A couple of months ago, we heard from Vinny Wagjiani, Chair of Governors at Leechpool Primary School about his board’s efforts to improve staff wellbeing. In the latest instalment of our wellbeing governor stories, Vinny explains the board’s approach to supporting student wellbeing and promoting success.
Leechpool Primary School is a community primary school with around 400 pupils, located on the outskirts of Horsham. We ensure pupils, families, staff and governors embrace values including: 1) Reflection, 2) Resourcefulness, 3) Relationships, 4) Responsibility, 5) Risk-Taking and 6) Resilience. Leechpool School’s best practice was showcased in the 2019 -2020 Parliamentary Review.
A pupil-centred strategy
Developing our three-year strategy represented a great opportunity to develop an achievable, sustainable, and challenging approach to pupil wellbeing. We conducted a group exercise exploring good practices at other schools, using this research to create a relevant and inspiring strategy.
We created as simple a strategy as possible to make it accessible to everyone, including teaching staff, senior leadership team, governors, and Ofsted.
Valuing everyone in our school community
Leechpool values inclusivity and this begins right at the top of leadership. Headteacher Nicola Davenport takes time to get to know every pupil and their family, ensuring they feel supported to achieve their best. Indeed, the governing body regularly receives feedback about the efficacy of the school’s inclusivity efforts.
We believe children should be encouraged to engage in their community beyond the school gates. For example, we’ve suggested staff take children on a trip to a local initiative called the Men’s Shed Group. One of our board members has connections with the group, which provides mature men with workshop space to work on building projects and spend time with peers. During the trip, the children will have the chance to build bird or hedgehog boxes alongside the group members, an activity that has already been tried with a local community youth group and was shown to deliver excellent wellbeing benefits. Given the charity’s access to materials, the governing body is now working to strengthen ties with the Men’s Shed Group and make this initiative a regular, cost-neutral activity for the school.
As Chair, I’m frequently on the lookout for cost-neutral opportunities that can support a real-life curriculum in action, often facilitating connections with local organisations. For example, the staff have started inviting scientists in the community to the school, giving pupils the opportunity to speak to professionals with lived experience and a real passion for their subject. It’s a completely different way to get pupils involved in what they are learning. While these opportunities may seem ambitious, I always remind myself that if you don’t ask, you don’t get!
Understanding how pupils are feeling
In June 2022, we held a healthy mind and body fortnight. We’re fortunate enough to have a wellbeing dog, Mabel, who is present throughout the school day. The senior leadership team proposed this initiative and the Assistant Head was more than happy to take ownership of Mabel, who has been in school since January 2021.
Pupils often write letters to Mabel expressing how they feel – a process that teaches them how to self-regulate. The children love Mabel and they’ve seen her grow alongside them. As the children leave, they’re often more emotional about leaving Mabel than about leaving Leechpool to go to secondary school! There were a variety of potential risks and considerations before welcoming Mabel to the school, but it was worth the time, effort, and consideration as she’s been a big hit!
Another method we’ve used to help pupils express their emotions involves the use of a puppet monster. The kids can write a quick, anonymous note if they’re not feeling right, feeling unwell, feeling frustrated etc. This allows them to offload their problems in a safe and comfortable way. The class teacher or Designated Safeguarding Lead will then collect these notes to analyse any common issues and respond accordingly. The school will address these issues through whole school assemblies or in a targeted way if certain problems are affecting specific year groups. Phase leaders get involved in this, identifying clear steps for teaching staff to ensure consistency across the classes.
Building good relationships for success
One of the biggest achievements I must commend the headteacher on is her approach to exclusion. She hasn’t excluded a single pupil in more than 10 years of school leadership, at this school or in previous headships elsewhere. Her approach is to work through challenges to help children overcome any issues they may be experiencing, allowing them to grow as individuals and reintegrate into school life. Secondary schools often praise the headteacher, noting that they always know when a Leechpool child attends their school. When the governing body receives this kind of feedback, we’re motivated to consider how else we can make sure our children get the very best education and support.
We are very open and transparent as a governing body. We make a highlight report available for all staff and parents at every meeting, detailing the school’s challenges and how we’re dealing with them. As governors, we want people to know that we’re investing in making the school better and always ready to consider a different take on something if it supports pupil wellbeing.
Lockdown had a significant impact on children and Leechpool pupils were no different. After we looked at attainment figures and identified areas for development following lockdown, the schools proposed they split the most severely affected year groups into smaller classes. This allowed staff to deliver more bespoke, focused teaching and was funded using COVID-19 response funding.
Developing through coaching – every child is an individual
I am well-placed to help the school develop pupil wellbeing and promote anti-bullying as I’m a police officer and a trained child protection officer. As such, I’m capable of offering valuable insights into relevant policies and procedures – perhaps one of the primary reasons the headteacher encouraged me to get involved in school governance, despite not being voted in the first time I applied!
The senior leadership team use a coaching leadership style with the teaching team. My ambition is to help the head extend this coaching approach to pupil learning, helping children challenge themselves and realise their dreams. I’m a qualified performance and life coach for children and young people, something which has helped me champion this pedagogical approach within the school.
One of our approaches to supporting pupils’ transition from primary to secondary school is to invite old Leechpool pupils to return to help Years 5 and 6 prepare. Hearing such messages from another young person can be really supportive for students – particularly following a stressful year.
We recognise COVID-19 has had a real impact on pupils, particularly in terms of their confidence in communication and public speaking, relationship building, and resilience. In response, we’ve scrutinised the school’s approaches to transition support and governors have agreed to invest in a CPD workshop for the staff, helping them coach pupils, recognise individual talents, and keep the whole class engaged. We encourage everyone to see themselves as a leader, regardless of their post, and to recognise the impact they are having.
Our wellbeing strategy recognises that pupils are unique individuals, so it supports the development of pupils’ personal attributes or ‘soft skills’, as well as their traditional academic skills. The governors ensure all pupils have the chance to work on their soft skills regardless of ability or learning needs. This strategy has helped pupils connect with their peers and understand differences they might experience in the world around them, such as physical disabilities or neurodiversity. For example, they might learn that someone wears headphones to help them to block out noise and concentrate better. Helping children understand each other’s needs in this way has helped reduce bullying incidents.
When bullying does occur, the governing body has clear processes in place to ensure we can respond effectively to any complaints or further issues that might arise. In this way, the governing body supports school leaders to reach appropriate conclusions fairly and consistently.
More than just reading, writing, and maths
The governors and the senior leadership team are committed to investing in specialist P.E. and sports, music provisions, and dancing clubs, as engagement in these activities can boost academic outcomes. To enhance music teaching provisions, we built a bespoke music room funded by the proceeds from Leechfest, an event in which teachers and pupils performed a range of musical offerings. All pupils have yearly opportunities to learn an instrument at no cost to their families, although some choose to pay for specialist lessons for their children. Occasionally, the school offers bursaries to families to cover the cost of music lessons.
We have a similar commitment to sports, having achieved a platinum status through a sports programme available in West Sussex local authority. Our school motto is “Breathing life into learning… to be the best we can be…”, and the governors ensure all pupils have the opportunity to exemplify this at external sporting events. Pupils’ contributions are recognised with a school-wide reward system, which has raised the profile, interest, and commitment to physical activity among the children. Overall, pupils’ sporting ability levels have increased and we’ve seen an improvement in attendance data.
We believe that music, dance, and drama are equally as important as English, maths, and science. If we treat all subjects equally, we will better reach those learners whose talents lie outside of ‘traditional’ subject areas. After conducting some data analysis, we discovered there was a group of pupils within the school struggling with a traditional lesson structure. As such, school leaders introduced more breaks for physical activity throughout the day, leading to higher concentration levels and improved academic performance.
Each year group elects two pupil representatives, to sit on a pupil voice committee. This initiative is facilitated by a designated safeguarding lead (DSL), who is also a learning mentor, a higher level teaching assistant (HLTA), and a teacher governor, allowing them to provide effective feedback to the governors and the school. Every summer, the pupil voice committee are invited to speak to the governors and voice what kind of changes they would like to see to support their learning and wellbeing. We listen to their presentation and take great pride in approving requests that will enhance their time at Leechpool. I don’t think we’ve had to turn down a request in several years, as it is always reasonable, well-planned, and well-researched.
This initiative represents a fantastic way for pupils to develop their communication and leadership skills. When they see their requests made into a reality, their commitment to the school and their learning is boosted.
I believe one of the reasons the school is oversubscribed is because staff always puts pupils first. Parents can observe the positive impact this has on their children’s learning, wellbeing, and development, with many advocating for the school through word of mouth.
One of the other ways we ensure governors hear from pupils is by assigning them to work with a particular year group. Each term, the governor will carry out a specific visit to classes within the year group, following pupils’ development from Reception to Year 6. It’s a great way to learn about children’s journeys at Leechpool and allows the kids to get to know the governor. When the kids graduate in Year 6, that governor takes part in their leaving events. This strategy strengthens the relationship between the governors, pupils, teachers, and the rest of the school community.
We’ve just installed a new library to ensure learning materials are stored in one central hub. It’s open-plan and visible from both the staffroom and the headteacher’s room. The library is growing organically around the kids’ needs and preferences, and the staff are exploring how to utilise this space to make reading and writing more fun for the children. They’re also looking at using it to host some debate-type activities to support public speaking skills and develop learners’ confidence. The pupil voice committee have a say about new design projects in the school and collects opinions from the classes it represents.
Don’t overlook the little things
To governing bodies considering how else they can support wellbeing in the school community, try not to focus too much on the big things. Little changes and strategies really add up and make a big difference!
Discover more about promoting wellbeing in schools
Keen to learn more about how governors can enhance wellbeing provisions in schools? Check out our fact-filled Wellbeing Report or stream our recent wellbeing panel discussion that took place at the Governors for Schools Conference 2022.