The power to transform schools

by Leigh Wolmarans, school headteacher

Many years ago I remember sitting at a dull conference with many other Headteachers who all seemed to be equally disengaged. 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 attending as head of a school that had just achieved our Outstanding status, the first ever Northampton Primary School to do so. 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.  At the time no one outside our gates really 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 sport.

Jump back to that dull conference 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. Those that know me will tell you that keeping my mouth shut when I hear something that is contrary to my beliefs and obviously incorrect, is very difficult. I kept my inner voice at bay for a while but it soon 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. After all, everyone likes a bit of confrontation. The lady looked down at me from her podium and asked me to explain.

I explained 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 reasons I ever attended school was the fact that I had to if I was ever going to make the rugby team. I continued to explain the impact 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 sat back and waited for the applause!

I was shocked back in to reality when I looked around the room and saw many faces looking at me in disbelief. I suddenly became aware that professionally-speaking, 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 insecure that perhaps I was wrong.

Fast forward to September 2011 and I had just left Castle Primary School to take on the final remaining special measures school in Northampton, Lings Primary School. There was 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. I knew a few things about the school and these 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. 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 an ethos and vision for sport. This had 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 on the first day. He said, “Mr Wolmarans, we are here to set a standard”. I took that statement and plastered it all over the school, including on a brilliant piece of art in reception. 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. This meant that I went straight in to class with 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 created opportunities, with a great structure of after school clubs that were run by staff and quality professionals. We started to tap in to the brilliant clubs, organisations and structures we have in Northampton.

We got access to the high standard of training, coaching and development they offered. We overcame hurdles such as transport by getting a mini bus and training people 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.

What happened was truly remarkable. By March 2012 the school had thrown off the shackles of special measures and had become good in every category. We have built up strong links with so many clubs that it would be 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 Change4Life, Virgin Active and Real PE. The School Sports Partnership has had an incredible impact on our standards and pupil leadership.

And the icing on the cake! On 9 July we have nine different teams competing at the Level 3 Sainsbury’s School Game across seven different sports and no team is the same. 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 Games.

We have put participation first and excellence second, 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!

And so I have now adapted my original theory slightly: You need to start by developing a growth mindset 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.

Pick your weapon of change – ours was sport! What’s yours?