Probably the best headteacher in the world…

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. IMG_4418

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.

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19 thoughts on “Probably the best headteacher in the world…

  1. Nicki Kurn says:

    Reading that has just moved me to tears! I was exactly the same before Simon came along Sean and I were ready to remove our munchkins from the school as we felt they were not getting the right motivation or help to make the succeed. . But then Simon came along and yes I will admit I was very apprehensive at first but my god it soon became relief that someone actually cared not just about targets and numbers.. he cared about each child and their families. I for one can not thank him enough for the support he has given us!

    • Absolutely – targets and numbers are not the story here. This is what Simon said in his response to the recently published SATs data: ‘It is nationally recognised that securing improvements in attainment takes time, and the result of a ‘test’ after four years in no way provides an accurate, rounded or full picture of any child’s achievements, or indeed their future potential.
      ‘Learning at Weyfield is about every individual, and every individual as ‘the whole child’. The staff team, with support from parents and carers, is completely driven in ensuring that children thrive – emotionally, physically, socially and intellectually, sometimes in the most complex of circumstances.
      ‘These four elements are wholly interdependent and need skilful blending and targeted provision to ensure that each individual’s wellbeing is nurtured, and children’s potential is fulfilled.
      ‘Given the historical story of Weyfield and the challenges it has faced, it was always going to take two years to redress the balance. We have stated this from the very beginning of 2012, when we launched “The Weyfield Way”. Our 2013-14 results will show this, without doubt, to be the case.
      ‘Many families are under immense pressure in the current climate and we work with all our families to ensure that we are doing the right things, not just doing things right. Every pupil at Weyfield deserves so much more than a narrow curriculum designed to improve attainment in the short term. What the best teachers and schools do is secure sustainable achievement, which is the sum of progress and attainment, over time, demonstrated across every aspect of a child’s life.
      ‘While historical attainment as reported cannot be refuted, it must be viewed alongside the journey Weyfield has been on. Pupils who left Weyfield last year had been fully immersed and reintegrated into school life which, after such cumulative regression and inequitable provision, was, quite simply, the right thing – the only thing – to do.’

  2. Stace McSweeney-Cole says:

    Sat here doing the crying thing – Thanks Maja! I can think of nothing to add to this, you’ve said it all! All I can say is I am very greatful to Simon and very pround to be a part of Team Weyfield. THANK YOU SIMON, YOU ROCK!!! #TeamWoody xx

  3. Sue Anderson says:

    Bravo to a fine leader and his excellent staff! Although it was only for a short time, we are so happy to have been a part of Weyfield. Hailey has wonderful memories of her time there and just this past weekend had us drive by so she could reminisce.

  4. Nick says:

    I want to thank you for such a fantastic write up….proud doesn’t even begin to tell you how I feel, and I know there is still more to come from him…. Outstanding beyond all expectations. :-) Nick..the ‘ other’ Mr wood

  5. You’ve said it all. Simon has achieved so much for us, our community and our children in such a short space of time. To turn the Ofsted report around in a year took incredible strength, determination and humour. Not many would be able to do this.

    Everybody is happier because the children are happy. They deserve a happy ending, perhaps more than most, as they have been looked down on for far too long. They have enormous pride in their school and rightly so – where else has a school been described as magical by Ofsted? And where else does the front entrance hall change each term, from a rainforest, to the wardrobe into Narnia, to a spa, to a submarine (with real fish in the portholes)? Who else would be brave enough to take every class to London on the train? Or the whole school to the beach? Only Simon Wood.

    And the whole-school panto – 10,000 words to learn in 9 days. The boys dressed as ugly sisters. My shy daughter singing on stage even though she didn’t want to have to do a solo. My 7-year-old auditioning for a part in the play. The best ever summer fayre. The dance troupe at Games on the Green. The choir singing at the open-air nativity. Winning district sports. Winning every netball match this year. An inaugural residential to France for this year’s year 6 in June. Singing at the Albert Hall. A 2-day trip to Cheddar Gorge for last year’s year 5 – staying in a Holiday Inn. The list goes on.

    But Weyfield will always rise to the challenge for Simon. It takes time to change a school, in this case only a year for Ofsted to be impressed. Unfortunately all the other changes, big and small, are not measured enough for it to show to the outside world yet, but the ends will justify the means and the year 6 results this year will beat the records and prove that Weyfield under Simon Wood’s leadership has turned itself around. I am delighted that my children are benefiting from all Simon’s hard work and his team’s complete and unwavering support.

    The children want to learn, they have ambition and confidence, and they want to impress him. There is no mountain that they wouldn’t climb for Mr Wood. They respect him and he respects them. It’s as simple as that.

    • You’re totally right, Ruth. It was always going to take time for the effects of the Weyfield Way to trickle down to having a measurable impact on the SATs results. But as Simon said in his response to the publication of the league tables last week, this was the last year that our SATs will ever be so low, because years of decline ARE being reversed. And I would far prefer that he prioritised ‘the whole child’ than being the sort of head who pursued improved test results above everything else. I love ‘there is no mountain that they wouldn’t climb for Mr Wood’. So true. My two ADORE him as well :-) Not only that, they love all their teachers – we have an exceptional team, not least Simon’s right hand woman, Kate Barnes. Mxx

  6. Michelle says:

    Lovely piece, but I’m a little confused as to where the information came from? As I have known pervious children that attended Weyfield over the years including my own, family and friends? that we’re not underachievers they had breakfast every day they had been to the beech many of times, and did read at home, I understand a minority of children have chaotic household? But your implying this was a majority? I agree with you that mr woods has done a great job with the school! But not necessarily on the conditions you imply were there before?
    Was interesting to read,

    • Hi Michelle! Thanks so much for reading, and your comment. This is based on DfE data on the demographics of the school, and the real experiences of parents and teachers. You are absolutely right – many of the children in the school have always been lucky enough to come from loving, supportive families who do normal stuff like reading bedtime stories and having trips to the beach, and who wouldn’t dream of sending their kids to school without breakfast. Those children – like yours and mine – will mostly do alright whatever school they are at. What Simon Wood has done, however, is improve life and prospects for children and families who aren’t so lucky. It’s not a majority – but it is a significant minority, and not every head teacher could handle it! This isn’t just about reality, though – it’s about the school’s reputation. It’s about turning around years of negative perceptions of the school from people who don’t know us, so we can all be proud of Weyfield.x

  7. Mama says:

    Thank you Maja – I too was moved to tears reading about this incredible man who has ensured that my grandchildren have the best education and the opportunities they deserve. I don’t know Simon like you and the other parents do but what I saw at the Christmas Fayre was a man exactly as you describe, without ego, in the background, running a stall. And perhaps that is the absolute key to his success – it isn’t about him, it is about the children in his care. The other thing I want to say is that an inspirational leader still needs a great team – don’t underestimate the contribution that you fantastic parents and carers are making now that you have someone who knows how to harness the energy that the family (whatever shape it is) can bring to the community that is a school. Mamax

  8. I think that a another very valid point is that one of the achievements that Simon has effected is that Weyfield’s reputation is changing; people are proud to send their children there and are disappointed if their children don’t get in.

    As parents of a year 6 child who has been at the school for her entire educational life, we have always been very happy with the atmosphere and the friendships she has formed. We liked the atmosphere there.and her classmates have always been polite, friendly and helpful (the only source of argument when most of the class came to her 7th birthday party was who was going to help me lay the table!) They do not look down on people because of their backgrounds or possessions and are accepting of everyone. My daughter has never really fallen out with anyone and has been very happy there. We saw through the perceptions that others had – we were advised not to send her there by a friend who said, “I went there but I wouldn’t send my child there!” Having seen the magic, we had no qualms in sending our son there 3 years later.

    We got involved in the school and saw that the staff were young and dynamic and wanted the best for our children. Simon has come in and made enormous changes, and it is a testament to the qualities of the staff that on the whole they stayed to embrace the changes and improve our school and transform people’s views. The fact that they have improved a reputation that is older than I am in such a short period of time is astonishing and worthy of high praise. They needed a good leader and they most certainly got one!

  9. Wise Old Owl says:

    WPA is a better place for all because of Simon and the team that have supported him. The children and community are what makes Weyfield a special place but many of them are very needy. Simon appeared like an angel and like most angels you only borrow them for a while! Let’s hope we have more years to borrow him for because he truly makes such a difference and the children respect and admire him. The children have been so passionate about their learning since Simon joined Weyfield and each term the school is turned into a new magical experience that is exciting for children and staff alike.

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