Emma Hartley, headteacher Our Lady and St Swithin’s CP School

Taking on your first headship is no easy feat. Harder still when your school has a turbulent past. But Emma Hartley’s approach proves that success is not the key to happiness; happiness is the key to success. Educate sits down with Emma to find out why happiness matters at Our Lady and St Swithin’s CP School.

The key to happiness

by Hannah Fowler

Remarkably, it was a game of heads down thumbs up that sparked Emma Hartley’s passion for teaching. “I went to St Teresa’s primary school and it was when I was in Mr Edwards’ class,” says Emma. “He played heads down thumbs up at the end of the day, and I really wanted to be in charge of the game, so I thought that’s it, I’m going to be a teacher.”

After studying her A-levels at St John Bosco Arts College, Emma got her teaching degree at John Moores University before landing her first job at Faith Primary School as maternity cover. Soon after, Emma moved to St Gregory’s Primary School in Netherley and was there for 12 years, becoming deputy headteacher in her sixth year.

Emma then spotted an advert for a headteacher position at Our Lady and St Swithin’s CP School in Croxteth and having never heard of the school before, paid a visit. “When I walked around I could just feel the potential, I could see the potential,” says Emma.

“I wanted to come back and meet the children so I came back and as soon as I met the children that’s when I knew. I knew this was the school for me. Something just clicked in to place and that’s when I said I have got to apply for the job,” she adds.

Emma was appointed in March 2017 for a September start, but wasted no time getting to know the school by attending staff and governors’ meetings to ensure there was a smooth transition at the start of term.

“The first thing that struck me about the school was that the environment needed a lot of work,” says Emma. So during the summer holidays, while most teachers are enjoying their well-deserved break, Emma and her husband overhauled the entire school.

“We painted, we filled three skip loads, I found files from 1989, literally everywhere was just redone. We transformed a meeting room in to a multi-purpose room and children now use it for cookery, art, science, experiments, interventions – it’s absolutely brilliant,” says Emma.

Our Lady and St Swithin’s CP School has a complicated history – in 2013 the school was put in special measures and was in real threat of closure, but it pulled through and in 2015 the school achieved the ‘requires improvement’ grade from Ofsted, which was a massive improvement from where it had come from, explains Emma.

My first goal was I wanted the children to be happy, so to get that happiness I knew that they had to feel comfortable and cosy

The uncertainty and instability the school faced was seen first-hand during Emma’s first assembly as headteacher. While introducing herself as the new head, the children asked ‘how long are you staying miss?’ “It went from one week, a month and the longest anyone said was a term,” says Emma. “So I said no, I am here to stay. It was about that message for the staff as well that they have got one leader now, that I am here to stay and I am so passionate about the school you wouldn’t believe.”

With a turbulent past, Emma’s main priority was to create a place of sanctuary for pupils and staff. “My first goal was I wanted the children to be happy, so to get that happiness I knew that they had to feel comfortable and cosy,” she says. “I wanted to environment to be really nice for them.”

With a focus on happiness, wellbeing classes were quickly introduced with peer massage, yoga, relaxation and mindfulness all now part of the curriculum. Within no time, Emma saw the impact. “The behaviour incidents on the yard reduced, the children are a lot calmer and a lot of them are thinking more about their actions and the choices that they make,” Emma explains.

Everyone knows a good brekky can set you up for the day. Recent research found that one in seven children go to school hungry, and it’s an issue affecting Our Lady and St Swithin’s too. “We have a lot of children coming in hungry and that therefore has an impact on their performance,” says Emma.

To combat this, the school revitalised its breakfast club by working closely with parents, applying for funding and asking its sport apprentice to run a different sport each morning alongside offering healthy breakfast options. “Breakfast club went from seven children on the first day of term to 50 in the next two weeks and now we are up to 63 children. 63 children having a lovely breakfast which is great,” Emma explains.

Attendance was also a key priority, and still is for Emma. During the first week in September attendance was at 92%, well below the 97% target. With a new action plan together which included home visits, within a couple of weeks, attendance was on 97.8%, an incredible impact straight away.

Emma hoped with these initiatives in place, success would follow. And she was right. Just a few weeks in to her headship, Ofsted visited and the school received a Good grade, significant as it is the first in the school’s history.

“The inspector was really overwhelmed with the idea of happiness being put back in to the curriculum and it was something that he could really see within the children,” explains Emma.

In many ways, Emma sees her role as headteacher as connecting the dots between all the good practice already in place and simply adding the “finishing touches”. But Emma’s impact can’t be played down, her leadership has transformed the school and at only 35 years old, her career as a headteacher has only just begun.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” says Emma, reflecting on her headship to date. “It has been 12 weeks, and 12 weeks of headship feels like 12 years!”

“It has been the best 12 weeks of my life, it’s been amazing. I’m so lucky to have found the perfect school for me.”

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