Few schools could have received an inspection report as glowing as the one recently delivered on Wolfson Hillel Primary, in Enfield, which was ranked outstanding for the first time since its foundation in 1993.
Headteacher Kirsten Jowett was praised by Ofsted for “exemplary leadership and high expectations”; the ablest pupils are stretched and children “lap up learning”; disadvantaged pupils and those with special needs both make good progress. The school has created a culture that “inspires pupils to believe, persevere and achieve extremely well”.
The previous inspection took place four years ago only a few months after Ms Jowett arrived as the new head of the United Synagogue-backed school. Although it was rated good, she saw “a lot of room for improvement”.
In fact, she says, “when I took over there was a question of whether the school was sustainable. The local community was ageing. I said I will make it outstanding and people will want to come here.” She has been as good as her word. “People are definitely moving into the area.”
An “outstanding” grade has been harder to earn from Ofsted over the past couple of years.
If a school has previously been rated good, inspectors come for a day to check it has maintained standards. It is up to the school to convince them that it has advanced sufficiently to try for “outstanding” status — in which case, it is subject to a further two-day visit and then the inspection report is reviewed by no fewer than three more teams to make sure the school merits the rank. Ofsted noted an “unrelenting focus” on taking steps to raise standards at the school.
Since Ms Jowett took over, about half her staff have changed. “I will never have teachers teaching in my school that I would not have teaching my own children,” she says. “That’s my mantra.” (Her own children are aged 10 and 12.)
While Wolfson Hillel is a two-form entry school, she has managed thebudget to afford three teachers per year group. So for core subjects such as maths and English, pupils may be split into three classes. “Because we have a big old building, we have lots of space for a third class,” she says.
As a result, children “get more one- to-one teacher time”. She has found it more efficient to employ an extra qualified teacher than two teaching assistants.
Some of the changes were inspired by a professional trip she made to Finland last year, where she noted a high teacher to child ratio. She had long wondered why the Scandanavian nation had featured at the top of the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) tables along with countries from the Far East.
One significant move she introduced in September was an earlier start to the school day.
Children begin half an hour earlier at 8.20 rather than 8.50 and finish at 2.30 rather than 3.30, with the lunch break cut to 45 minutes from an hour. “Part of the reason is the research showing that young children work best earlier in the day,” she says. “After lunch, children are tired.”
Children take more intensive subjects such as maths or Hebrew in the morning.
In the past, the school found the final quarter of lunch hour was when children became bored and bad behaviour occurred. The shorter lunch break has meant teachers have to deal with fewer incidents.
But there was another reason for the earlier start — to improve the work-life balance for staff. “Teachers are working 80 hour weeks,” she says. “Most staff are in at 7 and we’re still here at 6 at night.”
The new schedule has now given them time to do their paperwork in the early afternoon and get home to their own children at a reasonable hour.
“Teachers have reported they are doing four to eight hours of work out of school, compared to 15 hours before,” Ms Jowett said.
While the stress of the job has created a national shortage of teachers, she says “I do not have a problem in recruiting teachers. I’m regularly approached by teachers from other schools. I can pick the cream of the crop.”
Another idea she has borrowed from Finland is “family sittings” for the older classes at lunch. Instead of food being dished out to children from a counter, they sit around tables of eight while the food is put in bowls before them and one of them helps to serve it to the rest.
The “outstanding” label for the early years section of the school has particularly gratified her, since she confesses this was in a “shocking” state when she first came to Wolfson Hillel.
The Ofsted report overall “validates the hard work of the teachers," she says. "A sense of pride, achievement, camaraderie and motivation is evident to see.
“If lessons are exciting and children are engaged, they want to learn. And as a result, behaviour is excellent. All of this is self-perpetuating. The better behaved the children, the more learning there is.”