite. Outwardly, it was a tired looking place on one of the most deprived estates in Yorkshire. Yet it was famed for outstanding learning (both in terms of OFSTED judgement, stratospheric outcomes and national reputation).
“… ‘ere’, Mister… You them visitors what have come’t see school?” said the moon-faced boy.
What we found inside Parklands Primary wasn’t Outstanding.
It was a kind of magic.
Lessons learned from a trip to Parklands Primary.
The success of Parklands Primary School is mind-boggling!
Judged Outstanding in September 2017, its outcomes are eye-watering (especially in Maths where it scored a progress measure of +5.2 in 2018 and +8.5 (?!) in 2017, and last year had 75% of children achieve Greater Depth). It also serves one of the most deprived estates in Yorkshire with 72% of children in receipt of Pupil Premium.
72% of children are Pupil Premium.
75% of children achieve Greater Depth in Maths in 2018.
Indeed, in the 2018 Arithmetic test, 32 out of 33 children scored full marks!
So as part of South Gloucestershire LA’s ‘Year of Challenge’ (an initiative to get our small LA looking outwards to the most successful practice in the country) a merry band of Headteachers and I had traveled up to Leeds to learn the secret of Parklands’ success.
Here’s what we found out…
1. The staff at Parklands love the children like their own.
I thought long and hard about how to describe the relationships which underpin everything that happens at Parklands. It does not feel like any school I have ever visited.
And love is the only word that fits.
Seconds after the moon-faced boy had welcomed us, Chris Dyson (the irrepressible Headteacher) dashes past.
“Stewy!!!” He bellows. Not in anger, but in sheer delight. The moon-faced boy (Stewy – as I learnt the Headteacher had nick-named him) beamed from ear-to-ear and exchanged an in-joke between the two of them.
I later discovered that our guide for the day (Stewy) had been permanently excluded from two other schools. Yet here he was, happy (extremely polite) and relaxed. Trusted to show six headteachers around his school.
It was the same in every interaction with every member of staff. Behaviour was exceptional in every room we visited (and we were allowed to roam at will, without a member of staff to guide us away from any class of unruly pupils which could embarrass the school’s image).
The excellent behaviour which we saw was offered freely by every child. This was because they knew that every adult they met would care for them as if they were a member of their family.
This was quite confronting.
In the UK we generally build our behaviour codes around rules and respect. I like to think my own school (which also has Outstanding behaviour according to OFSTED) is pretty good at caring for the needs of each child. However, Parklands (while it too had the usual rules and expectations) also had a deep care for the children which went above and beyond that you would usually expect to see in even the most exceptional school.
Every interaction between adult and child implied that the adult deeply cared for the child and would therefore move heaven and Earth in order to ensure they succeed.
When you put it like this, it seems a no-brainer. But how many schools pay for their children to go on holiday (see below)..?
2. ‘Barriers’ weren’t discussed at all during our visit.
The pupils at Parklands often face significant hardship. The housing on the estate is often poor and over-crowded; poverty is grinding, bringing with it all the social ills which this creates. Children start the school significantly behind their peers nationally, especially with their speech and language.
It would be very tempting to throw one’s hands in the air and conclude that, whatever the school does, nothing can counter this tsunami of disadvantage. It would be easy to talk about ‘this’ barrier or ‘that’ barrier as a way of (reasonably) justifying outcomes which are lower than those in more affluent areas.
Throughout our visit barriers were never discussed. Indeed, it was as though the staff simply didn’t believe in them.
This is not to say that staff aren’t aware of the poverty and hardship which most pupils experience – they are extremely aware of this. However, to them it is a problem which simply must be overcome.
The school employs four Safeguarding officers whose job it is each day is to keep the children safe from harm – an indication of the hardship they face. The school has high adult to pupil ratios, allowing children the adult time needed to make secure attachments and learn well.
There is a weekly ‘homework party’ for those children without the opportunity to complete homework at home – not as a punishment – but as an extra time to complete learning with an adult. The expectation is that every child completes the basic homework: reading, spellings, and (of course) Times Tables Rock Stars (more on this to follow).
The school pays for every child from Y4-6 to take part in an annual residential school camp, providing them with experiences which would otherwise be beyond reach. Likewise, the school’s ambitious extra-curricular programme provide a wealth of character affirming opportunities.
The school even opens on ‘Christmas Eve Eve’, when it holds a Christmas party where each child has a Christmas dinner, gets a (quality) present from Santa and has a fabulous family day which, again, would beyond the means of most families on the estate.
How does it afford it?
Chris and his team raise A LOT of money!
3. The school raises huge sums in sponsorship.
In the past year, the Parklands staff have raised a staggering £300 000 for the school. To say that Chris’ approach to fund-raising is ‘tenacious’ is an understatement!
Chris is a master salesman(possibly a used-car saleman in a former life) and uses this skill to squeeze money out of the great and the good in eye-watering quantities. His strategy is simple: invite CEO’s of large companies to visit his school (never via a generic mail-shot, always via a personal email or phone call); show them the abject poverty in which his children live; ask them to help.
And help they do – often with donations running to the tens of thousands. The Christmas party appeal (above) raised £30 000!
However, it is not just cash which Chris looks to secure from local business. As I mentioned, the school is old and has much that needs repairing, so Chris got on phone to a large building company based in Leeds and asked if they’d like their painting and decorating apprentices to practice their skills on his corridors. Sure enough, the whole school is now decorated for free. Likewise, the school is bedecked with plush leather sofas: ‘ITV News’ was Chris’ response – as he’d sniffed out that the local news were re-furbishing their newsroom set and had dozens of nearly new sofas to dispose of.
This money is put to very good use. As well as the initiatives already mentioned, one £5000 donation was used to fund a weekly £25 Tesco voucher to the child named as writer of the week. “I know it should be a book voucher” Chris quipped, “But there ain’t no Waterstones round here and a voucher like that will give a family a real boost!”. Similarly, families are given a £30 voucher when they sign up for Pupil Premium.
4. Deep Practice is key.
A key focus for my visit to Parklands was to discover the secret to their exceptional outcomes. The answer appears to be found in the school’s focus on deliberate, regular practice.
It, again, sounds ludicrously simple – keep practicing something until it sticks – but, from leading Pupil Premium reviews myself, it appears that practice is something which many schools have largely overlooked in the clamour for ‘mastery’.
This approach at Parklands stems back to the early days of Chris’ Headship when the school was in a precarious position and he would spend his days walking the corridors to keep order. During these walks it became a thing that he would fire multiplication questions at the children. Their basic skills were poor, and Chris and his team saw the importance of improving the children’s number fluency as a key driver in improving mathematical outcomes.
With the help of a simple online maths game, Times Table Rock Stars, and a whole school focus on this area of maths, the children now have exceptional number fluency (as evidenced here where we see a Year 6 child solving multiplication problems at the rate of 3 per second?!). Indeed, the vast majority of children know all their times tables facts by the end of Year 2. Again, no exceptions or excuses are made for vulnerable children – they are expected to learn their tables at exactly the same rate as their peers, with support at the ‘Homework Party’ if necessary.
This lightens the children’s cognitive load significantly, allowing children to focus more on the reasoning and problem solving aspects of maths as they progress through the school (the school uses the White Rose resources like many in the UK).
The whole daily timetable is geared towards ensuring that children have the opportunity to master these basic skills through structured practice:
The maths teaching is split into two sessions either side of assembly – which is used by teachers as a time to look over the children’s learning from the first session and change their teaching in the second session to address any misconceptions.
The reading takes place as a class, with the children often all reading the same book together. Again, this puts an emphasis on high expectations and regular practice.
5. Leadership is focused on improving children’s outcomes.
Chris Dyson is fiercely proud of Parklands and everything they’ve achieved and his drive to ensure that every child succeeds is evident in every leadership decision. He even moved his own children to the school – a very powerful message to the whole school community in the confidence he has in ‘the Parklands way’.
He and his staff think very carefully about how to improve teaching and learning. Staff never attend generic courses, but instead read widely about the latest practice, inviting in high-profile authors to lead bespoke training with staff and then spending significant amounts of time embedding new learning. For example, Chris waxed lyrical about a visit to the school from Paul Garvey, author of ‘Taking control: how to prepare your school for an OFSTED inspection’ , citing it as key in the school’s approach to School Improvement.
There are no formal lesson observations at Parklands, but this is because senior leaders drop into lessons every Wednesday: not to make formal judgements, but to discuss with staff the learning taking place and what support they might need.
There is an annual team building day on 31st August every year, but staff can accrue days off en-lieu for attending events on weekends etc.
No supply teachers are needed – all classes are covered internally by one of the 2 non-class-based cover teachers or 2 cover HLTAs.
And everything is done simply. Nearly every policy or procedure fits onto a single side of A4 paper. Clarity and consistency rule supreme.
6. Parklands is a very happy school.
Above all, Parklands is one of the happiest school’s I’ve visited. And again, this is a deliberate strategy to foster the values which the school is seeking to promote, namely, a belief that every child is worthy and capable of success.
All day every day, positive pop music booms out of the hall’s PA (Parklands is not a quiet place!) and this positivism is infectious to children and visitors alike.
The school’s drama productions, along with the many other extra-curricular activities, are highly valued by the school community: “Them there are from the Yorkshire Playhouse [theatre company]” said one Mum proudly as I watched a set of drama teachers take the school’s cast of ‘High School Musical’ through their paces at the end of the school day (another freebie Chris had wangled!).
Every Friday is called ‘Happy Friday’ – a day of celebration for all that the school has achieved during the week. Done badly this could just become an empty gimmick, but because it is the physical manifestation of everything the school is about, it is a way of telling every child that they are special to the staff.
Back to the moon-faced boy.
“Ere, Stewy,” boomed Chris, “Don’t Forget your tea!”.
Throughout our visit an ‘M&S Yorkshire Pudding Dinner for One’ had sat on the Headteacher’s table. Chris had explained that it was Stewy’s favourite and he’d bought it him to say thank you for showing us round , “It’ll be toast for tea otherwise.” he explained.
Stewy collected his ‘M&S Yorkshire Pudding Dinner for One’ and headed to the door with a broad grin on his face.
Then he stopped and looked a bit sheepish.
Then he turned round and dashed back towards Chris and gave him an enormous hug.
Then (remembering he was a 9 year old boy who was too cool to hug his headteacher) he made his escape.
So ask yourself this…
Do you know the favourite dinner of the most vulnerable children in your school?
If, like me, you can’t answer that question, then maybe… just maybe, we should all aim to be a little bit more like the staff at Parklands Primary School, Leeds.