New executive headteacher of trouble-hit school confident he can turn it around
Ted Peskett Local Democracy Reporter
The new executive headteacher of a troubled school where teachers were locking themselves in classrooms in fear of misbehaving pupils is adamant he can turn things around.
Teachers and staff at Pencoedtre High School in Barry have been on strike this month due to poor behaviour at the school and the verbal and physical abuse they and some pupils face.
The current headteacher at Whitmore High School in Barry, Innes Robinson, will now replace Debra Thomas, as the executive headteacher of Pencoedtre on a three year term.
Ms Thomas, who is the headteacher of Cowbridge Comprehensive School, stepped down in her role at Pencoedtre High after a spell of less than a year.
Ideas for improvement
Some of the ideas that could be brought in by Mr Robinson, who has taught at crisis-hit schools in the past, include more extracurricular activities, parent visits and increased visibility of senior staff around the school.
Mr Robinson called the tales of abuse and pupils being beaten up at Pencoedtre “appalling”, but insisted that a few simple changes can turn things around.
“It was like nothing I’d seen,” said Mr Robinson whilst recalling his experience of becoming deputy headteacher at Eastern High in Cardiff in 2015.
“I went down the corridors and there was behaviour I’d never seen before… and I thought ‘this is hard’, but four or five years later Eastern was getting lauded for the changes they made.”
“What I have seen is, it doesn’t take as much as you think to get things back into place in schools.”
Mr Robinson said he wanted to become an investment banker before going into teaching.
After a year of working as an oil trader in central London, he got on to the Teach First teacher training programme and landed a job at one of London’s most troubled schools, Highbury Grove, where one deputy headteacher was stabbed in the ear.
The school, which was placed in special measures, saw a remarkable turnaround, with behaviour improving and 69% of pupils there receiving English and Maths GCSE results at Grade 4 or above in 2018.
A word Mr Robinson used frequently when talking about changing the culture at Pencoedtre High was “consistency”, pointing out that he thinks it is important for staff and pupils to see that behaviour from all pupils is treated in the same way.
He said: “Pupils want to have consistency, staff want to have consistency and if we put that into place, things that look absolutely outrageous… they quickly dissipate because pupils like to feel in control.
“They don’t like to be in situations where things are out of control and we have just got to make sure that that changes.
“I would say it is a challenge I have already done and in lots of ways… I find the challenge exciting and I think I can make the difference.”
More recently, NASUWT members at Pencoedtre High were on strike on January 10 and 18 and the school was closed for all pupils except those about to sit exams.
Further walkouts are planned for January 30 and February 1.
Debra Thomas was brought in to help at Pencoedtre in September 2023 after the previous headteacher, Lee Humphreys, left.
As part of her management team, there were two assistant headteachers and a deputy headteacher.
This time, Vale of Glamorgan Council has recruited two new assistant headteachers and additional pupil support staff, taking the total number to 33.
A gym manager, family engagement officer and liaison and engagement officer have also been employed.
Learning support assistants
There will be an increase in the number of learning support assistants at the school and a greater presence of staff members in corridors and communal areas during breaktimes.
Beyond this though, Mr Robinson said he won’t look to increase staff numbers at the school.
He said: “What I would say is, there is sufficient capacity in that school and what I won’t be doing as the head of Whitmore is taking capacity out of Whitmore to put into Pencoedtre.
“What I have always learnt in schools is the capacity is always within that school.
“At Whitmore my entire senior leadership team came from within and they were middle leaders when I first got there and I think that my job is to develop staff and give them those leadership capabilities.
“What won’t be needed is more staff to be brought in.
“What will be needed is to make sure that staff within the school are given the opportunities and the support to reach that self actualisation.
“It is not always about more capacity, it is about harnessing what you have already got.”
At a Vale of Glamorgan Council learning and culture scrutiny committee meeting on January 11, NASUWT representatives said staff who are taking action are “at the end of their tether” with the behaviour at Pencoedtre.
Calls have been made for more staff to be brought in to make sure pupils are getting to their lessons, with NASUWT teachers union national official for Wales, Neil Butler, advocating for “boots on the ground” as an immediate solution.
“Boots on the ground is a lovely concept,” said Mr Robinson.
“But, children have to trust teachers.
“You can have a thousand people doing the wrong thing, but what we will do is… increase the capacity of the senior leadership team to be around.
“In my school, the senior leadership team are the people on duty and they are around all of the time.”
Instead of overloading senior leadership staff at the school, Mr Robinson said he will look to use them in a more efficient way
He added: “If you are using the senior leadership team, you are showing to the pupils that this matters and they have got the experience and the knowledge of how to deal with those situations whereas if you were to get boots on the ground and perhaps less experienced members of staff it can create more issues.
“I think almost instantly the staff will see a higher presence of senior leadership team and a higher level of support.”
One of the key issues raised by staff has been the design of the school.
Union representatives at the meeting said the £33m school building is “not fit for purpose”, pointing to the open plan design of the school and central location of the successful futures centre (SFC) hub which they said contributes to poor behaviour.
Whitmore High has also moved into a multi million pound modern building.
However, Mr Robinson described it as “superb”, a “dream” and “exactly what you would want for your child”.
When asked what he made of comments that modern school buildings, like Pencoedtre, are more like offices than schools, he added: “Everyone has got their own opinion.
“I think for me that is not how they are.
“What is great about the buildings in both Pencoedtre and Whitmore is the classroom sizes. Pupils have got space.
“They are lovely classrooms. Every classroom has got an interactive whiteboard.
“Once you have used that, you get to go to the brilliant fitness suite. There is a lovely gym, you go outside and you have got a 4G pitch.
“This is everything that anyone has ever wanted in school and I know that when parents were going around that school initially they thought ‘I wish I had this when I was younger’.
“I was jealous of some of the bits they had at Pencoedtre.
“It is so easy in life to focus on the negatives, when actually what we have got right now is a school building that anyone would do anything for in lots of places and you have got a staffing body who want it to succeed and pupils who really want to enjoy that facility.
“All I have got to make sure is that we use it to its best.”
Despite Pencoedtre High School’s multi million pound building and its state of the art facilities, it still lacks a single main staff room.
Mr Robinson was asked whether this is something he might change at the school to help improve the situation there.
However he said: “A staff room wouldn’t suddenly change the culture of that school.
“What changes the culture is feeling valued and feeling that when you are successful that you are recognised by the senior leadership team.”
The new executive head would not give a specific time frame as to how quickly he could turn things around at Pencoedtre High, but he was adamant that he knows what needs to be done.
He said: “I know the journey that they need to go on as a school, I know the things that need to happen and I think bit by bit parents will start feeling more confident as they start hearing more positive things coming out of the school.
“Those positive changes have already been taking place and I think what I have got utter confidence in is that over time the school will come out of special measures and it will become a school that Barry can be proud of.”
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