After a couple of crazy, wonderful end-of-term weeks of a successful PTFA Christmas Fayre, four performances of a brave, giddy, utterly delightful whole-school pantomime, and Christmas parties and staff bake-offs galore, it seems a fitting time to look back on how far we have come as a school in the two years since our fabulous head teacher, Simon Wood, joined Weyfield Primary Academy in Guildford.
It’s difficult to know where to start, in reflecting on the positive impact he has had on Weyfield as a school, a teaching team, a community, and – above all – more than 360 children. I think I speak for the majority of parents when I say that, quite simply, he has transformed the school.
As regular readers will know, when my daughter was given a place in reception at Weyfield in 2010, we were distraught. It had certainly not been one of our three choices. It was broadly perceived by the rest of Guildford as essentially a no-go area – it was seen as a dumping ground for the poor, the vulnerable, and the most challenging. Many of the children had very low levels of aspiration and achievement, and there was appalling behaviour from some pupils and parents. The wonderful teachers were trying their best, but Weyfield was struggling in all ways, and was in desperate need of strong leadership.
And then at the beginning of January 2012, when I was still trying to move my daughter to another school and avoid my son having to join Weyfield as well, Simon arrived. I know I’m not alone among parents and staff in saying that it was no less dramatic than a bright ray of sunshine piercing stormy clouds. Change was immediate and rapid. The first few weeks were like a rollercoaster as he cracked down on persistent and severe behavioural problems among a disruptive minority, revitalised the teaching team, and brought in sweeping changes. It wasn’t just that he had an iron fist in a velvet glove; he also arrived with a seemingly inexhaustible bag of fantastic ideas. The school began, tangibly, to feel different. Creativity soared. The teachers were noticeably happier, despite the hard work, and felt supported. More children started to flourish. There was a real buzz around the school.
There were little things that other schools might take for granted. We started competing with other schools on the sporting field more seriously, and actually winning. It might be true to say that Weyfield’s children hadn’t felt like winners before. And the school had a musical life for the first time. Hearing the children singing together, as never before, at the Christmas performances in 2012 after such an incredible year of change was an emotional experience. When Miss Duggan, our angel-voiced teaching assistant, led the whole school in a chorus of ‘One Night, One Moment’, many of us were in tears, because it felt so poignant. One moment, and everything changed for Weyfield: the day Mr Wood arrived.
Those of us who had been ambivalent about our children being at the school actually started to feel enthusiastic about being involved in such an exciting journey. I risked everything and took a punt on Weyfield, turning down a place at the ‘Outstanding’ primary within walking distance of our house. So did others. Things were looking up. Heads at more ‘desirable’ schools in Guildford started visiting to see what we were doing and took ideas back to their own communities. The whispers began: ‘Weyfield is changing, what Simon Wood and his team are doing there is amazing, it’s the most creative school in Guildford, it’s so innovative and exciting’. People with children at ‘better’ schools expressed envy at the trips and activities my smalls were involved in, how well they were doing and how engaged and excited they were every single day. The more recalcitrant parents gradually came on-side; now even those who were the most vicious towards him at first have come round and are among his most fiercely loyal supporters.
During his first year at the school, for instance, Simon made sure that every single child in the school, regardless of their ability to pay, was taken on a trip to London. Most of them had never been, and they all took so much from it. We’ve sung with the best school choirs in the country, swept the board at international art competitions, and every child is fully engaged in the whole-school topic every term. One term, the amazing school team turned the entrance with everyone walking through a giant wardrobe to get into school. Why? Because a proportion of the children had never been read to at bedtime, and had not experienced the magic of fairy tales and children’s stories. He gave them that gift. And this term, the work all year groups have done on ‘Water Water Everywhere’ has been astonishing – the high standard of Titanic artwork, creations and poems has astounded every visitor to the school. The children all respect each other, and support each other, across year groups. The school feels like a real community, and a rather special place.
Because from the first moment, it has always been about the children. He knows every child and family in the school – and I mean he properly knows them, not just their names – and has an instinctive understanding of what each and every child needs, and of the very particular – one might almost say unique – challenges of a school community like Weyfield. The student population changes constantly. More than 80 children don’t have English as a first language. An unusually high proportion of children for such an affluent city are entitled to free school meals. Many of the children have chaotic family lives. A number are never even given breakfast. And he cares enough about each and every one of them that he has personally intervened on many occasions to protect his children. For some of the children, he is the first person in their lives – certainly the first adult male – who has set firm but fair boundaries that are non-negotiable. For some, he has been the first person to see, and show them, their own shining spark, treat them with respect and trust, and encourage them. After a tough start, he has won that respect and trust back in spades. When he arrived, not one child in Year 6 aspired to go to university. Now, thanks to fantastic teaching and leadership, everyone, regardless of background, is on track to fully achieving their potential, and becoming well-rounded young people with healthy self-esteem and respect for others.
In February 2013, Ofsted proved that he had done what many cynics regarded as impossible: in just one year, he had galvanised the team and children so much that they had turned around a failing school that was threatened with closure, into a school that was not only ‘Good’ in all areas, but also described as ‘magical’. Magical! It really is, but I can’t imagine many primary schools are praised in such terms by the inspectors. Simon promised when he arrived that he would lead us to outstanding; our journey had begun, and it was universally acknowledged that without him, it would never have been possible. I understand this year’s Year 6’s are on track to reverse years of underachievement in the league tables and put the final piece of the jigsaw in place.
Because he’s not just a good head teacher who wants another outstanding rating under his belt. He’s an exceptional, inspiring leader who has managed to gain the love and respect of every child and every staff member in the school, precisely because it’s not about him. He has no ego, he genuinely only cares about the children. About them reaching their potential and improving their prospects. Making them feel safe, and protected. Creating moments of pure joy. Broadening their social and cultural world view. Encouraging them to fly.
And many of this has been at risk to himself. It can’t have been an easy ride, and I know how hard he and his team have worked to move us so far, so fast. But then he’s the kind of head who inspires his team to work incredibly hard for the children’s benefit, and to achieve their own potential as teachers and leaders in their own right. One of the riskier things he did was take every child to the seaside last summer, with an army of extra helpers and our own lifeguards. Parents – and staff – were nervous. But he pulled it off and it was one of the most extraordinary days of my life. The majority of the children had never been to the beach; as I held the hand of a little girl in Year 1 as she paddled in the sea for the first time, I knew that the Weyfield team had made a happy memory for her.
Highlights of this term have included a really well-attended family Reading Breakfast, the introduction of Gugafit for all to try and become the fittest school in Guildford, the whole of Key Stage 2 attending the Primary Proms at the Royal Albert Hall (where the children’s behaviour was described as ‘exemplary’) and the return of our community Fireworks Extravaganza.
As you know, in the two years since Simon joined our school, I have become a vocal supporter and advocate of Weyfield. I am proud that my children have the Weyfield logo on their sweatshirts. Parents can hold their heads up high: the reputation of the school in Guildford has changed so dramatically that for the first time ever, this year there was a waiting list to get a place in Early Years, where the provision is now regarded as among the best in the area. It really does feel like a little miracle has happened in our corner of Guildford. We are so grateful and our head is so appreciated.
Simon’s far too modest to say this himself, but it is no exaggeration to say that in just two years, he has changed forever the lives of those Weyfield children who are among the most vulnerable and challenging in the country, who desperately need consistency of support. He’s given them the best start, and every chance of success. Imagine what an impact he and his team could have if he is here for another few years.
Right, must go: time to help the kiddies write their cards! Have a fantastic Christmas, and a very merry New Year. May 2014 be full of all good things.