A lovely article about the ongoing transformation at Smestow Academy🎉
“I visited ‘inadequate’ secondary school and it wasn’t what I was expecting at all
Smestow School in Wolverhampton is one of only a handful of secondary schools in the West Midlands with an ‘inadequate’ rating
“It feels like the grown ups are running the place again.” That’s the frank assessment of one long-serving teacher at Smestow Academy in Wolverhampton after a troubled few years which left it rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted and in special measures.
In short, the school had hit rock bottom in 2022. “As soon as I got here, I wanted to leave,” one of the prefects revealed, so unpleasant was his experience. But what a difference a year makes.
Drafted in to ‘save’ the school were headteacher Ian Chamberlain and director of school improvement David Lowbridge-Ellis, a sort of education super team with a proven track record of turning around failing schools. They are part of the Matrix Academy Trust which now runs Smestow and it’s clear they have already delivered changes in a short space of time after what Mr Lowbridge-Ellis labelled a “disastrous” inspection report.
As I walked through the corridors, stuck my head into classrooms and spoke with polite and smiling pupils, it certainly didn’t feel like I was in what is, or at least was last time Ofsted was here, one of the worst schools in the West Midlands. Classes were quiet, children appeared to be listening, engaged and respectful of their teachers.
Gone was the “chaos” I’d been told previously went on here on a daily basis, when unruly and disrespectful kids disrupted lessons, caused trouble and strolled along corridors on their phones. None of this change, however, is visible to those outside.
Smestow, in the Castlecroft area of the city, is still rated as inadequate and will be until the next Ofsted inspection, likely to be up to three years away. It’s a source of frustration for teachers that the school will be stuck with a reputation they say doesn’t chime with what they see and do every day. They insist Smestow is no longer a bad school.
Safeguarding, behaviour and attendance were all major problems here before Mr Chamberlain’s arrival. Pupils and teachers I spoke to during my visit were open about how bad things used to be.
Prefect Riley Shayler says: “When I came here I wanted to leave. People were disrupting lessons all the time.” Fellow pupil Isabelle added: “People were on their phones, being antisocial to each other.”
Teachers also cited a lack of leadership and discipline as big problems under the previous regime. There had previously been nine headteachers in just five years, illustrating how the school had suffered a long period of instability and drift.
History teacher Helen Pinches says: “Year 11 pupils have had nine headteachers. When you see people coming and going and it’s a revolving door you don’t feel cared about. Five years ago I was ripping pages out of exercise books because they didn’t have any paper to write on.”
Staff say a big change has been the visibility of senior staff around the school. “At break times, lunch time and during lesson changes they are there and their presence is felt”, says teaching assistant Angela Flavell.
She’s been at Smestow for 20 years so can speak from experience of the changes that have been made. She adds: “We did go through rough times but I feel like we have gone back 20 years (to when things were better). We can feel that change.”
Simple changes include zero tolerance around misbehaving and disrupting lessons and introducing a culture of respect so that “the adult in the room is the boss”. Leaders say a small number of pupils had to be permanently removed because their persistent poor behaviour risked impacting the learning of others.
There is also a policy of no support or agency staff as leaders say some pupils are unlikely to behave for them, with familiar faces much more effective. Doors have been removed from entrances to toilets as a safeguarding measure following reports pupils would previously vape or mess around where they couldn’t be seen.
Staff and children I spoke to both said the same thing in that they now feel supported and part of one community, rather than a fractured society that previously existed. PE teacher and head of house Matthew Craig admits: “When the last trust went we were relieved.” So it’s frustrating for staff that the inadequate rating remains for now, at least until the next time Ofsted visit.
They feel it’s no longer an accurate reflection of their school. “It was a snapshot of what went on over two or three days three weeks into term,” says science teacher Sam Neish, who told how was about to leave before Mr Chamberlain’s arrival convinced her to ask for her resignation to be withdrawn. “We’ve got exceptional kids,” she asserts.
Mr Craig says: “Now we’re stuck with that rating.” Ms Pinches adds: “All the issues were not anything teachers on the ground had control over. There was not anything we could do about it. We had skeleton staff and classes of 34.”
“The problem was the management,” Mr Craig adds. Head of English Dawn Detton says: “I have worked in special measures schools throughout my career. This doesn’t feel like a special measures school.
“In special measures schools, it’s no exaggeration to say you are working in hell. It’s not like that here.
“The report does the children a disservice,” says assistant head of sixth form Chris Davies. The staff know it could be a while before Ofsted inspectors return and say until that point, the school is stuck with a rating it doesn’t deserve.
Head of French Purven Jandu concludes: “Everything is in place. We want that label to prove it.”
Read it on Birmingham Live