In the past 18 months, Grasmere Nursery School has undergone a transformation. In September 2013, Ofsted rated the Luton nursery school as "requires improvement" but this summer's inspection saw it receive an "outstanding" judgment.
Head teacher Judy Luxford says the school's troubles in 2013 were due to a period of changing leadership, but it was embracing a principle of shared leadership that really powered Grasmere's turnaround.
"The staff members are exactly the same staff members as when I arrived in January 2014," says the former primary head. "They were and are excellent practitioners, but the systems weren't really in place to ensure the detail. For example, staff would instinctively see what a child needed to progress but there weren't the specific scrutiny meetings we now have where we look at not just how children are achieving but how they have progressed."
But instead of directing how things should change, Luxford encouraged the staff to lead on improving the school's work. "Shared leadership was pretty much non-existent previously, but now everybody is a leader," she says. "Everyone's a specialist in a certain area and everyone has got an important voice. It could be the nursery nurse who leads the forest school or another who leads lunchtime provision.
The staff now see how everything they do with their children impacts on the whole school.
"I didn't come in and go, 'I don't like this and you must do that'. Wherever possible it was about getting the answers to questions from the staff. A lot of what I would do was pose questions and then wait to see what happens."
Once such questions were posed, it was down to the staff to reflect on the issue and existing approach and come back with an answer. "If they come back and say, 'We've looked at it every which way and we like it as it is and it suits the needs of the children', then I say fine, we won't change it," says Luxford. "But if they say, 'Well, now you've said that I've always wanted to do this', then we'd say we will change it."
Rather than just making changes and moving on, each revision of the school's approach was reviewed to ensure it worked, with time set aside to assess the impact of each and every change.
The effectiveness of this shared leadership approach was one of the things Ofsted praised in its report on the school. Another was Grasmere's work with children with special educational needs, who the inspectorate found were making "exceptional progress".
Luxford says the school's commitment to integration is part of the recipe for its success in this area and that includes using approaches designed for children with special needs with all the children.
An example of this is Grasmere's use of the bucket concept from the Attention Autism approach. The bucket contains a range of multi-sensory objects and staff grab children's attention by pulling items out of the bucket one at a time. Over time this is built on to help children concentrate for longer and longer periods of time.
"Children won't learn if they can't focus. So we use it for any child who finds focusing a challenge," says Luxford. "If something works for some children it usually works with an awful lot more."
- Name: Grasmere Nursery School
- Location: Luton
- Description: Grasmere is a larger than average nursery school catering to children aged three to five. It shares a site with a baby and toddler unit, a specialist unit for children with profound and complex needs, and a children's centre. It has an above-average number of children with disabilities and special educational needs. A quarter of children are learning to speak English as an additional language. The number of pupils eligible for free school meals is below average.
- Number of children: 156 pupils on roll
- Ofsted reference number: 109420
- Numicon boosts numeracy. As part of a research project with Luton Council, Grasmere has been using these plastic maths resources and has seen a big boost in girls' numeracy. In autumn 2013, 38 per cent of its girls were where they should be with maths on the Early Years Foundation Stage. Since using Numicon the figure has soared to 72 per cent, greatly narrowing the gender attainment gap. "They are bright and tactile," says head teacher Judy Luxford. "Our previous resources looked like mathematical resources and it was mainly boys that were drawn to them."
- Good choice, bad choice. Grasmere uses the sign language-based Sign 4 Feelings and Behaviour, which has proved so successful at improving behaviour that some of Grasmere's parents now use it at home. "It's a 'good choice, bad choice' system," says Luxford. "We never say that a child is bad or naughty. We say you're wonderful, but your behaviour is not acceptable. So if they jump off a climbing frame from too high, we immediately ask them if that was a good choice. They know it's not us saying they are a bad child just that they made a bad choice."