Staff and pupils have described how one school fought back against special measures to achieve its best GCSE results and restore its reputation.
Failures at Holmesdale School in Snodland led to declining results and falling student numbers before it was placed in special measures in 2018, but changes to the leadership structure have seen a reversal makeshift – and new acting chief Lee Downey wants to spread the good news.
“I want to shout it from the rooftops,” Lee explained last week, two days after taking over as acting manager. “I’m so proud of where the school is now. It’s by far the best position since I’ve worked here, without a doubt.”
This is not an easy task. Lee started working at the school as a physical education teacher in 2005, when she was rated good by Ofsted, and has seen her go on a roller coaster of ups and downs since then.
It’s fair to say that the lowest low on this roller coaster came when Holmesdale took special action.
“I think 2018 was the lowest I’ve ever felt professionally,” he said. “At the time, I had just been appointed as a leader as an associate leader, so I went to Ofsted as an associate leader. Being placed in special measures was not a shock actually, and everything that came out of that report, unfortunately, we had to agree It was what we saw in school and it was true, and it was until three or four years old where we just had bad leadership in school – the accountability wasn’t there and that led to a slope effect where year after year we didn’t improve.”
“At that time, we had very high turnover, which was the biggest impact.”
When Swale Academies Trust took over, the school began to turn things around under the leadership of Principal Glen Prebble and Chief Executive Nicki Hodges, but Lee also credits the success to staff members who have remained loyal to the school against winds and tides.
“I saw the school transform completely,” he adds. “The consistency of teachers day in and day out is much better. Students need to feel cared for and some care about their education, which is difficult for substitutes.
“We have a core group of employees who were here when we were in special measures and who are here now – and they were the backbone of how this turned around – because it’s very easy to walking away when the going gets tough – and that was hard, that’s hard work.”
And Lee said he was never tempted to leave either.
“As crazy as I can be, I love this place. I’m so committed, that’s why I’m still here. I’ve been hard, it’s hard work getting out of a special measures school.”
“The main factor is this group of employees who said ‘you know what we can do’, because our children were amazing, and we have families who are really supportive of us – the children deserve their education, they deserve a good quality of education, so we got down and got to work.”
Swale has stabilized enrollment – last year only one teacher left due to retirement – while pupil numbers have also increased, with 115 pupils entering Year 7 this year, up from around 80 the previous year .
For Lee, the real indicator of the school’s success is the Progress 8 measure of +0.02 – a figure which shows that student progress at Holmesdale is better than at most schools, with the national average set at 0.
This progress has seen 61% of students achieve Grade 4 in English and Maths, and the school aims to build on the results.
Lee says much of the recent improvements came when Covid hit, and the school was forced to change the way it operates.
“Someone asked me what you were doing,” he explains. “We didn’t stand still at Covid – we made sure we did things to the best of our abilities virtually, and made sure students had access, made sure they had laptops, and sent laptops to those who didn’t have one.”
Another key focus was research, with teachers taking part in a ‘journal club’ to share ideas, while another major shift came in focusing on what knowledge students retained – and what they have no deductions – of course.
He adds: “Then they adjust the curriculum and make sure that in their syllabus they build in time to cover the stuff they don’t know, to prepare them for the exams.
“We really focus on recall and memory retention to make sure that every lesson students remember something they’ve already done – it could be last week, it could be last term. , it could be last year. .
“I think that’s been a massive push as to why we’ve done so well.”
Now, Lee’s mission is to send the message to the wider community that Holmesdale is changing, so that the “special measures” label is no longer attached to the school.
And he is also reaching out to the community following reports of anti-social behavior in Snodland – but he says the thugs who allegedly caused trouble at Rectory Close last month are not from the school.
“It’s a real problem for us,” adds Lee, “because when they identify young people at Snodland, the first reaction to that is that they are students from Holmesdale and we work very hard with our PCSO and the school police officer to make it clear to the community that they are not our students.
“There are students from other schools coming to the area. We know students are coming to Snodland by train. I don’t know who these young people are.
“Could that be some of our students? Potentially, but I’m fully aware from the work we do with the police that there are a lot of young people, a lot of teenagers causing trouble in the area who aren’t ours. And we are working very closely to identify other students to help the police do that.
“It’s really hard for our staff to see things like that, because we’re the only school in Snodland, it’s automatically associated with the school – it’s something we have to break down – it’s almost stereotypical that if you’re a teenager in Snodland you go to this school you don’t so in terms of behavior within the school we have the lowest suspension rate within the trust, we really try to keep students in school, and behavior in school has improved.
“We all have to work together. It’s something we’re going to look to do – we want to go out and support the community in this area because we want students from the community to come to this school.
“What we’re going to do because of the article is we’re going to start sending some of our staff before school and after school to make sure it’s not our students. If it’s our students we act on it – we talk to the parents and we sort things out The community needs to know we support them too It’s just to make sure the community realizes – don’t just assume they come of our school. If they are, we will support them and help change that, with the police working with us and with the parents as well.”
But Lee says he wants the focus to be on the school’s achievements – and points to the successes of pupils like Joanna Peggie and Kiril Kirilov, who were among Holmesdale’s top performers in this year’s GCSEs.
Joanna and Kiril shared how they have personally seen the school improve since arriving in grade 7 – and have benefited from more consistent teaching and improved practices,
Joanna added: “I think there were some difficulties with Year 10 interrupted by lockdowns a couple of times. The first lockdown was just a complete write-off – it was a mess but we’ll get there. ‘ignore!’The second lockdown was much more organized and you actually had teachers and staff.
“Going back to year 10, we had English lessons from there, we also had OSLs (out-of-school learning sessions for GCSEs) in year 10 and that moved on to year 11 – l he school really supported us, I think.
“I ended up putting my nose in the grindstone. I didn’t do too many revisions at home because personally I don’t have much motivation or attention outside of school, since I have ADHD.”
Kiril Kirilov also explained how things have improved and said teaching methods played a big part in his success.
“As a student, I’m pretty lazy, but I listened, paid attention in class, and engaged in class – I went to every OSL and just listened to what the teachers were saying and suggesting – I followed their leadership and did well.”
And with Joanna and Kiril now considering possible college courses, Lee said the school is looking to follow their lead.
“These two are a perfect representation of how successful we have been,” he added. “But they are more than their results – the person they are, the person they become – that’s what we’re trying to create, someone who can go on and do something, and use their results to s ‘to improve.”