This Sheffield school banned mobile phones, with one unexpected consequence
Ecclesfield School’s straight-talking headteacher admits he is not afraid to ruffle a few feathers where necessary.
From knocking on parents’ doors to ask where their children have been, to shaking up the school day by starting later and cutting short lunchtime, acting supremo Rich Walkden knew some of the measures he's introduced would upset a few people.
But the mobile phone ban, brought in halfway through the spring term, could easily have been a step too far.
“We were worried how people would react, but the parents and children have reacted fabulously, and it's had an amazing impact in the classroom,” says Mr Walkden.
“The kids aren’t distracted by phones buzzing in their pockets during lessons and it's been good for their mental health too, because it’s breaking that culture of mobiles as the be all and end all.”
Caroline Fancett, acting deputy headteacher, adds: “In the first week, we noticed the corridors were much louder and we realised that’s a good thing because people are talking to each other rather than staring at their mobiles.”
You don’t just have to take their word for it, either.
Year nine student Holly Littlewood, 14, says: “It's been great because when you look around people are actually socialising. They don’t just have their heads down scrolling through Instagram.
“I had mixed opinions at first but I've realised I don’t need my phone in school.”
The hum of mobile phones may have disappeared from the corridors, but there’s still a buzz in the air after the big production of Return to the Forbidden Planet, which involved around 160 pupils of all ages and brought 1,200 spectators through the doors.
The play’s success illustrates the camaraderie within the school and its place at the heart of the wider community.
Maddison Worswick, one of the many pupils involved, says: “It was incredible. Everyone works so hard together and you make friendships you never thought you'd make. It’s like one big family.”
As Mr Walkden puts it: “The school belongs to the community and we’re just the custodians.”
That community, he adds, has been ‘superb’ since the school was put into special measures after Ofsted inspectors downgraded its rating from ‘good’ to ‘inadequate’ in 2017.
“I think the community was hurt by what happened, and the parents have been very supportive,” says Mr Walkden.
“That’s because they know when they send their children here they will be looked after.
“We’ve stuck to our ethos of providing a broad and balanced curriculum, and ensuring that when our students leave they do so as well-rounded young citizens ready to go out and make their mark in the working world.
“Our results have been positive over the last two years, and we have a strong and committed team of staff. If Ofsted came back tomorrow, I’m confident we would be in a decent position.”
There are two statistics which make Mr Walkden particularly proud.
One is the attendance rate, which at 95.7 per cent last year, he explains, is more than a percentage point above the national average.
“We’ve worked hard on that and upset a lot of people,” he says.
“If these children are in this building every day, they’ve got a damn good chance of getting it right. That’s why when they don’t turn up we’re out banging on doors and bringing them in.”
Boosting punctuality is one reason the school stole 10 minutes from the lunch break to allow a later start, helping staff and pupils contending with heavy traffic on their morning commute.
The other key statistic is the proportion of so-called NEETs, children who are not in education, employment or training after leaving the school, which he says now stands at just one per cent.
“When I started at the school that figure was eight per cent, but now we’re down to just three children,” explains Mr Walkden, who came to the school in 2010 and took the helm last June.
Although results are important, he says that as long he is in charge the school will never be an ‘exams factory’.
“My job is to ensure children in this school get the best chance in life, which means making sure they’re prepared for the outside world,” he says.
That’s why he believes work experience remains vital, despite other schools abandoning the practice, and why he says Ecclesfield is the only school in Sheffield with a ‘gold standard’ for careers.
It’s also why one of the school’s four mottoes encourages pupils to ‘show grit’, preparing them for the knockbacks they will inevitably encounter in the real world.
“It's about bouncing back when something doesn’t go right,” says Mr Walkden.
“School should be hard but I want to make sure that when they find it hard they don’t give up. We want them to really push themselves, with our support.”
Staff have had to show plenty of grit themselves since Ofsted found the school wanting, but the focus has been on freeing them up to do what they do best – teach.
Ms Fancett says: “We’re lucky to have a very talented bunch of teachers, who are passionate about what they do, which is why we’ve tried to strip back any unnecessary bureaucracy so they’re free to do their thing.
“The demands of the job are greater than ever, and teacher retention rates in the country are at an all-time low, which is why we want our staff working smarter, not longer.”
The school remains, in Mr Walkden’s words, ‘heavy on the arts and massive on sports’ – fields which too often bear the brunt as budgets are squeezed ever tighter – and it runs well over 100 extra-curricular clubs catering for all tastes.
Victor Afowowe, aged 11, enjoys expressing himself on the football pitch, while 12-year-old Josh Palfreyman is busy learning guitar, with hopes of one day following in the footsteps of Arctic Monkeys star Jamie Cook, who attended the school.
Fourteen-year-old Owls fan Ben Jones, meanwhile, is a keen coder who spends his spare time at school designing a website for his beloved Sheffield Wednesday - perfecting the skills he hopes could one day land him a ‘dream job’ with the club.