Interview with Laura Ellener, headteacher of Chiswick School

Photograph above: Headteacher of Chiswick School Laura Ellener with one of her students

“Children need to know who’s in charge”

Chiswick School is due an Ofsted inspection. That statement generally throws teachers into paroxysms of fear. Not so Laura Ellener, the new headteacher at Chiswick School who took over in January 2019. She has worked hard to pull the school up from its current status of ‘Requires Improvement’ (only ‘Inadequate’ is lower in the Ofsted ranking), and while she’s cautious enough not to give me a prediction, she is quietly confident that the inspectors will see clear improvements.

The school has some 1300 children, two thirds from Chiswick, one third from surrounding areas. The population of the school is 60% boys, 44% from ‘disadvantaged’ backgrounds, and 50% have English as their second language.

Discipline has been her first objective. The children now line up silently in the playground before they go in to school in the mornings and you will see her and other senior staff on the buses, policing their students’ behaviour outside school as well as in. You may meet her on Chiswick High Rd  on a Friday night in her high-vis vest, her very presence enough of a deterrent to bad behaviour by Chiswick pupils.

“Children need to know someone else is in charge” she says. “They don’t want to be in charge. They feel much safer and more secure when teachers are in charge”.

“I want to save parents £150,000”

Laura is aware that people in Chiswick can be a bit sniffy about the school; that many see it as the choice of last resort if they can’t afford private schools. “I want to save them £150,000” she says, “for people to see the school as an important part of the community that they can be proud of”. And she says she’s already seeing a difference. The children are happier, safe in the knowledge that their lessons won’t be disrupted by bad behaviour, and they’re enjoying lessons. The work in their books has improved. The feedback from parents is also good.

She came to the school in January at a time when it had been through a period of great instability. There have been five head teachers in as many years. It’s been seven years since the school was last rated ‘Good’. The children were cynical, unimpressed by promises made by their leaders, which they knew very well they wouldn’t keep.

The last two Ofsted inspections, in November 2015 and October 2017 pronounced the school as ‘Requires Improvement’, prompting a follow-up Monitoring report in November last year which found that although the temporary head Jane Mills was doing a good job, putting in measures to improve behaviour and teaching and learning, the school needed to take further action.

‘Some groups of pupils have historically not made the progress of which they are capable’ it said. ‘Some year cohorts and groups, particularly pupils with special educational needs and/or disabilities and those who are disadvantaged, still do not attend as regularly as they should’. While pupils were ‘genuinely interested in their learning and many engage enthusiastically in the set activities’ it went on, ‘far too many pupils require constant reminders about their conduct around the school site’.

This is the first thing Laura tackled. She invites any member of the public who wishes to visit the school in working hours and see for themselves children going quietly about their business, paying attention to teachers and working. Aware of the bad reputation Chiswick students were getting outside the school, she and consultant senior leader Andy Richardson (a former headteacher also) and other pastoral staff started riding shotgun on the buses, letting fewer students on, so long-suffering members of the public weren’t swamped by the crush of students released from school at the end of the day, and students knew they had to be on good behaviour.

“It’s nice” she says. “They found it odd at first but now we chat about the week, I find out all sorts of things, and they quite like it”. Bus drivers have hugged her for ending the purgatory which was the school run. Shop keepers in places such as Poundland where Chsiwick students congregate, know her, see her every Friday and have her mobile number in case of trouble. “We’re now actually getting calls saying how nicely behaved our students are” she says.

“I love it here”

Aware that the problems at Chiswick School have been created by the high turnover of head teachers, Laura is adamant that she is going nowhere. She promises her Year Sevens that when they leave school in seven years’ time she will sing them the school song at their leaving assembly (even though she says she can’t sing). They look at her incredulously and ask if she will still be there. “Yes” she says, emphatically.

Laura is uniquely qualified for this post. Previously she’s had experience of comprehensive schools, a private school and an Academy, picking up the widest possible range of teaching and learning styles. She started out as an actor / dancer, having studied Drama at Birmingham University. When she found herself in Bristol, working mainly at Pizza Express at the age of 23, she decided she’d better do something more meaningful. She went back to Birmingham to train as a teacher and did her NQT year in Bristol in 1999, at Monks Park comprehensive school. She’d been dubious about a career in teaching, as her father had been a headteacher, but immediately she started, she loved it.

One of her lecturers at Birmingham moved to the King’s School in Canterbury, the oldest school in England, where teachers wore gowns and had to attend Matins in the Cathedral. He offered her a job, which she says “was a bit like being on an oil rig; there was no escape; but it was great for four years”.

Her next move was to Capital City Academy in Brent. Academies were new and she was interested in the concept. “It hadn’t been set up properly and was chaotic” she says, but she none the less reached the level of deputy head, this despite being the period in which she and her husband Colin had their two children Freddie and Lottie. In a bold move, the family then moved out to Kent, by the seaside. Her two hour commute to a school on the Isle of Sheppey was less than ideal, and reluctant though she is to give up on an idea, the family decided it was too much, gave up the rural idyll and moved to Kew.

You’ll be getting the idea by now that Laura is someone who embraces a challenge. She did her NPQH head teacher’s qualification and took on a school in Special Measures. “It was a big job” she says (as if this came as some surprise!) It was a single-sponsored academy which the government said had to be re-brokered; an ‘orphan’ school. She managed to sort out “most of the debt”, took it out of special measures and ensured that it was re-brokered over a period of two years. “I learned so much, but the challenges were enormous”. Not only was it a big job, but a two hour commute each way to Reading.

No wonder she was interested when she was asked to apply for the headship at Chiswick. A school that merely “Requires Improvement” must seem like a doddle in comparison, and her journey to school takes ten minutes.

Laura Ellener – report card

Some improvements were put in place by temporary head Jane Mills last year. She and her team had already got attendance back at a level which is above the national average, for all students and also for the particular target group mentioned in last year’s Monitoring Report, those children classed as ‘disadvantaged’. Laura has continued with the strategies in place and brought in a few of her own.

“When I arrived there was a high number of supply teachers. That’s bad for discipline and for learning. A number of people who have worked with me before have come here. We don’t have a problem with recruitment and I’m very choosy about who we’ve employed”. 20 of the staff are currently working with the Ambition Institute, spending time every fortnight on sessions which are improving their professional development.

Students now read a book together every morning in class groups, when they first come in to school. With the exception of Mondays, when they have class business for the week to get through, each class reads a book which is chosen for the whole year group – something relevant and discussion provoking: One Of Us Is Lying about the corrosive effects of social media in year 10; The Bone Sparrow about refugees. “The kids love it. We started in September, first of all with the teacher reading and now the children read”. What about those who hate reading aloud or those who are dyslexic or who struggle with English? There are about 30 children in year 7 who read one on one with a year 12 student instead. But what a great way to start the morning!

“We also have what I call ‘Do Now’ sessions when the students first come in to their lessons”. The teachers will put five questions up on the board and the students have to answer them in the first few minutes. The questions are about things they’ve supposed to have learned previously, so it’s a way of supporting the development of their knowledge and building it into their long term memory. “We keep re-visiting knowledge”.

Ofsted has recently changed is modus operandi, focusing more on the curriculum and personal development than on reams of data about a cohort. “They’ve realised there is no universal metric on how year 9 is doing and in the past they’ve just been creating a huge workload for teachers which wasn’t serving any useful purpose. School leaders who have been doing this for a long time welcome the change. They feel Ofsted is now focusing on the right things”.

She’s not afraid of speaking her mind, is Laura. She doesn’t dodge questions and she accepts responsibility for her students. She goes out in the community to public meetings in a way I’ve never seen Chiswick head teachers do before. In the last few months I’ve seen her at a public meeting about policing, accepting that her students’ behaviour needed to improve and explaining what the school was doing about it. I’ve seen her at Hogarth Youth Centre, taking an interest in what some of her pupils do after school, and at the Chiswick Area Forum, promoting the school to local councillors.

Reaction from parents and children

Is she getting good feedback from parents? Yes. “Our current Year 7 parents are being great advocates for us. Even some parents who were worried, who had their kids on waiting lists to go elsewhere, when places have come up they’ve decided not to take them. I feel a great responsibility that that trust is repaid. The parents are very vocal and we’re getting feedback that parents are more optimistic than they have been for a while”.

Whether she’s won over parents whose kids are about to leave primary school, she doesnt’ know yet. They had to make their choice of secondary school by 31 October and she won’t know if they chose Chiswick until next March. But she says hundreds of parents came to the Open Days and some expressed surprise at what they saw, so she is hopeful that the perception of the school as somewhere which wasn’t a viable alternative to send your children to is changing.

Ten students took the Oxbridge exams this year and were invited to interview. Visiting professors have been in to the school to help them with mock interviews. In general she says “the kids can feel that they’re getting cleverer and that it’s a different place, where they can enjoy lessons. They want to go to a good school and feel that it’s going places. At first when I said what we were going to do, I got some raised eyebrows, but now they know that everything I’ve said I would do, I have followed through and done and they trust me now. You can really tell how engaged they are, that they want to do well. The work in their books is wonderful”.

Is there any prospect of the next Ofsted bumping them up to Good? The next Ofsted they know is coming soon, because it has to be within 30 months of the last one, ie. within the next few months. “We still have a long way to go” she says cautiously “but I know they will find improvements in some areas”.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

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