New acting head raises the bar

VICKY CARR of The Stray Ferret reports on a past pupil, and son of a former RGS assistant head, about his plans to restore pride and ambition as he took on the caretaker role of acting headteacher in a North Yorkshire school, prior to the permanent head taking up his position

Published February, 2023

TAKING on your first acting headteacher role would be a daunting prospect for any aspiring leader.

Doing so at a time of significant change and challenge in the school’s history would cause many to think twice. Not so Pete Saunders. The geography teacher has stepped into the top job at Rossett School on the back of a difficult time: the departure of former head Helen Woodcock, a critical Ofsted report that failed to improve on its ‘requires improvement’ rating, and questions over discipline in the school.

Nevertheless, he is ambitious about the school’s future. “We want it to be a place of excellence, a place your children come to and they experience excellence in everything they do. We definitely have the raw materials for that.”

Mr Saunders is an experienced assistant and deputy head. Having studied at Durham University, he trained and began his career in London, and has spent 10 of his 14 teaching years in senior leadership roles. He moved to Harrogate five years ago, returning close to his roots: he is a former pupil of Ripon Grammar School, where his father was an assistant headteacher.

Mr Saunders has been acting head at Rossett since January and says there has already been rapid progress since Ofsted visited before Christmas. “Last half term we achieved a lot. We put a lot of focus on behaviour and attitudes – getting the basics right. That’s an on-going thing, it doesn’t get solved straight away.

“It’s a minority of children and they do face significant challenges. We have to work with them – it’s not a quick fix. Rossett is a very inclusive school and tries to support children no matter what their start in life has been.

“It’s very important to establish high standards. What we have been doing is raising the bar of the expectations. That applies to all children, not just that group.

“It’s being proud of the school you come to, wearing your uniform with pride, those sorts of things.”

As well as concerns over discipline, inspectors identified shortfalls in leadership and management, which Mr Saunders says were rectified “the day after the inspection”.

Despite the headline-grabbing problems, he believes there is much to be proud of in the report, and at Rossett more generally.

He cites the strength of the curriculum and teaching, the support for students to reach their potential, whatever that is, and the strong links with the community, as among the school’s strengths.

His favourite moments are the end-of-term presentations, when students are rewarded for their achievements. Mr Saunders describes seeing them cheer for their classmates and celebrate each other as “heartwarming”.

Rossett has the unusual assets on site of a thriving community sports centre and a huge adult education centre welcoming thousands of students through its doors each year.

Both of those are performing well, growing their numbers again after the challenges of the pandemic.

Covid is also behind a lot of the problems cited by Ofsted, Mr Saunders says.  “Some of the behaviours that the minority are displaying have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Some of the children in years 7 and 8 didn’t get an end to their primary school and it’s a key time for socialising.

“We’re teaching social norms as well as teaching the curriculum of subjects. We’re looking at how to do that most effectively, not just assuming children know how to do it.

“Nationally, there has been a huge downturn in attendance at school, especially for disadvantaged students. The impact on some parents’ perceptions of the importance of attendance has been quite big.

“We’re working with families to ensure they know how important it is and what the gaps will do to their child’s progress.” 

As well as internal changes to address its challenges, Rossett is considering a fundamental shift: joining the Red Kite Learning Trust. The multi-academy trust includes 13 schools from North and West Yorkshire. Harrogate Grammar School, Rossett Acre Primary School and Western Primary School – all within striking distance – are already part of the family. 

Its chief executive, Richard Sheriff, is full of enthusiasm about the prospect of welcoming Rossett School into the fold. He says he will be working closely with the school over the coming months: “We hope by working together, we can do more for young people.

“It’s not an exclusive club: it’s great to work with St John Fisher, Harrogate High and St Aidan’s too. It’s about Harrogate working as one.

“Harrogate is a community. There has been too much in the past about being divisive. That’s not the way we work in education. We work in the service of children.”

If it goes ahead, any move for Rossett to join Red Kite would not take effect until September – at the same time as a new permanent head should be beginning work.

Mr Saunders says his priority is doing what is right by the school and its students. “Absolutely everyone has risen to the challenge. They want the best for the children here.”

He hopes those principles, determination and hard work will reassure current parents and those considering Rossett for their children in future. 

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