A seriously inadequate and failing school in Exeter where things got so bad that it had to be temporarily closed is now hoping to hit the headlines for all the right reasons.
For many years, Exeter’s former Steiner Academy was known for its alternative educational approach which was based on the Waldorf principles.
These include priority being to educating the ‘whole child’ with a strong emphasis on creativity, nature and hands-on learning, with standardised testing limited.
Although it offered a unique education approach compared with mainstream schools, it was rated ‘inadequate’ in every area inspected by Ofsted in October 2018.
A catalogue of failings at the school included leadership being ‘dysfunctional at every level’, kindergarten pupils being physically restrained by teachers, and a lack of support for vulnerable children. Serious inadequacies were highlighted in leadership, quality of teaching and safeguarding.
Other concerns raised by the watchdog included teachers being subjected to regular physical assaults by pupils, the needs of children with special educational needs not being met and a lack of evidence that safeguarding checks have been made when employing new members of staff.
The Ofsted inspection followed a safeguarding investigation being launched when two six-year-old pupils walked out of the school unnoticed during lessons in July 2018.
Last year the school was taken over by Avanti Schools Trust (AST) which marked the end of it being run with a Steiner ethos. However, that does not mean that an alternative education is no longer available in Exeter.
Although the school, renamed Avanti Hall School, now follows a mainstream curriculum, there is an emphasis on yoga, mindfulness and outdoor learning.
The school now only serves vegetarian meals and pupils don’t have to wear a school uniform, although that is set to change next year.
In the near future it will have its own forest school, and competitive sports will be introduced for the first time. Another first is phonetics being taught in Key Stages 1 and 2.
Devon Live was invited to have a look around the school, based in the historic grounds of Thomas Hall in Cowley Bridge Road, to see what progress it has made so far and its plans for the future.
Due to its past few turbulent years, and some parents opting to home school during the coronavirus pandemic, the school has just under 300 pupils. It has lost 30 pupils since February, but it is hoped that numbers will begin to increase again next year.
A group of pupils who have all been at the school for around eight years spoke of the changes they have seen, and how they feel about them.
Aeas Rinotas, 12, who is in Year 8, said: “It was great before as we were outside and I didn’t want lessons. It was very spiritual and stuff like that, but then as you grow up it was like I didn’t have enough education in school and I was years behind.
“Now that has changed and I feel like I’m getting much more education. Everything is cool apart from not doing lots of stuff outside yet, but I think when the school fully transits to Avanti that will happen.”
Year 10 pupil Archie Whittall, 14, said: “Steiner was going to close so I moved to a school in Chulmleigh, but I really hated it there. When we heard Avanti had come here I decided to come back as I missed my friends.
“The difference between Avanti and Steiner is Avanti is a lot more efficient in getting work done.
“There is less mischievous behaviour going on here. They let us use the front lawn to play football. We were not allowed to use it before.
“I’m learning a lot more now because it’s better quality teaching. The changes have been alright really.”
Year 9 pupil Ayla Virok, 13, said: “The school was not a bad place; it was a very lovely community but it was not quite there and was more scattered. It’s now a lot nicer.
“I’m happy that there is going to be a school uniform as I don’t have to decide between five different outfits every morning. Instead it will be nice and easy. But I do believe that wearing your own clothes lets you show your true colours and individuality.
“A very amazing person in my class has the most interesting and unique style. It’s just a shame I won’t see that anymore.
Year 7 pupil Martha Dade, 12, added: “It has changed, definitely with the curriculum. The teachers are more interested in us learning.
“I have always enjoyed coming here and I like the changes; they’re good.”
Leading the school through its vast changes is new principal Phil Arnold who was previously a director for a trust in Plymouth, and worked to support primary and secondary schools to make necessary improvements.
He had initially planned to join the school in September of this year, but instead started in April due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It meant not only did have the huge task of starting to turn the school around, but also dealing with the fast-changing impact of Covid-19 on schools.
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He admitted: “It was an interesting time to take over the headship of a school, in particular this year. I was just so glad I could start in April as it meant I could get started quickly to get things in place.
“As soon as I came up the drive and saw the school for the first time I saw the potential here. I spoke to staff who had been through a really unsettled few years, and I spoke to children who felt they wanted it to be a school that it should be.
“That swayed me when I was offered the job to accept it, and to give Exeter an educational choice because this is a small all-through school which does not exist elsewhere in the city.”
By the time Mr Arnold arrived at the school a curriculum review by the trust had already begun in January, which was then put in place in April.
A recruitment plan was put in force which means all teachers must have Qualified Teacher Status (QTS), which was not the case before. The school also welcomed a new assistant headteacher.
Safeguarding processes and protocols and its special educational needs and disabilitie (SEND) provision were seen as immediate priorities by the trust. The school has a higher than average number of SEND pupils, but says that due to its size it is dealing with them in smaller cohorts.
Another initial priority this year was making the school a safe setting for the children of keyworkers and then reception, Year 1, 6 and 10 pupils during lockdown.
So far the school has not had any confirmed Covid-19 cases, but has had a few teachers who have been asked to self-isolate after being contacted through the NHS Track and Trace.
Due to the size of the school it only has two bubbles – primary and secondary – who have staggered start and finish times.
Mr Arnold said: “I am amazed by how well the children have been playing together across the year groups in their bubble, such as Year 7 and 11 playing football together.
“A lot of new families are pleased with how that barrier is being broken down. When I take parents on tours of the school they say it was not what they were expecting as they had read reports from two years ago, and not what’s happening in the past six months.
“We have worked really hard to create an atmosphere of happiness and engagement in learning. It just feels a lovely place to be when you walk around the corridors.
“We will change the school’s reputation. The feedback I get on the whole is how much happier the children are at the moment which is really lovely.
“I’m excited for what the school can offer which was not in place before. It is now a mainstream curriculum school, but one that offers two form entry all the way through.”
What also sets the school apart from others is the ‘Avanti way’ which has three pillars running through it.
Mr Arnold explained: “The first is educational excellence which is about making sure the curriculum we have gets children through the Key Stages 1 to 4 as successfully as possible.
“The second is character formations which lots of schools do, such as leadership, independence, resilience and core things that make a young person successful in preparing for their next stage.
“The third stage – which is unique to Avanti – is spiritual insight. In the current climate that is highly important for young people. It’s about mindfulness, mental health, and the environment and climate.”
Earlier this year the school was approached by The Outdoors Group which runs forest schools in Devon.
As one of its sites was closing in July, Avanti Hall School was asked if it could use its outside area. Following a risk assessment it was agreed they could in return for The Outdoors Group helping them to create a forest school for its pupils to use and to train some of its staff to become forest school leaders.
It means that in the near future, every child will have outdoor forest school on their curriculum. A new playground is being built and children will also have the opportunity to learn how to grow produce.
Mr Arnold said: “We now have a good curriculum, but it’s about constantly tweaking it and working with other schools in Exeter to make sure it is as good as it can possibly be.
“We are looking to bring in The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, Ten Tors and get sports into the curriculum. We have not had the chance to do competitive sports before.
“We have also started offering four dedicated focus days throughout the year. I don’t know many schools that still do this. Our first was Black Lives Matter and our next is Feed the World.
“We will also be developing our music offering such as having people in to do drumming workshops when coronavirus restrictions are lifted more.
“The goal is to give opportunities for the children to be as successful as they can be.”