Eastern High head on 'worst school in Wales' turnaround

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In February 2015, Eastern High School in Cardiff was put into special measures following the most damning report Estyn inspectors had ever written.

Unsurprisingly, its GCSE results later that year were the worst in Wales, with just 14% of students achieving five GCSEs grade A* to C, including English and maths.

But last month, when inspectors returned to Eastern High, they found it had made such "strong progress", they removed its special measures status.

Now, as it is revealed that there has been a sharp drop in the number of applicants for head teacher posts, the man who turned around Eastern High, Armando Di-Finizio, tells how the job can really make a difference and how the school was saved from closure,

Image caption Armando Di-Finizio said staff and students worked "incredibly hard" to pull the school out of special measures

A mentor once told me: "Keep it tight to become good and loosen up when you're ready to become excellent."

They were wise words. There were many talented members of staff at Eastern High when I joined in December 2014 who could have been permitted to carry on doing their own thing, but what we needed more than anything was consistency and simplicity in all our systems and processes.

To this end, there were only four simple rules in those first few months:

  • Don't leave class without permission
  • Don't run in the corridors and damage things
  • Don't run away from a teacher if they ask to speak to you in a corridor
  • Don't leave the site without permission

These shouldn't have to be stated as rules in schools, but it was simple and more importantly, necessary at the time. We were able to move from this fairly quickly, but we have kept it simple ever since.

Image caption "So many unsung heroes," says Mr Di-Finizio

I was fortunate in being able to appoint a really good senior team around me who kept me in check when I wanted to do this, that and the other.

Our non-negotiable guidelines for teaching and planning lessons and our clear behaviour policy (which now don't include the rules above!) are examples of our "rigid" but necessary practice. In the next year, we'll be ready to loosen up and allow more creativity in our planning.

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Everyone concerned with Eastern High was understandably on a high state of alert following the Estyn report; on the lookout for things going wrong and reacting disproportionately when something did.

In the school, it would affect people's coping mechanisms. We'd move a little bit forward and then there might be something like a fight between two pupils (every school has them) and everything would be thrown back three steps. Rather than celebrate how well the situation was dealt with and resolved, the fight would be deemed to be the nail in the Eastern High coffin.

Recognising this helped the senior team and eventually all staff manage situations calmly and effectively.

Staff, students and parents began to feel more supported and as a result that high state of anxiety began to lessen and become more proportionate.

'Trust developed'

It's all too easy to criticise a child or groups of children. Yes, they'll make huge errors of judgment and do inappropriate things, if left to their own devices. They are still developing emotionally and need guiding.

The last thing young people need when they are not getting it right is to be excluded from their community, and so we focused our policy on educating and/or using restorative practices when mistakes or errors of judgement were made, rather than exclude.

As a result, we reduced our exclusions from being the highest in Cardiff (possibly Wales) to more or less zero. It's been interesting (even if it is just at a subconscious level) how much trust has developed between staff and students. At Eastern High, they wanted structure and more importantly they wanted to be cared for.

There are so many unsung heroes. When you work in a difficult environment, you really begin to notice those who are unbelievably resilient or hardworking. There are the staff (teachers and non-teachers) who spend so much of their own money to provide learning resources for students, or who take spare uniform home each night to wash.

There are the members of staff who come in each day at 6.45am and rarely leave before 6pm, not because they might get recognition or praise from the likes of myself, but because they genuinely want the school to succeed for the good of the students.

Image caption Eastern High School in Rumney has the motto "Believe. Achieve. Succeed"

And let's not forget the resilience of students, some of whom manage to turn up every day regardless of their own difficult situations. They've kept going through it all.

Extra financial support we received as a result of special measures was much needed because it enabled us to develop and implement necessary improvements.

We could have used the support as a crutch to help us through the hard times, but instead we had to ensure it was allocated in a way that developed sustainable practices within the school.

For example, much of the initial support was used to increase our level of intervention for Year 10 and 11 students to ensure they made up on lost ground and to improve levels of literacy across the school, which had been dropping.

We're not the finished article yet. We're a normal school now and as good as any similar school in terms of results, but we want to do more.

The recognition we've had over the past month has been great, but now there is a real feeling of responsibility to maintain our level of progress.

We're also lucky enough to be moving into a new building with Cardiff & Vale College in the next few days and so have even more to contend with in terms of responsibility. It's a new form of anxiety, but coming from a positive place.

We're all looking forward to the New Year and a new, exciting chapter.

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