Darren Randle
Headteacher at Hollingworth Academy

Thriving schools: Rejecting the educational lottery

What are the key elements to a sustainably successful school? Headteacher Darren Randle discusses the steps he took to help staff and pupils flourish. 

We recently released our Thriving Schools report: a research expedition carried out on seven secondary schools, each of which are defying disadvantage and sustaining success.

One such thriving school is Hollingworth Academy in Rochdale, near Manchester. Hollingworth Academy is an 11-16 coeducational multi-academy trust of around 1,300 pupils. 13% are eligible for free school meals – the national average is 14%. In the school’s last full Ofsted inspection, they were rated Outstanding.

Headteacher Darren Randle has been at Hollingworth Academy since 2007. We spoke to him about the steps he took to help staff and pupils flourish at Hollingworth, and what advice he would give to other schools looking to embark on their journey to become thriving.

A culture of strong leadership

When I took over as Headteacher, Hollingworth had a history of very strong leadership which was largely autocratic in style. This top-down approach was highly effective in context, but was not appropriate to support the changes we needed to make in order to improve the school further. To get Hollingworth to where it is now, we had to consciously re-culture the school.

We needed skilled leadership from many people rather than just a few and needed to ensure that all staff understood and were actively involved in leading school improvement. To support this we invested significantly in leadership and staff development. This built a shared language, expectation and understanding of leadership across the organisation.

We looked at the school’s improvement strategies and over-communicated these through simple catchphrases or mantras (which 10 years on I still repeat). These have a clear moral imperative at their heart. They inevitably frame most of our school improvement work:

  1. We’re not here to make the inevitable happen. Is it tacitly accepted by society that socially disadvantaged children will not do as well in school? This is key driver in framing school improvement measures which promote social mobility and equity.
  2. Reducing the educational lottery. It has been suggested that the degree of in school or even within department variation is greater that between schools. Think of your own school: What happens if a child gets the very best teacher in English, maths and science, or if they get the least developed teacher in school? This can make the difference between an inadequate education and an outstanding one. So what can we do to ensure that at the very least, a child will get a very good education?
  3. The ‘Carlsberg’ question. We are striving to be a ‘world-class’ school (although we are a long way from achieving this). We apply this question to the whole school and departmental thinking. Is this ‘the best department/ school in the world?’ The answer in invariably no, but the second question of ‘why?’ is more important.

We try to have a sense of equity systemically across the across the school whether that is in terms of pupil outcomes or between subject areas.

We have adopted a philosophy of ‘sometimes a blip, never a trend.’ We accept that on rare occasions outcomes can might be less impressive than usual. If one of our departments has had a less effective year, there’s no blame, but no excuses either. We adopt a closer framework of line management and support.

A culture of care

The number one aim of our school is to look after our children and to help them realise their dreams for the future. The best way to do that is to look after our staff with just as much rigour. Here’s how we do it:

  • We focus on strong communication, accepting that this is always an area we can always improve.
  • We have full-staff inductions to explain what we’re doing and why.
  • We have a staff working party examining our risk assessments.
  • We’re flexible - I can’t think of a part-time working request I’ve turned down, because we want to keep great people.
  • We appointed a fantastic HR manager who has staff well-being at the heart of all practice.

There is a culture of high expectation in our school, but there is also significant support and communication. There’s a saying that leadership is 10% doing things and 90% explaining it: we spend a significant amount of time ensuring staff understand why we’re taking certain directions.

A culture of development

For our early career teachers we have a programme of learning throughout the year, with weekly training sessions with experts across the school and beyond on areas of professional knowledge.

We have a lot of Teach First graduates, culturally we know where they’re at and we know how they want to develop. We understand their experiences and challenges. For trainees in their second year, we have our ‘Leaders of Tomorrow’ programme, which is centred around leadership and agency in teaching. Next year we’re developing this training centrally across our Multi-Academy Trust, so there’s mutual support across the cohorts in the borough.

We invest heavily if staff development – as a Teaching school we have developed training programmes which offer staged training from prospective trainee teachers right through to prospective Headteachers. We also invest in staff by fully funding Master degrees.

A culture of support

Our approach to COVID-19 can be described in four words: considered, careful, cautious and communicative. I am proud to be part of a profession who have handled this crisis with diligence and dignity. I think what we have done is similar to many schools. Each week I send quite a lengthy email keeping people informed of the latest news. And our HR manager has published three editions of our staff wellbeing bulletin: a document which includes tips for managing stress, home-working and some non-working items. 

For example, I wrote an article called Things I Have Learned During Lockdown, about how to work and live from home effectively (which has taken practice to get right) - I also mentioned how I’m putting some late-night serious practice into the bass guitar! People are baking, recommending books and films, we’re organising staff quizzes. It’s become a forum to keep in touch with people – to keep the feel of a community going – because at the end of the day we are a community, and that’s really key. 

Furthermore, we make sure to have really clear communication on what we’re doing to manage the school during the pandemic. We’re doing lots of welfare calls, identifying people who are more at risk due to anxiety and underlying medical conditions. We also have regular Microsoft Teams meetings right through the organisation.

In terms of planning for the return to school, I’ve had two full days of staff induction meetings, arranging to meet colleagues in groups of ten in a classroom. I want to check that people are okay, talk through procedures and answer questions about what we’re doing to keep people safe. We’re doing a parallel process with our children as well.

A culture of pride

The school is consistently oversubscribed, but we have virtually no pupils who are NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) in year groups of 260 children or more.

The thing I’m most proud of is that in the last three years, on two occasions (2017 and 2018) the progress made by our pupil premium children exceeded that of all non-pupil premium children nationally. It really speaks to our mantra of not allowing the inevitable to happen. Qualitatively you can feel that what you are doing is right, and you can see children gain confidence in their learning – but sometimes you just need some data-driven proof to confirm you’re on the right track.

A culture of collaboration

As an inexperienced senior leader I used to think that schools with the great ideas were the great schools. I’ve realised that this is wrong. There’s no mystery in what makes great teaching or a great schools. I believe the key to being a ‘thriving school’ is to consistently ensure that school improvement practice is congruent with core values of high expectations and staff wellbeing and that practice is understood  and implemented by all colleagues. We need both rigour and compassion.
We want to give our children the very best experience and education, and not have a lottery in our school. Most people get that concept, but ‘how’ we execute it is key. I know that we get amazing levels of ‘buy in’ and support by going out of our way to treat people well.

We do this in a fairly unremarkable manner – it’s now part of our leadership DNA when we talk about school improvement: When we talk about improving things at school, we always ask: “What will be the impact of this on workload? How is this going impact on staff wellbeing?” Having certain mantras to come back to, to examine everything we do, are important. These little mental checks can go a long way. It’s not a culture that has emerged instantly, but something which has become ingrained in our thinking and practice over time.

Hollingworth Academy is just one of several Teach First partner schools we interviewed for our Thriving Schools Report. To find out more what factors contribute to sustainably successful schools, please read it in full here.

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