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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.