Interview with Sarah Williams, headteacher of Faith Primary Academy

Located in Everton, Liverpool, is Faith Primary Academy. It is a joint denominational school with exceptional links within the community and its local Catholic and Church of England parishes.

At the helm is Sarah Williams who has been at the school since 2017. Growing up Sarah dreamed about just one career and that was being a teacher.

She says: “Both my parents were teachers and worked in secondary schools. “My dad was ordained to become a Church of England vicar, so he was actually a teacher and a vicar at the same time for a while before he gave up teaching and got a full-time parish.

“I think it was just in my DNA really to be a teacher!”

Sarah went to Hope University and completed a four-year teaching degree with a specialism in music. Quite the musician, Sarah can play the piano, saxophone and also ‘dabbles in the drums’ – as she puts it.

After graduating Sarah went straight into teaching and worked in several schools where she had the opportunity to teach all primary year groups.

“I’m lucky to have taught every year group throughout my teaching career and not everyone can say that,” Sarah explains.

“I think that’s a really positive thing because each year group is unique in its own right. The children are at a different stage of learning, they’re at a different developmental stage and, therefore, each year group is fascinating.”

Sarah later joined School Improvement Liverpool and worked as a school improvement officer for six years where she would visit different schools inside and outside of the city.

Sarah comments: “I was doing English consultancy, assessment, systems and processes – it was great experience as I got to know quite a few of the heads really well and the staff in each school and the senior leadership teams. I think it’s a really privileged position going into many schools because obviously it’s their world and they’re letting you in their world.

“You’ve got to be really respectful of that and you see loads of amazing stuff across the city and beyond. You see some amazing practice across the board and you’re going into some schools with really challenging situations because they’re in special measures or requires improvement and you’re there to help them try and improve.”

Sarah then received a call asking if she would be seconded to Faith Primary Academy as the school was expecting a visit from Ofsted and was at risk of being put into special measures.

She says: “My first day on the job was the first day of the Ofsted inspection and it was put it into special measures, but I had the utmost respect for the team that came in and it was really useful and informative, it actually became quite collaborative.”

During her secondment, Sarah and the team worked tirelessly to turn the school around. The following year, Ofsted returned and Faith received a good judgement with outstanding features for behaviour and professional development. In 2019, the school advertised for a permanent headteacher which Sarah successfully applied for.

“I’m so glad I got it because at that point there was no way I was leaving the school!” Sarah adds.

“We had done so much hard work and worked with a couple of executive heads during the secondment and that was a really useful experience. One of the heads, Alan Williams, was just phenomenal. He is so experienced as a head in the city and he gave me loads of advice.”

The school has some of the highest attendance figures in Liverpool which Sarah is very proud of – although she is quick to add it is very much a team effort with full-time attendance officer, Carina, constantly communicating with families and often visiting them to ensure their child will be in school every day.

Sarah explains: “It is really hard work, and it is all day, every day. It is about being relentless all the time.

“When I first started at Faith, out of 120 schools in the city, we were 113th for poor attendance.

Both my parents were teachers and worked in secondary schools… I think it was just in my DNA really to be a teacher!

The culture in the area was very much ‘attendance didn’t really matter’. It wasn’t high on the agenda. At the beginning we had a lot of work to do and really had to bang the drum of ‘Your children should be in school’. We do so many different things and we’re always trying to think of new things as well.”

She continues: “In the city and nationally, the attendance of SEND children is often a lot lower than the attendance of non-SEND children. In order to combat that we put in very personalised approaches for each and every child that requires it because it might be that they struggle with a morning routine. We do this by ensuring there is a quiet space for them or do their favourite activity before they go into class.”

Staff offer a range of incentives to encourage attendance, but Sarah is clear on one thing.

She explains: “What I will never, ever do is do something like a reward or a trip for 100% attendance only. I morally disagree with it because at this age it’s not their fault if they don’t come in because they’re heavily reliant on adults bringing them in to school.”

Faith is a modern one-form entry school that offers a unique welcome. From relaxing mediation music playing, a huge fish tank full of tropical fish, to a scent that transports you to a spa-like environment – you would think you were anywhere but a school.

“One of the biggest compliments I ever get is when people come into the school and say ‘Oh, the school’s got a lovely feel to it’,” Sarah adds. “We have got a really warm, welcoming environment which has been carefully designed and sculpted over time to make it like a sanctuary.”

Faith has a high percentage of SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) children within the school and so creating a safe and relaxing environment is important for Sarah and her team.

“At the heart of it, it’s about being genuinely inclusive. Every single person that walks through that door is 100% welcome and they have something to offer and they have something to gain from being here, regardless of who they are. Everyone’s welcome and everyone’s valued and everyone can contribute something as well.”

Last year, the school was awarded IQM (Inclusion Quality Mark) flagship status and is one of only a handful of schools in Liverpool to receive this.

Sarah says: “It was just such a massive achievement. The children are so proud and they know that the school is inclusive. Every single person is valued and everyone has a voice and everyone has opinions and we do a lot of work around this in our curriculum.”

At the end of 2022, Faith Primary School became Faith Primary Academy as it joined All Saints Multi Academy Trust, making it the first primary school to join the growing family of schools within the trust.

She comments: “We took our time to find the trust that was right for us. It was important to us to find a trust whose visions and values were the same as ours.

“We loved All Saints Multi Academy Trust immediately. It is a bit like dating, you meet someone and you’re like ‘Oh, you’re definitely for me!’, and that’s what it was like. We just loved their whole vision and ethos as it is exactly like ours. It was a unanimous decision.”

As someone who became headteacher in her 30s, Sarah understands the importance of continuous professional development and encourages her staff to undertake relevant courses to ensure they are the best they can be and also further their own careers in teaching.

For Sarah, taking the NPQH (National Professional Qualification for Headship) was of great benefit to her and is something she advises other senior leaders, who are looking to take the next step, to complete.

“The best thing you can do, in my opinion, is the NPQH,” she says. “You can do that after you’ve become a head, but I’d encourage anyone to do it prior to becoming a head because I feel like it gives you a lot of training on certain aspects of school life that you perhaps have never encountered before.

“Most heads have been teachers and they understand teaching and the curriculum side of school but what they may not have been exposed to as much, even if they’re a deputy, is the business side of the school. So, it’s the HR policies, procedures, the legal aspect and finance. Most heads will say that finance is probably the weakest area before they became a head. You have to learn it really quickly and know what you’re doing because you’re handling big budgets.”

Like many schools, the remainder of the academic year is set to be a busy one. Collaborating with other likeminded inclusive primary schools is on the horizon for Faith Primary Academy as well as continuing to forge strong relationships and sharing good practice amongst the family of schools within the trust. After all, collaborative learning is key in education!

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