Leyland St Mary’s head: ‘I’m dreadfully sorry’

Headteacher Kathy McNicholas addresses parents during an information evening at Leyland St Mary's High School
Headteacher Kathy McNicholas addresses parents during an information evening at Leyland St Mary's High School

The headteacher of ‘inadequate’ Leyland St Mary’s High School says she “accepts responsibility on behalf of the whole school for the situation we’re in now”.

Speaking to a large group of parents at an information evening at the Royal Avenue school last night, Kathy McNicholas was challenged by the audience to take responsibility for the failing school, and added: “I am dreadfully sorry we weren’t able to achieve the outcomes we wanted for our young people last year.”

The meeting came after Ofsted put the school into special measures, and judged the leadership and management, quality of teaching, and achievement of pupils to be inadequate.

During their visit in October, inspectors also found that the behaviour and safety of pupils requires improvement.

First to address the crowd was Director of Schools for the Archdiocese of Liverpool, Tim Warren.

He said: “It’s important to know that the Ofsted framework has shifted significantly in the last few years, and what was judged to be ‘good’ two years ago would never get that today.

“The bar has been raised significantly, and it’s the same with GCSE results.”

He said it means that there are a greater number of schools in category four, ‘inadequate’, and that the Liverpool Archdiocese currently has nine schools in that category at the moment.

Miss McNicholas then took to the stand, and explained that a school improvement plan had been implemented in September.

But ‘because of the timing’, they didn’t have enough data and evidence to show Ofsted how the improvement plan was affecting the school when they visited on October 7 and 8.

The school has now drafted a 60-page action plan to present to Ofsted during the next visit, which is expected in early January, and Miss McNicholas said this would be published for parents to see once it had been finalised.

“The plan is being scrutinised and evaluated by the local authority Schools Challenge Board, but that doesn’t mean we’re sitting on our hands,” she said.

“We have been implementing elements of the plan since September, and it’s making a significant impact.”

She added: “I think one of the parts mums and dads will want to know about is how we’re prioritising making improvements to the leadership and management.

“What came out loud and clear from the report were questions around governance, and Ofsted has given us a strong directive to take a review of the governors.

“We’ve had a visit from a National Leader of Governance, Dr John Thornhill, [appointed by the Ministry of Education], who is scrutinising the structure of our governing body, looking at our minutes and making recommendations.

“He’s already started that support process, and has suggested that we re-constitute our governing body, which we will endeavour to do. It will mean our governors will be in a better position to hold myself, the school leaders and teachers to account.”

One of the school’s governors, John Cobham, explained: “The ‘re-constitution’ will involve the governing body taking a look at itself - has it got too many members, or maybe not enough?

“Maybe we will see a slimmed down body, maybe some feel it’s time to move on, and maybe we’ll bring more people in.

“At the moment, we have three elected parents on the governing body, and anyone can put their name forward when a vacancy comes up.

“Getting volunteer parents isn’t always an easy task, so please, if you feel you have the skills, put your name forward.”

Speaking about staff absence, Miss McNicholas said the Human Resources team was working ‘incredibly hard’ to resolve issues, but said she couldn’t go into much more detail as each case is confidential.

She also said that historically, Leyland St Mary’s has carried an ‘unusually high level’ of staff absence over the years, compared to the rest of Lancashire.

“Communication seems to be a recurring theme,” she added. “I think if you ask any lead in an organisation, staff would say that communication is not perfect.

“But we know we could have done better, and we’re sorry if people feel they were not well informed. We have done what we have always done, sending letters home and updating our website.

“We’re not always able to communicate the details people want, but everything we’re legally obliged to communicate, we do.

“We’re looking at introducing text messages and emails to get letters out to parents, hopefully in the New Year, which will give parents a window into what is happening in school.

“The new interactive website will also provide a portal to enable parents to look at various aspects of their child’s life in school, such as attendance, their behaviour records, and what homework has been set.

“We are also setting up a parents’ forum, which will meet on a half-termly basis. This will act as a sounding board representing the parent body.

“It’s the first step in empowering parents to voice their opinions, and we’re inviting requests from parents to join the forum.

“There will be an election process, and we want a few parents for each year group.”

Deputy head Chris Meldrum, who has been appointed ‘leader for achievement’ in the senior leadership team, said that a better data system is being introduced to monitor students’ progress.

“It will be visually accessible to parents, students and teachers,” he said. “It will give parents a better indication about each subject, and teachers will be held accountable for the progress of every pupil.

“For us, it makes it very clear what we’re being held accountable for - pupils should be making progress. And it allows for early conversations with teachers about why a child is not making enough progress.”

Head of science, Neil Walker, was appointed onto the senior leadership team in September, and is ‘assistant headteacher for intervention’.

He explained that after Christmas, a new GEMS scheme (Get English, Maths and Science) will start, for staff to provide ‘targeted intervention’ for certain students every four weeks, starting with the Year 11s in the run-up to their GCSE exams.

“We’ve also invested in an expensive online revision tool, which is incredibly impressive,” he said. “Students can access it from school or at home, and teachers and parents can log on to track how much time a child is spending on revision.”

He added: “We’re introducing a robust evaluation system with the heads of departments and senior staff too.

“Every six to eight weeks, every head of subject will have a detailed meeting with us to discuss what they are doing to help students, and if it is working.”

Carlie Loftus, head of geography and ‘assistant headteacher for raising achievement of targeted cohorts’, said there was a need to do more to support pupil premium pupils (additional funding is given to schools to raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils) and the able, gifted and talented children.

“We weren’t getting the results we expected from the pupil premium pupils,” she said. “We realised staff needed to become aware of who the pupil premium pupils are, as well as those entitled to free school meals, and the able, gifted and talented students in each class.

“That way, they know who to target.”

She also responded to a parent’s query about the Ofsted report instructing the school to “respond to the letter received from the Department for Education in January, requiring that an external review be carried out into the performance of disadvantaged students and ensuring that governors act swiftly on any recommendations of that review.”

Miss Loftus explained: “Ofsted has said we urgently need to do that, in the next eight weeks, and we’re starting that review tomorrow (Tuesday).

“We will then work with governors, teachers and senior staff to put in the changes which the review recommends, and we will get the results in two weeks.”

Deputy head Mr Meldrum said: “It might sound like we’re talking about things which we should have been doing anyway, which leads to questions about why we’re here now.

“Part of our plan is to make sure the quality of our monitoring and our data is accurate.

“That’s the thing which is different for us; more people are coming into school to monitor our intervention and targets.”

Headteacher, Miss McNicholas, added: “What has come out of the report is evidence of worrying patterns in terms of where training is required.

“We are addressing the issues of accountability at all levels, from class teachers to form tutors, heads of department, learning managers and senior staff.

“We need to be more honest about where we are, and make sure we are evaluating ourselves robustly.

“That will be a powerful tool in enabling us to develop and move forward.”

She added that departmental reviews and forging links with other schools was already underway, but that the school’s curriculum was ‘overdue a review’.

She said that they were looking to extend the core subjects offer to introduce a wider range of courses “within the restraints of the staff we have, and using the strengths of the staff here”, such as media studies, textiles and sociology.

“Next year’s GCSE results will be critical in monitoring our progress,” Miss McNicholas said. “There are milestones at which we will be judged.

“Every headteacher I’ve spoken to in the same position as us, assures me that the school is in a better place at the end of it.

“I would never say it’s a good thing [that the school is in special measures], but people have said that it does bring benefits to students and staff.”

One parent asked: “Why have we got into this mess? Why have you not taken responsibility for this situation before now?

“This is our school, and I’m very angry about this.”

Miss McNicholas responded: “The framework has changed significantly since 2011, and we’ve done training with staff since then about the new expectations.

“But it was a difficult message to get across. There seemed to be a reluctance to accept that the [old] ways of working weren’t meeting those expectations.

“We also had some school improvement plans set up last year, but we weren’t able to implement them in September because of the fire - that delayed a school improvement plan which had already been identified.

“Staff were finding it difficult to embrace the changes, but we’re working together as a team now.”

When asked about Ofsted’s findings that something ‘urgently’ needs to be done to “rebuild broken relationships so staff can work as a cohesive team”, she responded: “Everything I do, hand on heart, is for the very best of the young people. I would put them first a million times over.

“My second priority is the wellbeing of the workforce, and somewhere along the way, there has been some miscommunication.

“We’re trying to understand what lead to the breakdown in the first place, and we’re trying very hard to build those bridges.”

One parent said: “I feel reassured with what you’ve said tonight. I think you’ve responded well.”

But another received a round of applause from the audience when he said: “We’ve not heard this team accept responsibility for any of this.”

Miss McNicholas said: “We do feel responsibility for everything that has happened in the last 18 months.

“I accept responsibility for whatever part I played, but I think there is clear responsibility at all levels.

“I’m dreadfully sorry we weren’t able to achieve the outcomes we wanted for our young people last year.

“Aside from the backdrop of the disaster recovery [from the fire], I think when we are allowed to knuckle down and do the things we need to do, you will be reassured - that will be the measure of my success.

“I accept responsibility on behalf of the whole school for the situation we’re in now.”