Updated: Feb 21, 2020
The closest Eydon Vale came to a riot was in the week after it went into special measures. A third of the staff had phoned in sick. Knots of internal truants ran down the corridors, whooping and banging on classroom doors to raise a mob. They ransacked empty classrooms, threw Art materials down a stairwell and intimidated the adults who stood in their way. A Year 11 boy was thrown over a bannister.
By the time Ofsted began close monitoring, the corridors and playground were regularly patrolled. Rhiannon also had diverted two Special Needs Assistants to corral internal truants. By the end of January, the corridors were largely empty during lessons. At this point, Rhiannon was warned that the representative would be “visiting the school most weeks in an unofficial capacity.” By then, though, the conditions that led to such mobbing had been mitigated.
On his first morning, there was little for Simon to do. He batted away questions about his previous experience. He did not seem interested in how the school was "building cultural capital". He just chatted to the Duty Tutors and Heads of Year who were on corridor patrol. So, I asked him to join the marking audit we had promised the Parents’ Forum. We had chosen an alphabetical sample with surnames that began with the letter O. The evidence from the European Commission was that the ethnic group most likely to underachieve were Irish travellers. This was a discreet way of monitoring some of our most vulnerable pupils’ progress.
A few staff “forgot” to send us their pupils’ books, but even so, the audit suggested that most were giving more homework. Some tasks were make-work and took only 10 minutes for the children to complete. After Simon, Rhiannon and I had checked the books, we convened a focus group of the pupils concerned to which I also invited two of my star Year 11 pupils: Elroy and Alice. The latter said that they had done more homework in the last month than they had ever done before at Eydon Vale.
Many staff were also starting to give feedback on effort. A minority was engaging in a dialogue with students through the pupils’ responses to their comments. The best remarks showed pupils how to raise attainment. However, others simply criticised pupils for not writing the date and underlining headings. And Simon found a Maths book where the teacher had ticked all the sums, right or wrong.
The pupils in the focus group appreciated the teachers’ use of praise and commendations. They guessed three quarters of the staff were “doing OK”; four staff were “legends”, but a quarter of the teachers were still “too soft”. When I asked them to give concrete examples of what they meant by “too soft”, one Year 9 pupil replied. “Take Rule Four: no calling out. All the teachers insist on this when you come in the classroom, Sir, and most continue when you’ve left. You have to put up your hand and wait quietly. But others turn a blind eye. Kids in those lessons are still being allowed to shout out the answers. I like to think before I speak, so I never get a chance to join in.”
During our discussion, the focus group reported that the introduction of secret friends had virtually extinguished physical bullying. “Last year, when I started here, it was rife,” Elroy Samson from my Year 11 group told us. He was one of the few Black or Minority Ethnic boys in the school. “There was a gang that used to scissor a razor blade in half and super glue the blades either side of a school ruler. They were so sharp; I didn’t notice the cut until the blood ran down my arm. When I got to the hospital, the A&E nurse could not give me stitches because it was a double wound. My mum made a complaint about racism in the school, but the old Head did not even reply. There was no real investigation. I still have the scars.”