The Special One
Gateacre School’s headteacher Jason Roberts has taken the school from special measures to success. Christine Toner caught up with him to find out just how he did it.
by Christine Toner
Had you asked Jason Roberts what his career aspirations were when he was growing up, teaching would never have been mentioned. He wanted to be a fireman, he investigated joining the marines. He was looking for an action-packed career that required bravery and determination. And by all accounts, he found it – although not in the professions he had originally envisaged.
Indeed, it is two years since Jason became headteacher of Gateacre School – a school that was in special measures and on course to become an academy as a result. It was a high-pressure move, and one many teachers would have passed up on, yet it was one Jason came at with full throttle. Not surprising, perhaps, when you consider he has taken on the challenge of rescuing a school twice before – having helped schools in Oldham and Tameside out of their own special measures. Flash forward to today and Gateacre has won multiple awards, been praised by Ofsted for its ‘high quality teaching’ and had its academy order revoked.
So how did Jason go from setting his sights on the fire service to metaphorically putting out fires at struggling schools across the North West and turning things around for them? Well it all began, surprisingly enough, on a fruit and veg stall.
“I was selling fruit and veg at my mate’s market stall,” he laughs. “I had to get up at 3 o’clock in the morning to go and set up a stall. I didn’t need to work mid-morning or early afternoon because it was quite quiet so I went and did some voluntary work at my local secondary school in Manchester, reading with SEN pupils, and enjoyed it.
“That progressed to being a teaching assistant at Stockport College and I worked with young adults with autism and young men who’d come out of prison. From that I applied to be a teacher at Manchester Met on their PGCE course, I’d already got my degree at that point.”
Jason’s first job as a newly qualified teacher was at Wright Robinson Sports College in Gorton, where he stayed for five years before moving on to Counthill School, in Oldham, as a head of year.
So how did Manchester-born Jason end up coming to Gateacre?
“I had been working at two schools over in Oldham and Tameside to help them out of their own special measures and someone I knew said that this school had struggled to recruit a headteacher,” he explains. “I think they had put out a national advert twice but didn’t get the candidates that they wanted. I had an interview and they offered me the job on an interim basis whilst we decided what was going to happen to the school. It had an academy order then so it was quite a challenge.”
Despite the challenge facing him, Jason says he was excited by the prospect of helping the school.
“It’s incredibly exciting because you’ve got to move things so quickly to turn things around for the kids and to give the staff a great working environment because they deserve to come to a school that they, rightly, should be proud of and have an attachment to, so working in difficult circumstances, special measures, is really quite exciting.”
One of the first things Jason set about doing was changing the school culture.
“Why do you come to school?,” he says. “Why do parents send their kids to school? It comes down to this – we’re just about learning. That’s what school’s about. Everything else is just icing on the cake. So we made sure that, from walking in the door, to going to lessons, to finishing at the end of the day, the whole building, everything we do is centred around a good learning environment and high expectations around learning.”
Indeed, at the front of the building on the floor there is a painted red line along with the words ‘Ready to Learn’. “It’s a cultural thing,” says Jason. “It’s to remind people about why we come to our school and what our school’s about.”
And how did the students take to this cultural shift?
“To begin with I think they were in shock at the fact that when I say things, I follow them through and then they stick,” says Jason. “In the first couple of months they all thought that the red line would disappear after two weeks and it’s still there now and it will be there until they knock the building down.
“You know everything that we do is for the benefit and for the children to get great outcomes. We don’t do anything for just the sake of doing things or to tick boxes. That’s pointless and wastes people’s time.”
Jason’s efforts are certainly having results. Gateacre has picked up multiple awards over the past two years, including the Communication Award at the 2017 Educate Awards and its sixth form has been rated ‘Good’ by Ofsted. The level of teaching, throughout the school meanwhile, has been praised with the inspector noting ‘pupils benefit from particularly strong teaching in English, art, drama and music.”
“The kids tell me that they like the fact that we are now a strict school and take pride in the fact that I care about how they look and what they do both in the building and beyond the building,” says Jason. “For example, we’re across at the shopping centre almost every morning, saying hello to them and making sure they get to school on time. We’re talking to the public and talking to the shopkeepers because we’re a community. It doesn’t start and end at my door, it extends beyond that.”
After orchestrating their huge success story and meeting the challenge head on, what does Jason now enjoy about his job.
“What’s your favourite thing about being a teacher?” I ask.
“Teaching,” he says. “I just love being in the classroom. That’s why I became a teacher. Everything else I’ve done since is all very nice, but I am a teacher, that’s what I am.”