The Risk and Reward of a Failing School

Highfield Junior and Infant School has always held a special place in my heart. It’s where my schooling started in September 1978 aged 4. The youngest of 5 children, second generation Pakistani immigrant, no English etc – a familiar enough story so far. The unusual thing about this one though is the bit where I return some thirty years after leaving to a school in special measures. It’s the strangest thing coming back to lead your own primary school.

For me it was a fairly straight forward decision to help my old school. A school that had been caught up in the ‘Trojan Horse’ (controversy? scandal? affair? thing?). A school that had never been graded ‘good’ by Ofsted & was regarded as one of the worst in the neighbourhood by the local community. It was a simple decision because the situation appealed directly to my moral purpose. The school was broken and failing nearly 900 children, many from deprived and challenging backgrounds.

What I should have paid far more attention to was the risk I was exposing the 2 existing schools in the trust to. We were in the process of becoming a MAT when first approached to support Highfield. We were still learning how best to deploy people and expertise across an outstanding school and one that for all intents and purposes has been failing just 2 years before. Those of you who have worked in failing schools will know that 2 years in, things are still precarious. It was also around about the time we seriously started looking into the possibility of opening a secondary free school.

My senior team, the (now) deputy CEO in particular, warned of the dangers of growing too quickly. I couldn’t though, refuse the call to help my old school, my community. At point of deciding to help, we really didn’t know the full scale of the disaster that awaited us. In the end, they trusted me & went with me. The central team began working on the school’s broken infrastructure, everything from a lack of procedure for child protection to an out of date IT network. I went to Highfield as executive head and took two very promising young assistant heads with me from the lead school (Prince Albert).

The  challenge facing us was immense. Half of the school’s 28 classes were being taught by supply teachers including all 4 in year 6. Some of these classes didn’t even have long term supply and with staff absence taken in to account there was rarely a day when permanent teachers outnumbered supply.

Children’s behaviour was particularly challenging, not least due to poor teaching & a lack of effective behaviour management. In my first week, regrettably I carried out 15 fixed term exclusions – every one for physical or verbal abuse of a member of staff. Although many parents welcomed us with open arms (no hint of ‘Trojan Horse’ extremism but that’s another blog!), a small but significant minority posed significant problems. From fights in the playground (between parents), to racial tensions and aggression towards staff; we had it all.

This isn’t however a blog about the nuts and bolts of how we turned around a failing school, not really. It’s about 3 things:

  • The Highfield story is about our true moral purpose
  • It happened because we took a massive risk & put the quality of education of our 2 existing schools at risk
  • We succeeded because from the very start (of my Headship) we were focussed on relationships & investing(time, energy & finances) in staff

I think I’ve covered points 1 & 2 in enough detail for you to begin to see the picture I am trying to paint. By the start of the second year of our stewardship of Highfield, the two assistant heads plucked from Prince Albert were appointed head and deputy. They had both started their careers at Prince Albert and I had inherited them as young teachers early in their careers. Both had been exceptional teachers and part of an exceptional team at PA (the 2015 Ofsted report  provides an excellent flavour of how good a team I was privileged to lead).

The development of a group of young and inexperienced teachers along with colleagues responsible for a range of business, pastoral & safeguarding functions has been the absolute key to the success of our schools.  Currently we have 11 senior leaders who began their careers at Prince Albert and others who had been working there for a few years prior to conversion.  This includes 2 current heads and 3 deputies.

The fact that Highfield has been led from special measures to good by two former Prince Albert NQTs is quite something (I’m struggling for the words to fully capture the ‘something’). They were ably assisted by a large number of colleagues who have been an integral part of the success of both Prince Albert and the MAT for many years. It is worth labouring the point here that the issues at Highfield ran deep, were ingrained. The challenges have been and many will remain immense. There remains much to do, our journey certainly hasn’t reached the end as a result of an inspection. The staff have done an amazing job and continue to strive to make the school even better.

So, going back to moral purpose and the why of all that we do. The risk paid off. The reason the risk was worth it and the reason it paid off is that our involvement in Highfield was and is about one thing and one thing alone: a good education for the pupils of the school. Where the school is and the community it serves is of course part of the why too. For me personally, it goes a little further. It is about my first 7 years in formal education, the good and the bad. It’s about the memories invoked, about a feeling of belonging, of a vested interest that began over 40 years ago. It’s about the difference education has made to my life and the life my children are living because of it. It’s about the lives we are changing, improving, giving hope to.

Sajid Gulzar


Prince Albert Community Trust (PACT)