Trip Report: The St Ninian Catholic Federation, Carlisle

At PTE we like to visit schools up and down the country. We feel it’s important to get a feel of how schools work in certain areas, what unique challenges they face, and how they are doing great work in their own way. In turn, we want to highlight some case studies that show what we’ve learned about how to run a great school, and what facets of that are replicable across England.

The school(s):

In January 2018 we visited the two local authority primary schools that form The St Ninian Catholic Federation in Carlisle – St Margaret Mary Catholic Primary School and St Cuthbert’s Catholic Primary School.

We visited St Cuthbert’s first, arriving just after 8:30am to take in as many lessons as possible. The school has been through a difficult time, not having been rated Good by Ofsted since 2001, had serious behaviour issues, a poor reputation in the local community, a very poor data profile, and a drastic fall in students on roll. A new team spearheaded by Chris Wilkins (Executive Headteacher of the Federation) and Michael Merrick (at the time a secondary Head of Department and member of our Advisory Council) came into the school in September 2016. They have managed to turn around the school, with the result being a ‘Good’ Ofsted grade being awarded in November 2017.

In the afternoon we visited the second school in the Federation, St Margaret Mary, the more well-established of the two schools, having been rated ‘Good’ by Ofsted for many years now. This is reflected in the sense felt when visiting the school, with St. Cuthbert’s moving toward a more established status following an initial phase of ‘turnaround’ which was vital when the school first joined the Federation. Here, Chris Wilkins and Luke Denny comprise the leadership, with Luke having switched from the secondary sector in September 2014. The school has focused on developing its engagement with the arts, hosting a city-wide Shakespeare festival and bringing in more ambitious literature for the children to study, as well as developing an enrichment programme, including residential visits, to help ensure children have access to opportunities beyond the classroom.

Both schools have worked hard to implement a knowledge-rich curriculum over the past year, with results already becoming clear in the work produced by students. The curriculum is still a work in progress, as the team will happily point out, but even after a short-time developing it the rewards are already becoming clear.

Both schools combine their focus on curriculum with a clear assessment strategy that has resulted in much lower workload for classroom teachers. Rather than deep or triple marking, the schools use a feedback process which does not require written teacher comments in books. The teacher is then freed to get a sense of what the class have understood, and prepare brief notes for a feedback session in the next lesson, picking up on common misconceptions and putting in place individual interventions as required.

More uniquely, the Federation has also made great strides in embedding itself within the local community, most notably through allowing a local Polish school to use their facilities on Saturdays (first at St. Margaret Mary’s, and now at St. Cuthbert’s) in order to help the large Polish community in the area learn Polish. By opening themselves up to the local area in this way, the Federation has gained goodwill and fostered a sense of community among residents.

The area:

Carlisle is a city in the north-west county of Cumbria, situated around ten miles from the border between England and Scotland. The city’s education offering as a whole faces similar challenges to many northern cities, with teacher supply (particularly in STEM subjects) and high numbers of disadvantaged pupils being a challenge for many schools. This is particularly true for both schools in the Federation, each taking many pupils from the most deprived areas of Carlisle, with these being some of the poorest areas in the country according to the IDACI index.

The people:

As noted above, both primaries are led by Chris Wilkins as Executive Headteacher, with Michael Merrick (St. Cuthbert’s) and Luke Denny (St Margaret Mary’s) working as Deputy Headteachers. The team joined the schools at different stages, with Chris having joined St. Margaret Mary’s in April 2010, Luke joining the same school in September 2014, and Michael Merrick joining St. Cuthbert’s in September 2016. The Federation was formally created in September 2016.

Q & A

How long have you three been at the school?

Chris: I have been at Margaret Mary’s for coming up eight years now – I joined from a primary school in Worcestershire with a slightly different intake profile from the ones we have now! Luke joined me there nearly four years ago – he was a Head of Year at the local Catholic secondary school – and Michael joined us from the same secondary school coming up two years ago now, when we created the Federation.

What do you feel was the key to turning around the school?

Michael: Behaviour. There were lots of challenges to address in the school, but we decided from the outset that little else could be achieved until we improved the behaviour. To begin with, this meant the obvious things – stopping the frequent physical conflicts between children, the unkind words, the defiance of adults, and the failure to listen to or follow instructions. Once that began to improve, we worked hard on making sure the children understood that good behaviour didn’t just mean not getting told off – it meant actively working hard and striving to improve. This is the stage we’re focussing on now, developing intrinsic motivation in our pupils.

What behaviour policies do you use to prevent low-level disruption, and what difference do they make?

Luke: We introduced a new behaviour ladder system which was printed professionally and placed in every classroom. The key was making sure that the children knew what the consequences of misbehaviour would be, that they knew their behaviour was their responsibility, and that teachers were consistent in implementation of the policy. For the first, we took the step of writing on to the ladder system specific examples of common misbehaviour, and what consequence it would lead to – this was then shared with the pupils by teachers at the start of the year and at points throughout. We then trained all staff to use the same language when addressing misbehaviour, whether they were in class or out of class, being sure to refer to the ladders in a specific way and outlining what the future consequence will be. We then ensured these consequences were carried out – predictability of outcome is reassuring for all pupils, and it also helps teachers to be freed to teach.

How important is the focus on knowledge in the curriculum to everything you do?

Michael: It is central to our vision of what a good education looks like. This is partly for practical purposes – without a good grounding in all subjects of the curriculum, pupils just don’t come across the words, the concepts and the ideas that helps them make links and develop understanding elsewhere, both in the curriculum and indeed their imagination. This problem becomes particularly acute when trying to develop reading skills and comprehension. But there is also a moral case to be made – to give the children access to the intellectual and artistic treasures of their culture, and other cultures; to give them access (to use a Catholic phrase) to the good, the true and the beautiful.

Do you feel being active in the community has made a big difference?

Luke: Part of our job as Catholic schools is to serve the local community, and to grow our children in the understanding of doing likewise. We have always had strong links with our parishes, but also with the wider community, helping out with fundraising and food drops at various points throughout the year. When we heard that the Polish school was looking for a venue, we didn’t hesitate – and we like to think it’s a relationship that has been hugely beneficial to both of us.

How have you looked to reduce workload for staff?

Chris: We’ve tried to reduce workload in many ways. We no longer have traditional, formal observations – we have moved to shorter, walk-in coaching sessions, to try and move the dynamic away from a static performance and toward ongoing dialogue about what constitutes good learning. We make sure that escalated behaviour is dealt with by SLT and not left to classroom teachers to deal with on their own. We have re-written our old marking policy so that it is now a Feedback Policy, requiring no written marking, but an expectation of verbal feedback (and the time for the children to act on it). We have redesigned our reports – sometimes excessively long and detailed in primary – to a slimlined, one page report with only specific targets expected to be written, with all information given via a tick box approach. Finally, we make sure that we say thank you – it might not be a workload saver, but we believe having teachers who feel valued makes the workload easier to thrive in what is a notoriously difficult job.

Do you feel there are certain unique (or unusual) challenges or opportunities for schools in your area?

Chris: All schools have their challenges, and we would never sit here and look to compare our situation with others in order to say they have it easier. Teaching is a tough job and leading is a tough job, even if the nature of the challenges in different places might be different. Having said that, recruitment is always a challenge, and on a tight budget providing children with the opportunities to experience some of the things we study in class can be difficult – trips to the theatre or the museum are always quite a drive away! Nonetheless we hope that we at least put within the mind of the children that as they go through life, these things are worthy of their time, for them to pursue and enjoy, and not feel distant from.

How do you develop knowledge with primary schools where teachers often aren’t subject specialists?

Michael: This is certainly difficult, especially as textbooks do not seem to have the same prominence in primary as they do in secondary (though they should!) As a leadership team we have tried to provide the basic structure of planning and listed resources, to help take away the stress of having to plot a way through a curriculum over a period of time, but obviously teacher preparation will sometimes include needing to read up on the new things to be taught. Our plan was that the trade-off would be the marking: instead of having teachers spending hours marking, free teachers instead to focus on learning and planning for the new content they will be teaching, which is not only more valuable for the children, but we think more satisfying for the staff member than having to repetitively trawl through piles of books. I should also add, this is not something unique to primary – secondary teachers also often have to teach subjects outside their specialism, and having a degree in a particular subject is not a guarantee that someone will have ever studied what is actually on the school curriculum!

What is your extra-curricular offering? Do all pupils participate, and if so how?

Luke: We have put great effort into developing our extra-curricular clubs, and keeping them as cheap as possible, where they are not free – this obviously encourages participation. It is a challenge, but one with which we think we have made great progress – from the traditional sports, to chess, to keyboard, to choir, to gymnastics, to dance, to craft, to knitting, and even soon to Irish dancing! We encourage participation by planning delivery carefully and aiming certain clubs at particular groups, but also by making it a part of our everyday conversation – for it to be normal, and indeed just kind of expected, to try out the extra-curricular clubs. We’ve also linked club attendance with a reward scheme we offer, called the St. Ninian Award, in which a child has to collect a series of achievements throughout the year to be eligible for an end of year awards trip. This – and the desire of children to be involved in sporting fixtures or musical performances – certainly helps.