There’s a saying that you often hear in education: ‘Stand still, because everything comes back full circle.’ This seems particularly relevant if you’re in your 30th year of headship.

John Morris OBE has been steering the ship at Ardleigh Green Juniors in Hornchurch all that time, and it’s fair to say he’s seen a good few initiatives come back around during his tenure.

“When I was a deputy head in the 80s, the government produced a whole series of ‘Curriculum Matters’ documents,” he says. “I vividly remember the maroon covers of the various booklets. What they were asking us to consider back then regarding curriculum development is exactly what Ofsted is asking us to do now!”

There’s no doubt that teaching is in the blood of the Morris family.

John’s wife Val was head of the adjacent infants school for eight years until retirement, and three of his four daughters have also followed him into the profession, working as a primary head, head of drama in a secondary school and head of early years in an infant school, respectively.

“You can imagine the conversations we have around the kitchen table, can’t you?”, laughs John.

Being in post so long has also given John a healthy scepticism about the new Ofsted framework. “The whole focus now seems to be on ‘deep dives’,” he says.

“If the current framework is based on a deep dive, then I don’t know how you’d describe my first inspection in 1994. We hosted five inspectors for five days. They took away two carloads of policy statements and watched every teacher teach three to five times. I don’t agree with the notion of selected deep dives to judge a school’s effectiveness, but compared to my first inspection, it’s more like a shallow paddle!”

Ardleigh Green Juniors was rated as ‘satisfactory’ after that particular inspection, but has now been ‘outstanding’ for more than 20 years. The infant school, which federated with the juniors in September 2019, has also been ‘outstanding’ for a decade.

Up until recently, outstanding schools were exempt from routine Ofsted inspections, meaning that Ardleigh Green Juniors has not been inspected for over a decade.

“I do feel that it is unfair that our school has not been inspected for such a long time while many of my colleagues have had numerous inspections,” explains John.

“But it has given us the autonomy to focus on the job in hand and the things that we consider to be important. Ofsted frameworks have come and gone and we’ve not even noticed and that’s been great.

“What’s ironic for me is I am 100% convinced that both the infants and juniors are better schools than they were at the last inspection. For me, to be outstanding you have to stand out, and there are many exciting things going on throughout the federation which really make us stand out.”

Name: Ardleigh Green Junior
Headteacher: John Morris OBE
Location: Hornchurch, East London
Ofsted rating: Outstanding
Size: 360 pupils
Extra info: The school federated with Ardleigh Green Infants in 2019

Musical therapy

When I arrived for my visit I was swiftly ushered into the hall to witness the school’s legendary Friday morning assembly. John has taken the unusual decision of hiring a musician in residence, Andrew Linham, who works in school four days a week.

I was treated to renditions of a number of original contemporary songs – think the musical Hamilton for a flavour – composed by Andrew and the pupils.

Despite there only being a couple of teachers in the room, all 360 pupils behaved impeccably, bobbing along to the beat and spontaneously adding actions to the uplifting words they were singing.

It’s no surprise that John’s passion for music comes from personal experience.

“From an early age I’ve seen the benefits of music in my life,” he says.

“Just like the Heineken advert, singing and music touch the parts that other things don’t reach. I want to make sure that these children get that same experience. What I love about music is the engagement – that’s why we can have 360 children in one room with just me and Andrew. The children are always totally engaged and enjoying every moment.”

Musician Andrew, who has a masters in jazz performance from the renowned Guildhall School of Music and Drama, teaches four 45-minute whole-class lessons a day, using his self-penned Lyricland curriculum.

“Before working here I’d often do PPA cover in schools,” Andrew explains.

“It was 180 kids in the hall on a Friday afternoon and you had to deliver the whole curriculum without any instruments available. So I wrote a curriculum that allowed me to teach all elements of music through singing. Now I’m at Ardleigh Green I can unpack it and use all the resources I have available to me to get the kids playing instruments.”

Andrew isn’t a qualified teacher, but headteacher John classes him as an outstanding educator. “He is totally focused on music and is one of the most gifted musicians I’ve ever seen,” he says.

“I think this job gives him some stability in his creative life. He comes to work but can also gig in the evenings. The children absolutely love him.” For Andrew, being part of the fabric of the school has brought massive benefits.

“In a lot of schools I’ve worked in I was never part of the family. Being a true part of the team here facilitates me to do so much more. If I was just coming in for half a day a week, I wouldn’t be able to get the level of performance and improvisation that I get out of the children.”

Andrew has seen first-hand the effect that music can have on his pupils.

“Some kids come into school not really speaking or taking part. A couple of years later they’re standing up the front performing. There’s a trust there – they know they’re not going to be set up to fail.

“It’s not just about teaching music here; it’s about wellbeing and growth mindset. My songs focus on becoming a better person and valuing yourself. In fact, it’s therapy for me too – I always feel better in school than I do in the summer holidays!

“I’ve had some of the greatest moments of my life here, let alone in my teaching career. Seeing children be inspired is worth so much more to me than doing a jazz gig somewhere on a Tuesday night. In some ways, the kids here won’t ever really realise quite how lucky they are, but I know that I’m very lucky to work here.”

If Ofsted showed up next week, John says he would demand that music was chosen for a ‘deep dive’. “It’s at the heart of what we do,” he adds. “It expresses what we’re about and it’s what makes us stand out.”

Community cohesion

Another important element of Ardleigh Green’s offering is its family centre, which celebrated its ten year anniversary last year. Tragically, in 2006 a parent of a pupil at the school was murdered.

“I obviously knew the family,” said John, “and what was interesting was that they came here, to school, for help. I thought, ‘My goodness, how can we support this?’.

“Increasingly, the role of headteacher is not just about teaching, it’s about community, so I thought it would be good if we had our own family centre so that we could provide support and advice when needed.”

John spotted an unused church a few minutes away from the school. After making enquiries he found out that the Baptist Union was putting it on the market for half a million pounds.

“I asked them if they could give us some time to try to find the money, and that’s when they realised I was serious,” explains John.

The two parties struck a deal which involved the school renovating the building and using it for five years. By the end of this period, 200 people were using the centre on a weekly basis.

“I spoke to the council,” adds John, “and said, ‘We’re running services that you should be providing. What are you going to do?’ Long story short, I persuaded the council to sell our schoolkeeper’s house and use the money to buy the church.”

The family centre is run as an independent charity, overseen by the school’s governors, and now helps 400 people a week.

“We have prenatal and postnatal sessions, a bereavement service, a community choir, mental health support, a food bank, a toy library” lists John. The centre partners with other organisations to help provide this support.

“We’ve joined with the Lighthouse Furniture Project so that we can furnish a house for families in need. Working with Moses Basket we can equip new parents with a cot, nappies and food. Anyone, with any problem, can come in and get support.

“Because it’s off the school premises there’s no embarrassment. I’m currently teaching one of our parents to read there. Sadly, we receive no government funding to provide what many believe to be an essential service for our local community.”

Full of fun

The autonomy that a lack of Ofsted visits have afforded the school is also extended to the staff of Ardleigh Green, as Y5 teacher Melissa Ponter explains:

“There’s no sense of someone watching us here; just a love for sharing ideas and good practice. John and Janelle, our deputy head, will pop in because they like to see what we’re doing, but it’s because they care and are interested, not for the sake of completing tick boxes and setting targets. It’s all about sharing the good news.”

On the day I visit, governor Peter Easy is also spending the morning in school, chatting to teachers and visiting classrooms.

“They know I’m not here to see what they’re doing and report back,” he explains.

“When I’ve met governors from other schools, they’ve said, ‘We don’t go into class. That wouldn’t be allowed. The staff might think we’re checking up on them.’ But what about recognising, encouraging and celebrating the successes of those teachers? I couldn’t do this role if it simply meant looking at spreadsheets and challenging people on why they’ve overspent. That would be like being back in the office again.”

If John’s OBE, awarded in 2015 for services to education, doesn’t make it obvious, it’s clear that he is held in very high regard by everyone at his school.

“I think John is an incredible leader,” says music teacher Andrew. “He knows exactly what he wants to achieve and how to get there.”

Teacher Melissa agrees: “We feel very protected by John. He always has our best interests at heart, as well as the children’s.”

Deputy head Janelle Johnson sums it up: “John is full of fun. For him, there’s no job too big, no job too small. He takes an interest in everybody, from the deputy head to the caretaker. We all matter. He looks after us and we look after him – it’s like a family. To be the deputy head for John Morris at Ardleigh Green Junior School is one of my proudest achievements.”

For John and his devoted team, the focus is now on building on the past while looking to the future.

“I want us to keep on doing what we’re doing and not get drawn into the Ofsted cloud,” he says. “We know we’re going to be inspected soon and in fact, I welcome it – not the stress that comes with it of course, but I want to celebrate what is going on here.”

Pupil voice

Our music teacher, Mr Linham, always makes jokes in the middle of lessons. Some people don’t get them, but I always seem to. I really love dancing, singing and acting and have performed at Wembley.

I play the flute and I’m doing my grade one. It’s nice to play an instrument because you can learn to play songs without having to sing them. Our teachers say never give up and give us lots of opportunities.

Ruby B
My parents are deaf and when I was in Y5, Mr Morris asked me to start a sign language club. It’s been running for a year now. Mr Linham is the best music teacher. He’s very energetic and writes good songs.

Ruby W
Every Friday morning we have an assembly. Mr Linham and Mr Morris teach us about music or Mrs Johnson teaches us about being kind. Sometimes our teachers are strict but they boost our confidence too.

Meet the staff

Melissa Ponter, Y5 Teacher
The best thing I ever did was to change my school. It transformed my life. I had fallen out of love with teaching because I didn’t have any support. I had lots of lovely children but they needed a lot of assistance. As a 21-year-old NQT, there was nowhere to turn. Here there are so many people who care.

Jane Lomas, Y4 teacher
This is a very joyful, happy place. The staff are full of love and care and the parents are very, very grateful. When I came for an interview here five years ago one of the TAs said it was like a Disney school, and it is. You get the help, love and care that you need and that filters through to the children.

Janelle Johnson, Deputy head
We try not to bombard staff with things that need to be done. We think, ‘Do we need to bog our teachers down with this or shall we wait a little while and see how it all pans out?’ The most important thing for our teachers to do is teach – that’s really what we want them to do.

Jo Cook, Y4 teacher
I’ve got a pupil with quite significant needs and the family centre has really supported his mum. At Christmas I took him to see Santa and both his mum and I were nearly in tears because he wouldn’t have been able to cope with that in the past. It was lovely that I was given that time to do that with him.

Recruiting the right people

“We’re very careful to pick the right staff to work at our school,” explains deputy head Janelle Johnson. “It’s about finding someone who’s going to understand our ethos and the way that we work. I know it sounds really corny, but it really is all about making a difference to every child and we need to feel that the interviewee wants that too. When it’s right, you can see that passion in their letter of application and when you watch them teach. It’s easy to brush up on certain things, but you can’t teach someone that passion, so that’s what we look for.”

When Y5 teacher Melissa Ponter came to look round the school, it left a lasting impression. “John apologised for wearing casual clothes and said he’d just been outside doing a campfire for the children. I could instantly see the love he had for this school. When I saw the way the teachers responded to each other, the high standard of work and the love that staff had put into their classrooms and corridors I was amazed. I’m proud to say that I’m part of an incredible school.”