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How to turn around a failing school – Heyford Park’s rapid school improvement journey

January 4, 2022, 11:21 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • Sarah Nickelson and Craig Thomas describe how they took their Free school from an “inadequate” inspection to looking ahead to a brighter future
How to turn around a failing school – Heyford Park’s rapid school improvement journey

When Heyford Park Free School (HPFS) was being conceived in 2013, the priority was to give the new growing community its own school.

It was an important development. The village of Upper Heyford, in Oxfordshire, once an important NATO air base of the Cold War, was becoming a burgeoning housing development hoping to attract thousands of families.

While all this planning was taking place, however, schools in the wider world were increasingly working together in partnerships to share staff, resources and most importantly, professional best practice.  By the time HPFS opened it was isolated from other potential partners in Oxfordshire, leaving it vulnerable. 

The school grew rapidly and, although initially located in porta cabins with several year groups in one class, within a matter of years it expanded to fit its current location, the Officers’ Mess on the former American Airbase. 

The new school was popular, attracting growing applications from nearby Bicester, which was itself in need of school places. But in November 2019 Heyford Park suffered a blow, in the form of a crushing Ofsted report.


The inspectors had deemed safeguarding to be “inadequate”; the behaviour of the children was poor; pupils with SEND were not sufficiently supported; and the curriculum needed reviewing.

The response to this from the community was incredibly concerning, with many families taking the difficult decision to move their children to other schools, and the remaining families feeling uncertainty about keeping the faith in the staff and leadership.

In February 2020, Eynsham Partnership Academy (EPA) were contacted to support HPFS, and the school joined the partnership later that year. 

Working party

This was at a challenging time with lockdowns due to Covid-19.  Face-to-face meetings not being an option, we held many parent meetings virtually. A smaller group of parents became a ‘working party’ with whom we were able to gain an understanding of their views on improving the school.

Step one of this journey was to bring in hugely experienced leaders and other staff to lead and work alongside the existing and enthusiastic HPS staff. At the start, we were a strong team of eight leaders from within the EPA. We investigated what action was needed and delivered a Rapid Action Plan (RAP) with us all focusing on different areas of school improvement. 

As HPS is an all-through school it was essential that, to achieve the best outcome, the team should bring expertise from within all key stages and this is one of the main reasons why the school is now improving so fast.  Experience and professional networks are so important and can really add value.

After the initial six months, a new leadership team was formed with two EPA Executive Heads (Sarah Nickelson and Craig Thomas), a Head of Secondary (Steve Nicholson) and two deputies; one in Primary (Rob Marchant) and another in Secondary (Vicky Wallington). This team moved the school on to the next phase.

Difficult decisions

HPS has the building blocks to make a fantastic school, but it needed the leadership and partnership with a Trust to take it down that path.  Our RAP looked at all areas of the school, but our main areas of focus were on:

  • improving the quality of teaching and learning, to ensure improved outcomes and wider life choices for our pupils;
  • improving behaviour and ensuring consistent approaches; improving systems around safeguarding and ensuring that children feel safe;
  • developing the curriculum from EYFS to the end of KS5 and rebranding and launching the new school name – Heyford Park School – while ensuring staff felt well supported;
  • building a strong, cohesive team between primary and secondary.
  • Making changes

    One of the first steps we took in supporting staff and showing our commitment to bringing them with us on this journey, was to move the staff room to a location in the centre of the school, which meant that staff could access it readily.

    Safeguarding was a major concern for Ofsted (and parents) with pupils walking to a different site 500 metres down the road for some lessons.  Pupils no longer walk between sites and parents, staff and children are much happier.  A Safeguarding Review in 2020 gave us good feedback for this improvement. 

    The EPA has developed its own teaching and learning principles, which have been introduced alongside our ‘Developmental Drop Ins’ (DDIs). 

    These principles are used to develop staff with fortnightly ‘drop ins’ to lessons for 10 minutes to provide an actionable step for moving their teaching, and subsequently the children’s learning, forward. 

    Cross-sector collaboration

    One of the advantages that comes with pupils attending an all-through school is the familiarity between pupils and staff. Another is the curriculum progression from nursery onwards.
    It is the latter area that we are developing with secondary specialist teachers who are now also teaching pupils in primary, and subject specialists working together across the school to ensure clear progression of skills and knowledge. 

    Heyford Park is now meeting the very purpose for which it was designed. We have focused on collaboration and the sharing of best practice between schools in the Trust.

    For instance, our three science teachers at Heyford now work very closely with the larger science department at Bartholomew School, which consistently gets pupils into Oxford, Cambridge and other Russell Group universities.

    We also made the radical decision to move our Sixth Form to Bartholomew School (an Outstanding secondary in the EPA) so that pupils have a wider variety of subjects to access. 

    Meeting pupil needs

    One of the really great things about HPS is that parents get a really lovely local school where most pupils can walk to a school that is located at the very heart of a friendly community where everyone knows one another. 

    Parents and young people now get all the benefits of a small local school with all the professional and curriculum advantages they would have received if they had sent their children some 12 miles away to other secondary schools in Oxfordshire. 

    Recently we commissioned a review to add value to our self-evaluation and were pleased with the outcome: 

    ‘Evidence seen during the visit, and detailed through this report, indicates that leaders’ actions, which have been well paced and effective, have secured significant improvements since the Ofsted report for Heyford Park Free School in November 2019. Leaders’ self-evaluation is accurate and appropriate steps have and continue to be taken to ensure the overall quality of provision for all pupils meets their high expectations.’

    We are really confident as a Trust that at the next Ofsted inspection, Heyford Park School will be graded a good school – the community deserves this, as do the pupils.

    Setting priorities

    To ensure consistency in the Primary Phase we introduced the ‘Heyford Way’ using five key elements to improve teaching and learning:

    • Structure of learning objectives to ensure children are supported and challenged accordingly
    • Consistent behaviour expectations using ‘Ready, Respectful, Safe’ and a focus on positive celebration of achievements
    • The use of assessments to inform planning using gap analysis as a basis, as well as introducing regular low stakes ‘Pop Quizzes’ to check children’s knowledge through each unit
    • Improve the classroom environment so that it supports pupils with their learning ensuring working walls and help desks are in all classrooms
    • High expectations for presentation in books

    Sarah Nickelson, Executive Headteacher (Primary) and Craig Thomas, Executive Headteacher (Secondary) of Heyford Park School, Oxfordshire.