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In October 2019, Ysgol Bro Sannan was judged by inspectors to be in need of “significant improvement”.
The Welsh-medium primary school in Aberbargoed, which has around 160 pupils aged between three and 11, was placed in Estyn’s second worst category – one above being put in special measures.
Soon after the inspection, Jamie Hallet was brought in as the school’s new executive headteacher on a secondment from a school in Monmouthshire – a role which he was permanently appointed to a year later.
It was a return to familiar surroundings for Mr Hallet, who was deputy headteacher at the school around ten years ago.
For Mr Hallet, the job seemed a straightforward one – but then the pandemic hit.
Normally, a school in Bro Sannan’s position would face a follow-up inspection a year later – but this was not possible due to Covid.
A long two-and-a-half years after the damning report, inspectors were finally able to return in March 2022 – and were pleased with the progress.
Had the school failed the inspection, it would have been placed under special measures. Instead, it was moved out of the ‘requiring significant improvement’ category.
Mr Hallet, who is also executive headteacher at nearby Ysgol Gymraeg Gilfach Fargoed – which is also due an inspection in the coming weeks – told Caerphilly Observer: “I knew some of the staff and parents here, so it was easy to fit back in. My secretary and a lot of other people have been here for quite some time as well, so it’s somewhere I feel comfortable.
“Valleys people are the salt of the earth, you know where you stand with them. I really like the community and the people around this area too, so it’s a privilege to be here.”
But merely two months into the job, Covid hit – forcing the school to close its doors with pupils and staff working remotely.
Mr Hallet said: “It was really complex because there was no best practice. There were no places to go to see how it’s done, because everything was completely new.
“At first, we needed to seek some advice externally, but we had contact quite early from the inspectorate saying, ‘please do not feel pressured to be implementing your post-inspection action plan because of the pandemic’.
“So once I knew the targets from Estyn could be put on the backburner, and we could focus on keeping our children safe and ensure they still got an education, I felt at ease.
“When things started to open back up, it was finding that balance of reintegrating the children back in safely and catering for their wellbeing, because many of our children had different experiences during the pandemic.
“Once we’d gauged that and assessed our children and really recognised where they were, then we could start implementing those actions from the post-inspection action plan – but it took us quite some time.
“I appreciated the understanding from Estyn at that time that it wasn’t going to be a quick fix and these things were going to take just that little bit longer.”
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“We didn’t expect things to happen overnight”
As part of his plan to turn the school’s fortunes around, Mr Hallet said it was important to focus on the positives and praised his staff.
To help run things more efficiently, the school appointed a new deputy headteacher, a Key Stage Two leader and someone responsible for staff development.
Mr Hallet continued: “Leadership, during the core inspection in 2019, was acknowledged as unsatisfactory, so that was the main priority for this school.
“As I looked at the skillset of some of my staff, I just felt that even though we had some good middle leaders, and we had some good emerging leaders, I didn’t think we had enough senior leaders.
“I think those three appointments were critical – because what we were bringing in was experienced people, experienced practitioners, experienced leaders who could support those staff who I said were good teachers and good middle leaders, but just needed that extra layer to take them on to the next level.”
He added: “We were all very realistic about the journey. We didn’t expect things to happen overnight.
“For example, pupil independence was one of the recommendations for Bro Sannan and we knew that could take a long time because the pupils needed to be nurtured, supported and guided from the pandemic.
“I told Estyn I understand that this is a recommendation, but it’s not going to happen in the space of a year following a pandemic, it will take many years.
“Just having that strength in leadership to speak to people who are coming in to scrutinise the school and say there is still going to be some gaps in pupils learning, but this is our strategy to improve it.
“As long as they could see that we had a long-term strategy to improve standards in teaching and learning, they felt confident in me as a leader and the staff to move things on. There’s a recognition that it’s going to take a little bit longer to fully improve everything because of the pandemic.”
Soon after the inspection, Mr Hallet was “given the indication” that the school would be moved out of the significant improvement category – but was unable to share the good news with staff until the official announcement was made.
“That was difficult for me,” said Mr Hallet. “The first thing you want to do was tell all your staff, all the parents, all the community.
“Parents had been uncertain about the school for quite some time. The school had gone through a difficult period of time, but be able to then share that good news with the parents, for me, was a particular highlight.
“I promised these things and now we’ve delivered and ultimately, that means that your children are getting a better deal, a better education and that, for me is the most important thing – that our children now are having a highly effective education.”
Richard Edmunds, Director for Education and Corporate Services at Caerphilly County Borough Council, praised the school’s report and said: “It’s reassuring to see that the report recognises the challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic and, despite these, teaching staff have still shown great progress in supporting pupils to improve their numeracy and literary skills, as well as their independent learning skills.
“We understand that there are still aspects of the school’s work which could be developed and are committed to supporting them to improve even further.”
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