Sue Mortimer: 'Rose Hill Primary was like a ship without a rudder'

When Sue Mortimer took over as head, Rose Hill Primary was in special measures. Now it's the most improved school in the country. She tells Richard Garner how she did it

Not many head teachers celebrate a new job by picking up a paintbrush and giving their school a makeover. That, however, was what Sue Mortimer did before she even took up her post as head of Rose Hill primary school in Oxford.

Her first glimpse of the school, which is now thriving and has some 346 pupils, showed that its pupils were taught in quite "dreary" surroundings. As a result, she and her family spent the summer holiday before she took over as head giving it a lick of paint. "The school had been going through a difficult period," she says.

"The previous head had left nearly two years previously and the governors had been unable to recruit a successor. The deputy head had led the school. It was a school where, when you walked through the door, there was a feeling of low expectations and low aspirations. It was like a ship without a rudder."

The school serves an area of Oxford that is not part of the leafy academic spires but traditionally housed the Cowley car plant – although few of the pupils' parents work in the industry now and the area itself has indeed undergone a kind of makeover.

When Ms Mortimer arrived, the school had already been give notice to improve by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, and was set to be placed on its list of failing schools as a result of further inspection due soon after Ms Mortimer started working at the school. The makeover, then, was a statement of intent to the pupils and the staff of the school. "I wanted to do it because I think it is really important that when you walk through the door you feel warm and welcomed and that it is a place where you want to be," Ms Mortimer says. "There were lots of comments and the feedback was very positive."

Six years later, though, the school is celebrating following a three-year period during which it became the most improved school in the country. It has also just won an Education Business Award in a scheme sponsored by recruitment experts eteach.com.

Now it is celebrating the fact that 76 per cent of its pupils reach the required level in national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds in both maths and English – well above the Government's floor target for schools of 60 per cent. It is a massive improvement on the figures Ms Mortimer inherited. "I've erased them from my mind," she says. "They were so bad."

The makeover was just the start, though. (It was coupled with a decision to make sure there were always fresh flowers on display at the school). There were tough decisions ahead.

She recalls a staff meeting towards the end of October in her first term when she told the staff that there were schools in a similar position (Rose Hill has twice the number of pupils eligible for free school meals – the traditional indicator of disadvantage – as the average school). There were also other schools in a more disadvantaged position that were doing better.

"My message was that – if they could do that – so could we," she says. "I know they didn't believe me but they slowly, slowly realised I was serious as they got to know me."

The school underwent a massive turnover of staff. "What we've got now is a school where there are only two permanent members of the teaching staff who were here with me when I started and two members of staff who have come back. It has been said that once the balance of the team becomes more reflective of the new head, things will change."

Clearly, this has now happened, but there were some measures that could be taken more quickly to improve standards at the school – particularly in terms of behaviour. Each classroom displays a five-star poster indicating the rules for good behaviour. Their prominent display ensures that the message gets through to pupils.

They include: making the school a healthy and safe place where you can learn; always walk through the school (rather than run); be polite and show respect to other people and their property; listen to others; come to school on time and ready to learn.

It was, she says, a question of fostering respect both for the teachers by the pupils and for the pupils by the teachers. "We don't shout in this school," Ms Mortimer says. One teachers holds up a tambourine and shakes it if she wants the pupils' attention and wants them to calm down.

Another key aspect of changing the school around was to foster self-confidence amongst the pupils. As a result, the school has adopted a "no hands up" policy. The philosophy behind this is that, if teachers rely on asking pupils who put their hands up to answer questions, they will, it is true, find some who know the right answer.

Others, though, may put their hands up even if they do not know the answer while others who are bright may be shy and never volunteer to answer the question. One teacher has lollipop stickers with the names of every member of the class on one of them – and selects pupils to answer questions at random.

In addition to giving some pupils the confidence to speak out in class, it also means they have to pay attention all the time. "The children need to be focussed on what's happening as they never know when they might be called," says Ms Mortimer.

The school has a higher than average proportion of pupils from minority ethnic backgrounds and as a result, welcoming signs in various languages are placed on the approach to the school. Ofsted, in its latest inspection of the school, particularly praised its efforts to make all pupils feel at home. "Pupils from different backgrounds get on well with each other both in lessons and at playtimes," the report said.

"The school promotes community cohesion successfully and has links with Uganda and China. Mandarin has been introduced to pupils in years five and six (nine to 11-year-olds) and the school has two Mandarin teachers."

Overall, it is a far cry from Ms Mortimer's assessment of her own school, which she made within a few weeks of her arrival as head teacher. "As a new head you don't do anything really radical," she says. "You look and you listen and you observe. In my case you get increasingly panicked and distressed at what you discover. You deal with behaviour and behaviour management quite quickly. Behaviour policy was very much focused on respect as a two-way thing. You made it quite clear what the sanctions were if you make poor behaviour judgements."

It took Rose Hill just 18 months to climb out of special measures (i.e. get the school removed from the list of failing schools) at a time when the norm was nearer two years.

Four years after the turnaround first started, Ofsted said of the school: "The school has made significant improvement since its previous inspection. It now provides a good quality of education. Pupils' achievement is good. A major factor in this improvement is the vision, determination and drive of the head teacher, ably supported by senior leaders and governors. This is recognised by most parents."

But Rose Hill is still a work in progress. The head's next priority is to turn it into a story-telling school, so the walls in the corridors reflect some of the tales the pupils have read.

And that may also mean it will need another lick of paint.

Suggested Topics
Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
scotland decidesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping First Minister up at night?
Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
Life and Style
techApple has just launched its latest mobile operating software – so what should you do first?
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmSo what makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Sport
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes the hobby look 'dysfunctional', they say
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Maths Teacher

£90 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher (mater...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for an ...

Maths Teacher

£22000 - £37000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: A West Yorkshire School i...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week