Gemma Dixon, the new headteacher of Forest Moor, a special school near Harrogate, has lost no time in enriching school life and raising expectations and standards of teaching and learning since her appointment following a successful headship in London.
Attracted by Forest Moor’s great potential, Gemma Dixon moved from London where she led a 16-19 alternative provision academy, the first special school of its kind in the UK to gain International Baccalaureate world status and which sent young people on to university.
Gemma was appointed in July to Forest Moor, a 9-16 school for children and young people who have an education, health and care plan for social, emotional and mental health needs.
Forest Moor is set in open country near Darley, above Harrogate, a far cry from Fulham where Gemma worked previously. A woman with Yorkshire roots and a graduate of Leeds University, she views her return to the county as a bonus and is already making the most of the school’s location and facilities.
Gemma said: “We want children to develop the skills and build up the courage and resilience that will stand them in good stead in later life.”
Gemma is well aware of the challenges that go with the school. Since its creation ten years ago, amalgamating two special schools in the west of the county onto a new site, it has struggled to gain stable leadership and only a few weeks into Gemma’s headship was judged to have serious weaknesses by Ofsted.
From the outset Gemma has viewed Forest Moor as a school ripe for transformation. Indeed, during the inspection Ofsted acknowledged the wind of change that Gemma had brought in. Although she had not been in place long enough to change their judgement, inspectors said that under her leadership behaviour was steadily improving, staff morale rising and children wanted to be at the school.
Gemma has introduced a new crisp navy blue uniform, which has improved pupils’ sense of identity, belonging and pride in the school, and introduced a minimum 5 GCSE offer at key stage 4, which has significantly raised the bar in terms of both pupil and staff expectations. All pupils have outdoor education weekly and all KS4 pupils also take part in the Duke of Edinburgh bronze award to support their personal development; climbing and walking “come rain or blow” at the nearby Brimham Rocks or cooking on an open fire in the school’s extensive grounds.
According to Ofsted, children at Forest Moor are now improving their understanding of the world; the quality of the curriculum has been strengthened; teachers know where the weaknesses are and make sure that pupils think and work hard. They are plugging gaps in pupils’ knowledge and are building on their understanding step by step.
Staff members know pupils well, inspectors stated; they take pupil welfare seriously, keep a careful watch on pupils’ safety and act quickly to report concerns; they understand the social and emotional needs of their pupils and give the support needed. Things are starting to move in the right direction.
Gemma said: “I want Forest Moor to be a school that supports children to be the very best that they can be. My staff are very dedicated and we have lovely children who have come to us because they face very real challenges. I want them to get the skills and qualifications they need to go on and make good choices in life.”
North Yorkshire County Council has ambitious strategic plans to expand Forest Moor with the right leadership and provide more places for the growing number of children with social emotional and mental health issues. “I have huge support from the county council,” said Gemma, “because they are determined to get the right provision in the county for children with social, emotional and mental health.”
“We are very pleased with the progress the school is making under Gemma’s leadership,” said Stuart Carlton, North Yorkshire’s Director of the Children and Young People’s Service. “We are very confident that our ambitions for Forest Moor are beginning to be realised. We have an experienced and committed Interim Executive Board in place which gives critical support to Gemma and her team and her drive and vision for the school is improving these young people’s lives and achievements without a doubt. We have great hope for the future.”
Gemma began her professional life as a research scientist and went on to become a science teacher in special social, emotional and mental health provision and then a curriculum deputy, earning an Association of School and College Leaders award for leadership. Her experience spans both secondary and primary special provision. “I have always enjoyed getting kids who think they can’t learn to know they can learn. When you get it right you transform lives and that is what we are doing here at Forest Moor.
“Twenty-first century life is very difficult for families and young people and it doesn’t take much for children to fall into the abyss,” said Gemma. “We have to see the child behind the behaviour, because with the right support and resources and high expectations, children and young people can achieve great things and can go on to become successful adults. That’s what is driving us forward at Forest Moor. The inspectors could see that. We are on a journey and we will get it right.”
Other improvements include:
- introduction of Votes for Schools across the school. This gives pupils the opportunity to practice their speaking and thinking skills whilst exploring current issues in modern Britain;
- a revamped KS3 offer to a more nurture-based approach – better meeting the needs of years 7 and 8 learners with more time to develop the skills they need to be secondary ready;
- a relentless focus on the quality of experience that pupils have in the classroom. There is now weekly staff training on teaching and learning, coupled with coaching and support from the county;
- the recent recruitment of three new high-quality teachers to strengthen the curriculum offer;
- weekly celebration assemblies where pupils are rewarded for their great week.
Phil Bennington, who chairs the school’s Interim Executive Board, said: “After a challenging year for the school we were pleased that Ofsted recognised the impact that Gemma has already had, supported by all of the staff. We are confident that the school is now improving rapidly.”