Initially, when I was first asked to join as the Headteacher of Downham Market Academy (DMA) in 2017 I had mixed feelings. I had started at Chesterton Community College (CCC) as a bright young graduate aged 22 and had stayed there ever since – 31 years! However, I knew that the proposed move presented me with a fantastic opportunity and I accepted the offer.
The year that I was set to join DMA, the school was deemed inadequate across all areas, by Ofsted. So, I was leaving a school that was outstanding and one of the best in the county, to go to one that was failing its students; in my eyes, there was only one way that the school could go.
What really struck me about DMA was that the students had done well at primary school but progress had been generally poor once they had finished secondary school. At the time, CCC students were outperforming their DMA counterparts by at least two grades in every GCSE subject, despite gaining the same grade in their Key Stage 2 SATs.
I had worked as the Deputy Head at CCC for quite some time and had been part of the fantastic senior leadership team that had turned the school around. This wasn’t something we achieved overnight, and there were a number of methods and measures we had implemented that were based on evidence from academic research. So, moving between schools, I felt confident that with the help of the dedicated team, we could effectively implement the same changes and move DMA to being the school that I knew it could be.
One of the first changes that we implemented at DMA was to repaint the entire inside of the school site, meaning that when both students and teachers returned from their summer holidays they immediately came back to a fresh visual change. I’m acutely aware of how much time young people spend at school and I wanted to make sure that our environment is somewhere that they want to be, is vibrant and inviting, and promotes active learning.
Having spent much of my time at CCC working with the team that improved teaching and learning at the school, I was keen to mirror some of these changes at DMA. In the first few months of my post, we made it clear that we wanted teachers to spend less time standing at the front of a classroom talking to students. We wanted them to practise a more innovative approach which takes learning outside of the classroom, using breakout spaces for interactive lessons and walls for children to brainstorm their ideas on. At DMA, we wanted learning to be a fun challenge for students, that gives them exciting experiences that they will remember for life.
Chesterton Community College
Here at DMA, the SLT are all strong believers in a balanced curriculum and encouraging students not to narrow their academic choices too early into their educational journey. So, we have now increased Key Stage 3 to three years, allowing students to experience more variety within their subjects. Three years on, our curriculum is now amazingly diverse, with subjects such as Latin, and the learning environment is vastly improved, including an amazing arts facility. We ensure that regardless of background, all of our students get the same experiences and that everyone is invited to explore their interests and passions.
I am extremely proud of the work we have completed at DMA and we will continue progressing and pushing ourselves to provide the best environment for our students and staff. Last year, students at DMA achieved grades in line with the national average. More importantly, I’m delighted to see them demonstrating intellectual curiosity, motivation and a thirst for knowledge. In conversation with a student recently, I was struck by how positive they were about the teaching at DMA and how excited they now are about their learning, “You [teachers] have the ability to inspire and influence every single one of us… You help open doors for our future and prepare us to do the same. I do not think I could be in a more encouraging and safer environment when learning”.
This is an exciting time for DMA as our community continues to grow and evolve as part of Eastern Learning Alliance. The Trust is driven by purpose and delivering outstanding outcomes for its diverse community – I am looking forward to what the future holds for everyone at DMA.