Chris Tolson
Headteacher at The Academy at St James (Bradford, Yorkshire and the Humber)
Programme cohort
2020 Leading Together

Changing perceptions: parents now have a school they believe in

In January 2017, Chris Tolson joined The Academy at St James as their new headteacher –their fourth headteacher in seven months. At the time, the school was in Special Measures, and Chris decided to join the first cohort of Teach First’s Leading Together programme – a two-year, fully funded programme that develops the whole senior leadership team and creates long-term improvements.  

Fast forward five years, and in May 2022, the school achieved an Ofsted rating of Good overall, with an Outstanding in leadership and management. Chris reflects on the school’s journey, their challenges and their achievements.

Local challenges

The Academy at St James in Bradford serves an interesting and challenging community in terms of deprivation. The community is in the bottom 5% in the country for deprivation, and we’re in an area that faces big issues around obesity and public health. 

In terms of local challenges and those that our pupils face, there is a mix of pupil and parental mental health struggles. We also have issues around a wide number of social and economic factors which affect pupil and parental support. Plus there is also a lack of aspiration, which causes multiple issues for many families. As a school, we want to support our pupils in the best way we could.

One of the biggest challenges comes down to ensuring pupils have their basic needs met. There’s nothing more important than feeding the children in the morning, which is why we offer a breakfast club which starts at 7.30am. Feeding children is essential to help them learn, and we’ve worked with the National Breakfast programme and Magic Breakfast to support our pupils. 

We’re a church school, but for me, we’re a community school. Our goal is to provide support for the community that we serve – whether that’s through events that we can invite people to or support for parents and families.

The community had lost its belief in the school

When I joined The Academy at St James, there was no deputy head, business manager or site manager. A lot of the staff had low morale and needed more guidance and support. The staff at school are exceptional and very talented and I felt it was important to provide stability.

What motivated us the most to change was driven by three factors:  

  1. Getting it right for the children who deserved the best curriculum and opportunities. 
  2. Supporting our staff to grow and develop. 
  3. Reaching out and working alongside the community to make the school a better place.

We also wanted to change was the external perception of the school. It wasn’t good, with people thinking, “it’s chaos down there.” The community had lost its belief in the school and we’d lost 43 pupils in 2016/ 2017 roll.

Headteacher hands out paper to students lining up

Our Achievement Partner was a lifeline

We had to quickly move forward to change the perception of the school. Not just the community’s perception, but the pupils’ as well. It’s important to us to show that the local context is not an excuse for children to not achieve. We don’t want to place a glass ceiling for the children. We want to make sure anything is possible – and that’s where our journey started from. 

I was sceptical before joining Leading Together. I wasn’t sure I needed someone coming in and telling me that things weren’t great – I already knew that.  

When we started in 2018, we were matched with our Achievement Partner, Clare Watson-Spence. For me, Clare was a lifeline. She wasn’t there to tell me about the problems. She was there to help me identify them and figure out ways to overcome them.  I could email her, speak to her on the phone and she came in to see me. She also offered coaching for staff about how they could develop in the school, which was fantastic.  

I also had great support from Bradford Diocesan Academies Trust as they signposted me to this programme. They provided HR, legal, teaching and learning support. 

Leading Together enabled me as a headteacher to take a step back and go: “OK, what do I actually need to do?” Because it's such a busy job. Clare guided, coached, mentored and lead support where we needed it. Having someone to turn to is so important.

A different way of thinking

We work in our own bubble in Bradford but being part of the Trust and then linking up with Teach First broadened our horizons and look at different ways of working. There’s a big world out there, and listening to people, learning from them, and finding out what other schools are doing is really important.  

I feel that we have a curriculum now that has a balance of experiences and Teach First helped us to develop that. It also helped us to look at research. We used interleaving and memory and retrieval as a way to support pupils learning and engaged with Bradford Research School. 

Two males smiling in front of school bus

From 'Requires improvement' to 'Good'

In 2019 – halfway through Leading Together - we received an overall Ofsted rating of Requires Improvement, despite four out of five factors being rated as Good.  At the time, we were only six weeks into a brand-new framework, so we found this very difficult. I personally felt that I’d let people down. We’d worked for a long time to build and develop people, and I knew we were better than that.  
That result galvanized us to develop and improve our curriculum. We did a lot of work on Leading Together around our curriculum, looking at ‘sticky knowledge’ and how important it is to weave skills into our lessons – something we’ve been able to successfully implement, thanks to the programme and Teach First. I wrote to Ofsted and invited them back early because we wanted them to see how much we’ve improved.   

This time, when the inspector left, he said to me: “When I leave this school, I’m going to take part of it with me”. When we went through the feedback - Ofsted Good with Outstanding in leadership and management - we were really proud.  

Leaders and staff are proud of the school. They are focused on creating an exciting and stimulating education for all. Leaders realise the importance of providing clear direction. They identify the strengths and weaknesses of the school through honest self-reflection. Leaders provide staff with professional development opportunities to meet individual and whole school needs.

Pupils and staff have a spring in their step at this school. They enjoy being part of a school community that cares for each other. As one pupil told an inspector ‘this school is a happy place’. The school community is motivated by the school slogan, ‘aspire, achieve, believe’. (Ofsted 2022) 

The parents now have a school they believe in. I know that we’ve created something that’s sustainable for the community, and I’m proud of every stakeholder who works here – from the kitchen staff, site manager, deputy head, teaching staff and assistants – they’re all significant and special people who do an amazing job. 


Leading Together is a fully-funded, two-year programme aimed at primary and secondary schools that builds and sustains strong leadership across your entire senior leadership team. Find out more about Leading Together, including how we could support your school, here. 

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