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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
glastonbury
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Shock of the news: Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Nightcrawler’
filmReview: Gyllenhaal, in one of his finest performances, is funny, engaging and sinister all at once
Arts and Entertainment
Shelley Duvall stars in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining
filmCritic Kaleem Aftab picks his favourites for Halloween
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington has been given a huge pay rise to extend his contract as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones
tv
Life and Style
Taste the difference: Nell Frizzell tucks into a fry-up in Jesse's cafe in east London
food + drinkHow a bike accident left one woman living in a distorted world in which spices smell of old socks and muesli tastes like pork fat
Sport
Luke Shaw’s performance in the derby will be key to how his Manchester United side get on
footballBeating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Life and Style
Google's doodle celebrating Halloween 2014
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
filmThis Halloween, we ask what makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?
News
peopleFarage challenges 'liberally biased' comedians to 'call him a narcissist'
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

Nursery Manager

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Nursery Manager Long term Ran...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£45 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply SEN Support Jobs in Bris...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£45 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply SEN Support Jobs in Glou...

Humanities and Economics Teacher - January 2015 - Malaysia

£18000 - £20400 per annum + Accommodation, Flights, Medical Cover: Randstad Ed...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes