Thriving in the face of adversity

We speak to Keith Rondeau, headteacher at St Marks primary school in Dudley, about being one of just four schools nationally to be mentioned in the Education Endowment Foundation report – and why failing quickly is the key to succeeding

Tell us a little bit about your school and your role here.

We are a one-and-a-half form entry school in Pensnett, Dudley. We have 328 children on roll, including our nursery provision. I took up the post of headteacher in April 2019 – this is my first headship and I only had two full terms under my belt when the pandemic hit.  Fair to say, it has been something of a steep learning curve.

How did you come to be one of just four schools nationally to be directly referenced in the Education Endowment Foundation (EFF) report?

During the lockdown I was participating in regular online forum meetings with the brilliant team at Challenging Education; these were called Radio RADY. Essentially, it was an open forum for school staff and leaders from different settings – specialist, secondary, primary, from across the country, including Wales, and we talked about specific themes that were impacting schools and communities during lockdown, suggesting ideas about how we could overcome them.

Off the back of that I received an email asking me to talk about some of the stuff that we’ve been doing here at St. Marks. I was a) flattered to be asked and, b) I think I filled the email in when I had my coat on, just about to leave at 5:30. I sent it off and didn’t really give it any thought. Fast forward three months and I had an email to say that we were going to be published in a report, which was great.

What did it mean to you to be mentioned in such a big report?

Two things really. I think that, personally, as somebody who was a new head and is still a new head, it was a validation of the approach that school has taken in terms of moving forward – being child-centred and community-focused. I say a lot of the time, ‘Let’s not worry about doing things right, but let’s do the right things’. I know that can sound clichéd – that it’s a nice little strapline – but there is a real merit to it – credible, sustainable, ethical leadership. Secondly –  and maybe this was the one thing that I wasn’t expecting – was how much it meant to our staff, parents and families; they were really proud to be part of that report. It’s been in the local newspaper, and I wasn’t expecting it to mean so much to them. St. Marks and Pensnett does have a lot to be proud of, and I think it was great for them to see that in black and white.

Why do you think your school specifically was mentioned?

Mainly because I replied to the email!  I think it’s key for me to say that I don’t think that our school was doing any more or any less than the thousands of other schools across the country. Education, during both lockdowns, really stepped up to the plate, irrespective of the narrative that played out in certain quarters of the press.

In terms of why we were mentioned in the report, I don’t know; maybe that’s a question better directed at the EEF. However, if I was going to stick my neck out, I would say this; in Christmas of 2019 we had the school poverty-proofed, working with Children North East, and with that came a very detailed report. This report allowed us as governors, leaders and school staff, to really understand the children and the families much better.

So, when lockdown did hit, we were able to make decisions that were better-informed, because we knew what the impact would be, or we thought we knew what the potential impact could be. We were able to make more informed decisions that would tackle some of the challenges they would be facing. We established really good system,s and strong lines of two-way communication – it wasn’t necessarily just dishing out information to parents, but letting them relay information back to us.

A big thing for me was failing quickly. I think that’s really important. If it didn’t work, we changed, and if it worked for a while, we didn’t assume it would keep on working forever. So this idea of failing quickly – being prepared to listen, make changes, adapt and evolve – was really important for us.

What were the immediate actions you took when the pandemic hit in March 2020?

I think, like most people, we were just trying to comprehend the enormity of the situation. Overnight schools went from places of education to key worker childcare, a virtual school, a food bank and community support. As I mentioned previously, it was about getting good strong systems set up as quickly as we possibly could. We worked out the key worker provision and we looked at regular communication with parents and families. We thought the frequency and type of contact should be dependent on need – the needs of the child and the needs of the family.

We had fortnightly calls for some families, or weekly contact, or it could be a visit every three days. For some families we identified specific staff who had a good rapport and relationship with that family. It wasn’t necessarily ‘This child is in this class; it’s their teacher who’s going to contact them’ – we asked ourselves “Who’s the best person to speak to them?”

What would you say were the biggest challenges that you faced?

Trying to deal with a rapidly changing situation, sometimes with very short notice, has been, at times, difficult. But now that we’re getting back into school with all of the children, I think the challenge is trying to measure and address the impact of lockdown on children’s education and wellbeing.

I have joked that I have had to be the ‘COVID police’ and make sure that people were sticking to protocols and guidance – and then, on top of that, I was trying to keep the school improvement wheel turning, and somehow digest a raft of government guidance and documentation.

Also, there’s the human stuff – caring about, worrying about, and trying to look after staff, kids and families. You could have a positive case at any second. I found myself between 10 and six o’clock not straying too far from home and making sure I had my laptop charged up ready, because those were the hours that the COVID hotline was open to report positive cases. It was like having the ‘COVID Sword of Damocles’ perpetually hanging over you.

Apart from being mentioned in the report, what would you say were your big achievements?

Maintaining a focus on school improvement has been huge for us, really. And I know that sounds draconian, but we all buy into the fact that we want to be a great school. We want to keep strengthening leadership – and I include myself in that; I want to keep improving. We want to keep investing in people. I refer to this as a human industry, where staff feel trusted and valued, and that we invest in them as people. I’m always trying to find a space that allows us to talk about the craft of teaching, where we hone our skills as practitioners. I think that’s been a real achievement, to do this whilst navigating our way through a global pandemic.

What would you say are the biggest lessons you learnt, and ones that you will carry forward?

Communication – parental and family communication. We’ve got an online portal that allows parents to use an app to communicate with school – a bit like you would with Facebook or WhatsApp. Going back to my previous point, we were making all these ‘phone calls, and they worked for a period of time, but it came to a point where there was nothing else to talk about and the ‘phone calls became slightly redundant. We found that parents were not engaging with them and not always answering. It was a case of ‘Okay, we need to shift the way we communicate’ and that’s why the online platform worked so well.  We’ve kept it; it allows us to have an instantaneous, 21st century approach to communicating with our community.

When we had all the protocols in place we reverted to the children going in through, and being collected from, their class doors and we’ve kept this going because the parents and families get to see the teacher every day.  This has really strengthened the relationships between the classroom and home and, quite often, it means that those small problems, those little issues are able to be solved in an instantinstead of them growing and growing and becoming a bigger problem further down the line.

What advice would you give to other schools from the lessons you learnt?

Understand your community. We were trying to find ways of communicating that was right for these families – but the ways that we’ve done it might not be applicable or right for other schools.  First and foremost, it’s about working really hard to understand the barriers that some of the family’s face. When you’ve done that, then you can better establish clear systems and strong lines of communication. Having that two-way communication is key – listen to the feedback.

The third thing, as I mentioned previously, is failing quickly. If it’s not working, accept it. Don’t feel that changing your approach is losing face; it’s not.  It is an opportunity for you to get it right next time. Having that candour and honesty with the community, and being prepared to say, ‘We tried this and it isn’t working.  We’ve listened to what you’re saying and we’re going to do this instead’ – there’s real power and real strength to that. Ultimately, it puts families and children at the centre of the decisions you’re making and, if we’re honest, that is what all schools should be striving to do.

What are your hopes for the next academic year?

The big hope for me, which sits outside of St. Marks, is that all of those schools that are going to be inspected this year feel that the inspection is fair, and that the challenges and the difficulties of the past 18 months are understood and reflected in in the final reports.

I hope that we have an academic year with minimal disruptions. I haven’t completed a full year as a headteacher yet; my son has just started Year 1 and he hasn’t completed a full academic year either. In terms of St. Mark’s, we believe that we have a process that will allow us to be successful and to keep moving forward; we just need a chance to see that process through, to complete a cycle.

Finally, that the Year 6 kids who are leaving us this year do so feeling that their life is brimming with opportunity and possibility.

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