Laura O'Leary, Headteacher of Blessed Robert Sutton Catholic Voluntary Academy
Laura O'Leary
Headteacher of Blessed Robert Sutton Catholic Voluntary Academy (Burton-upon-Trent)
Programme cohort
Leading Together cohort 2020

Our pupils are happy and feel safe

In 2019, Blessed Robert Sutton Academy faced many challenges. When Laura became Acting Headteacher, she enrolled her senior leaders on our Leading Together programme.

Before we partnered with Teach First, it’s fair to say the school was in a bad place. It was a ‘stuck school’. Since 2008, the school had an Ofsted outcome of requires improvement. 

We know as educators that it’s not all about the Ofsted outcomes. But it is about the day-to-day school life and making sure that the children get the best deal.

Blessed Robert Sutton Academy is a lovely school. Some students come from backgrounds where they get really strong support for their education.

But for a lot of our students, there’s not a strong family tradition of learning.

One of the saddest things that I’ve ever heard in my career was when I asked a student: “What do you want to do when you leave school?” They said they wanted to work in their local supermarket.

There’s nothing wrong with working in a local supermarket, but we hope that our children aspire for the stars.

There is very much a culture here in Burton upon Trent that a job is a job. For me, that’s a sign that ambition and aspirations were quite low in our school.

Challenges in the school

Before we partnered with Teach First, there was a lot of unhappiness.

There wasn’t a focus on staff or student wellbeing, and there was a lot of work to do.

Our school serves a community that’s in the top 50% of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country.

Children had very low literacy levels on entry, particularly with their lack of vocabulary. This was a huge barrier to progress.

How Leading Together helped us

The Leading Together programme is brilliant because it distils the research and gives you the best bits with no mucking about.

It supported us to build the culture we have in school today. In particular, it gave us the opportunity to reflect on the direction and the journey.

Working with Teach First has helped us collaborate and share expertise with other secondary schools.

We’ve also had brilliant support from our Achievement Partner, Andy Bygrave. As we went through COVID, it was so nice having somebody on the end of a phone call who was completely impartial. Andy was always on hand as a sounding board to help me with any ‘headteacher dilemmas’. 

Better teaching

When we first started Leading Together, we had subjects being taught by 17 different non-specialists.

Through the work we did on the programme, we could tighten and plan our curriculum properly.

Now all our subjects are taught by specialists, which is incredible.

Achieving Ofsted outstanding

As a leader, it was my first Ofsted inspection.

I’d never been in this position. I didn’t want to let the pupils, parents or my team down.

When you hear that word – outstanding – you can’t believe it.

The school has been on such a journey, everyone in the room was crying because it was so special for us.

It was a dream come true for our school and so well deserved by everybody.

If we weren’t on Leading Together, I don’t think we would’ve received the outstanding judgement. It gave us space to reflect on what we want for our school and pupils and helped us improve daily.

I always think that if you want to create the best school, your leaders need world-class professional development. This is what the Leading Together programme gave us.

Positive community reaction

We’ve had so many emails and phone calls from the local community to say congratulations.

Our local press has also been an advocate for our school’s journey.

One of the parents sent us (and it’s probably the nicest thing I’ve ever received) one of those personalised Quality Street boxes. She changed the tin from Quality Street to BRS Street (Blessed Robert Sutton), and she did it for all the staff.

Everybody has been delighted, and we always get so many lovely messages on Twitter and Facebook, and now so many people want to visit our school.

Our nomination for Secondary School of the Year

In April, we received a nomination for TES Secondary School of the Year award.

It came at a really good time for us.

Every school is struggling with different things, particularly with finances, energy prices… everything is getting harder. So then to be shortlisted for the award was unbelievable.

Leaders and teachers in every school across the country work so, so hard.

Applications for places are soaring

We have a pupil admission number of 124. That first year I was Acting Headteacher, we enrolled only 90 pupils.

This year, we’ve gone through that journey and received an outstanding judgement. And we’ve now had 400 applications for those 124 places.

That’s because of the quality children now get in their lessons and the sense of pride that staff have of the school.

Pupils have been overwhelmingly positive

Before 2019, you’d ask the children: “What could we do to improve school?” And they’d give you a long list. And nine times out of ten, it was about the quality of teaching, learning and specific subjects.

We had an overwhelming number of supply teachers in school, and the deal they were getting was poor.

Now, when I ask the same question, it’s like getting blood out of a stone. Very little comes back beyond the menu at lunchtime!

Our pupils have been overwhelmingly positive. They’re happy and they feel safe in our school – and that’s down to the journey we’ve been on.

Young people are realising their potential

You can talk about exam results, Progress 8 scores and Ofsted outcomes.

But ultimately, what you want is the children to get what they need for whatever it is that they want to do.

And that’s why you’re a teacher, isn’t it? You go into teaching to make sure every child gets the opportunity to have an excellent education.

Now, our young people jump out of the car to get into school in the morning. Well – not every day – but most days.

Everybody’s excited to come into the building, and it is such a wonderful, happy school.

Leading Together is a free two-year programme aimed at primary and secondary schools that builds and sustains strong leadership across your entire senior leadership team. Find out how you can enrol your school on next year’s programme.

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