The power to transform schools

This blog post has been written by Headteacher, Leigh Wolmarans of Lings Primary School. Leigh explains how powerful PE and sport really is when taught correctly.

Many years ago I remember sitting at a very dull conference with many other Headteachers that were finding it equally as dull. It was the same message being driven home with a jackhammer – improve results, improve schools, improve attendance, tackle under achievement – like this is not what we were doing from the trenches on a daily basis!

I was sitting in this conference as the Headteacher of a school that had just become ‘Outstanding’. A school that had almost defied all the odds and broken the mould by breaking every fallacy there is about education. Castle Primary School in Northampton had 75% English as an additional language, 60% of the children had a range of special needs, 45% were on free school meals and it was based in one of the highest social deprivation areas in Northamptonshire. As a school we ignored all these ‘hurdles to learning’ and taught in a creative way that put Sports and the Arts at the centre of our curriculum. When we achieved our ‘Outstanding’ status, the first ever Northampton Primary School to do so, no one knew how we had done it or what the journey had entailed. Our staff knew, our parents knew and our children definitely knew. The tool that started the transformation was – come closer and I will whisper it but don’t tell anyone – sport!

Jump back to that meeting and a lady, who will remain nameless, stood up and said that competitive sport and sport itself in school was having a negative impact on some children’s lives. It was teaching them to fail at a young age and it was putting certain children on pedestals. She went on to make some very generalised statements about the dangers of a sporting culture in schools and it was obvious that she had suffered at the hands of some abysmal sports teaching as a child. Those that know me will tell you that keeping my mouth shut when I hear something that is contrary to my belief and obviously incorrect, is very, very, very difficult. I felt my inner voice trying to jump out and say something. I kept it at bay for a while but it must have found the skeleton key somewhere and it escaped! Before I knew what I was doing I stood up and said, “I am sorry but you are totally wrong”! I think it may have been at this point that some of the delegates woke up, everyone likes a bit of confrontation. The lady looked down at me from her podium and asked me to explain. That was dangerous because those same people that would tell you about my mouth will also tell you that this combined with my passion can result in a very large South African becoming VERY intense VERY quickly.

I went on to tell her that I was born and grew up in Zimbabwe and South Africa where the importance of sport is recognised, nurtured and maintained. I explained that one of the only reasons I ever attended school was the fact that I had to if I was ever going to make the rugby team! I went on to tell her that many of the children that I taught on a daily basis, yes I am a teaching Headteacher and will always will be, were in the same position as I was when I was their age. I continued to explain the impact that sport had at Castle Primary School and how our recent ‘Outstanding’ status was down to the ethos and vision that sport had given the school. I concluded that we could take any failing school and just by starting off with changing the ethos of sport, we could start the revolution and turn the school into a successful place that met the needs of every learner. My closing statement went along the lines of: “We show a piece of literacy and numeracy on a daily basis and tell the children how amazing they are but when they are good at sport we then decide that we cannot tell them because others may feel inferior. It may be the only thing they are excellent at but because you don’t agree with competition we will not celebrate their success”. I sat back and waited for the applause!

I felt like I was on fire and that everyone would be ‘with me’ and rally against what the woman was saying. I was shocked back in to reality when I looked around the room and saw many faces looking at me in disbelief. They were siding with the sport hating lady on stage! This couldn’t be. We had seen the power of sport first hand in our school. I suddenly became professionally aware that not everyone thought the same way as we did, in my naïve brain I felt that everyone held our passion for the transformational power of sport. I left the conference that afternoon deflated and a little bit insecure, perhaps we were wrong, perhaps it wasn’t sport that had started the revolution and it was only in my imagination.

Fast forward to September 2011 and I had just left Castle Primary School to take on the final remaining special measures school in Northampton, a school that had been in special measures for nearly a year and a half. Lings Primary School is based in the Eastern Districts of Northampton and its spreadsheet was similar to that of Castle Primary School. The only notable difference was the fact that there were not as many English as a second language speakers but the free school meals percentage was over 50%. There was also a history of low performance and in July the school had made the dreaded 200 list of worst performing schools nationally based on their very low Key Stage 2 results. There was also a high proportion of low performing white British boys, a trend that we had managed to buck at Castle Primary School. I knew a few things about the school and these things made me very confident for the future. They had great staff who all wanted the school to improve and they were a positive group that had a belief in what the school could do. There were a few members of staff that were passionate about sport and a HLTA that was a force of nature in this department. I also knew that there were some incredibly talented children in the school that just needed this talent to be nurtured, developed, challenged and set free. I remembered my discussion with the anti-sport lady a few years before and decided to put our theory in to practice!

We started by building up an ethos and vision for sport, this has to be the starting point and it needed to be focused on a solid base of behaviour and discipline. Our children needed to understand the importance of what it meant to be a Lings Primary pupil before we did anything else. They needed to have a clear idea of what our purpose was and what we embodied. I was lucky that a boy called Lennon gave me our motto/catchphrase on the first day. He said, “Mr Wolmarans, we are here to set a standard”. I took that statement on my first day and plastered it all over the school, including on a brilliant piece of art as you walk in to the reception area. We made sure that everyone spoke in the language of growth mindset and that it was all about ‘Setting the standard’ in everything we did. Learning and teaching is the key to EVERYTHING so we set about making sure that everyone knew what our non-negotiables in teaching were and how we were going to achieve these. This meant that I went straight in to class and had a two and a half day teaching commitment, teaching sport across the school. This was the starting point as I could get to know every child and would get a chance to see if this ‘sport theory’ actually worked. We also set up as many opportunities as we could. This meant a great structure of after school clubs that were run by staff and quality professionals. I was lucky that I had met many amazing coaches and sportsmen and women in my time at Northampton and all I did was call them and say – HELP!

We also started to tap in to the brilliant clubs, organisations and structures we have in Northampton. As a Saints fan I was on the phone in an instant as I knew that the Saints Study Centre and the activities that they run have a real impact. We also tapped in to the phenomenal work they do with their coaches in schools and programmes they run to highlight the importance of sport. We did the same with the Steelbacks and the Cobblers as it is vital to build strong links with all community clubs. We worked closely with Northamptonshire Sport and Back of the Net to tap in to the high standard of training, coaching and development they offered. We also made sure that we got rid of the ‘transport argument’ quickly by getting a mini bus and training people on how to drive it. We made sure that the children were constantly out and about and were involved in as many competitions, festivals and opportunities as possible. Our answer to any invite was and is always YES! And so the revolution began. It gained momentum, snowballed and turned in to a movement.

What happened was truly remarkable and is the main reason that I am writing this piece. By March 2012 the school had thrown off the shackles of special measures and had become good in every category. We built up a brilliant relationship with an amazing company called Create Development and became a pilot school for their programme real PE, which had a huge impact on our school, we will be one of their ‘beacon’ schools in September 2015. We have built up strong links with so many clubs that it is impossible to name them all. We have a partnership with Northamptonshire Sport that has meant we have brilliant coaches in our school on a weekly basis. Our school became Town Sports School of the Year for two years running and then became County Sports School of the Year in 2014. Lings has gained national recognition for the work that we do with our Change for Life scheme, Virgin Active scheme and the work we do on real PE. The work we do with the School Sports Partnership has had an incredible impact on the standard of what we do and the level of pupil leadership that is evident in our school. We take part in over 95% of all town competitions and work closely with the Northampton Town School Sports Federation and take part in every festival, competition and learn to play session available.

The impact in other areas has been transformational. We have invested in dance and our Strictly Squad have won the town Strictly Tournament and all squads are now through to the regional finals. Our staff now dance on a weekly basis and have taken their medals in Ballroom and Latin. Our results have shot up and we are now above national expectations in every area with many of our children outperforming children in similar contexts. We are jumping over the hurdles of white British boy achievement, pupil premium attainment and achievement and under performance.

And the icing on the cake. This week we have nine different teams through to the Level 3 games ranging from Year 1 to Year 6. This is made more impressive by the fact that it is in seven different sports and no team is the same. This is even made greater by the fact that we are a one-form entry primary school in the Eastern districts. This goes in to the stratosphere when you know that this has never been done before and means that over a third of the school will be representing the town in July at the Sainsbury Level 3 Games.

On Thursday I sat down with Anne Davies, the passionate HLTA I spoke about, and we were at a loss for words. Her son, who also helps out at Lings, sat with us and we tried to put in to words how we got to where we are. It is based on participation first and excellence second. It is making sure that EVERY child gets the opportunities and no one ever feels left out. It is about challenging every child, no matter what their level, and making them realise that it is about developing an attitude to sport and physical development. It is also about seeing that they should love their bodies and what they can do with them and that they should use this ‘machine’ in creative ways. It is about making them comfortable in the skin they are in and giving them a growth mindset to face any challenge that will come their way. It is about ethos, motivation, passion and belief and it is about setting the standard in EVERYTHING we do.

So my original theory of you can change a school by starting with sport seems to have been proved, you have all the evidence to suggest that this hypothesis is true. But I now disagree with this original theory and have adapted it slightly. My theory is now as follows: You need to start by developing a growth mindset on life that is built on a concrete base of morals, discipline and respect. You then need to use the power of Sport, the Arts and creativity to develop all learning equally so that our children become the individuals that we need in our society. So that they can one day enjoy teaching their children the importance of education.

Pick your weapon of change. Ours was sport. What’s yours?