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Meet the School Staff going the Extra Mile for their Community

Supporting parents makes children's lives easier, says Surrey Square Primary headteacher Nicola Noble...

  • Meet the School Staff going the Extra Mile for their Community

Many primary schools have a set of school values. You know the type of thing – resilience, respect, compassion. Generally, they’re for the benefit of the pupils; a set of guiding principles for their young lives.

At Surrey Square Primary in Southwark, headteacher Nicola Noble finds herself referring back to her school’s values frequently, for her own benefit.

“They help me to make difficult decisions,” explains Nicola. She found herself facing one such conundrum recently, when a mother of a pupil came to Nicola and begged to be allowed to sleep in the school over the weekend, after having been made homeless.

“We have a value of compassion, but although every bone in my body wanted to help them, we also have a value of responsibility,” explains Nicola.

“It’s very difficult to see people in those conditions, but it’s our responsibility to empower them in those situations. I had to say, ‘No, you can’t sleep here, but we’ll take you to the homeless unit and support you in conversations there.’ Often, the values are in conflict with one another, but I always come back to them.”

It’s abundantly clear that staff at Surrey Square go above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to providing families with practical support.

They hand out and wash clothing, help to furnish flats via personal donations and write letters of support to immigration solicitors working on behalf of some of the 10% of families at the school who have no recourse to public funds.

These vital documents help parents prove how long their children have been in the country.

“Last week we wrote letters for a girl in Y4 whose family has no recourse at the minute,” explains assistant head Carol Shone.

“Dad is very poorly. In fact, we didn’t know how dire their living situation was until Mum filmed it to show us – five of them, including one child about to do his GCSEs, are all living in one room.”

In the summer, Carol arranged for the Y4 girl to attend a week’s residential via an organisation that the school works closely with, called Free To Be. “She absolutely loved it,” says Carol. “We also have a link with a sports camp and we’ve booked her a place there for half term.”

As well as practical support, a lot of what staff do is about simply listening to families’ concerns, headteacher Nicola says. “Often, families feel very judged,” she explains.

“You wouldn’t judge a child if they came to school not being able to read or write, so equally we shouldn’t be judging people if they’re coming with nowhere to live or have issues with their immigration.

“We listen and signpost people to where they need to go, but it’s also important to build capacity in people – it’s not about us doing all the work for them.

“Ultimately, by supporting parents, it makes their children’s lives easier, which then means they can access their education. You have to see it as a wider responsibility than just educating children – you’ve got to be there to support families.”

Name: Surrey Square Primary
Headteacher: Nicola Noble
Location: Southwark, London
Ofsted rating: Outstanding
Size: 480 pupils
Extra info: the school’s mission statement is, ‘Personal and academic excellence; everyone, every day’

1 | Building relationships

Surrey Square’s family worker, Fiona Carrick-Davies, runs parenting classes twice a year, which mums and dads and carers can choose to attend or are invited to. The eight-week programme, developed by the Family Caring Trust, focuses on improving relationships between parents and children.

“Being a parent is difficult, and when you add in living in very challenging circumstances and having work and money pressures, it’s often harder,” explains Fiona.

“I like this particular programme because it’s quite gentle, but it’s also very meaningful. We don’t even talk about punishments until week six. Before that it’s all to do with building relationships, giving children responsibility, listening to them.”

As Fiona is happy to admit, she doesn’t count herself as a parenting expert, and appreciates the chance to refresh her own skills when running the courses. “My children are older now, but it’s still a challenge,” she says.

“The course builds relationships between parents and helps them realise they’re not the only ones finding it tough. Actually, we all do.”

One recent participant was struggling with her teenage daughter, a former pupil at Surrey Square.

“She’s trying to spread her wings a little bit and was becoming a little bit rebellious, but her mum was doing the same thing with her that she had done when she was five – she wasn’t being flexible at all. We talked about the idea that if you back a child into a corner they can only fight, so it’s much better to give choices. She said the course has transformed their relationship.”

Surrey Square was one of the first schools in the country to set up a partnership with Place2Be, a leading national children’s mental health charity. The relationship began 17 years ago and it’s something the school continues to prioritise during yearly budget discussions.

A school project manager works in the school two and a half days a week and offers one-to-one play therapy sessions to 12 children a year. KS2 pupils can also make use of Place2Talk, a self-referral service that runs at lunchtimes for children who want to talk through a problem with a trained professional.

The school is also proud to be able to offer a year’s worth of counselling to three parents each year, as part of its Place2Be provision. “If you were going through the NHS, there would be a waiting list of six months and then you’d usually get a six-week block of counselling,” explains Fiona.

The fact that the counselling is on site and during the school day is also a big help. “It’s less intimidating for parents because the school is a supportive, familiar place, Fiona says.

2 | Community spirit

All the hard work that staff put into developing positive relationships with the families in their community has obviously paid off. Recently, a group of parents came together to film a music video to show to pupils around the theme of respect – set to ‘Blame It On the Boogie’ by the Jacksons (we urge you to watch it, here).

“It was so heartwarming,” says family worker Fiona. “We do a lot of work with our parents around our core values to help them embed them in family life, so it was really meaningful.” Headteacher Nicola adds, “In 12 years of being here, it was one of the most special days I’ve seen.”

And it’s not parents joining together in perfect harmony. Every year, Surrey Square uses two Inset days to take all staff – including teachers, support staff, cleaners and meal supervisors – on an overnight CPD event at a hotel in Ashford in Kent.

Both days are packed with workshops, guest speakers and team-building opportunities.

“A few years ago we used conference to review our core values and decided that we needed to introduce something around resilience, so Percy Perseverance was born,” explains Nicola. “We set staff the challenge of introducing him to the children via a music video.”

In just one afternoon, staff created artwork, dance routines and lyrics, before filming their masterpiece – to Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’ – in one long take around the corridors of the hotel (watch it here).

Performing was optional – “After all, not everybody wants to stand up and wave their jazz hands around,” laughs Nicola – but the end result was a fantastic bonding experience.

Y1 teacher Fiona Redmond was one of the staff who took part. She says, “I’m tone deaf so singing in a group was new to me, but it was incredible. It pushed us out of our comfort zone, which is what we expect from the children.”

3 | Learning mornings

When they’re not shaking their thing, the staff at Surrey Square are well versed in welcoming visitors from other schools, especially since they achieved an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted grade in December 2016.

At first, the number of visitors asking to come was a little overwhelming, as Nicola explains: “It was taking up lots of time and we had to be careful that we didn’t take our eye off the ball when it came to what was happening in school.”

To make the process more manageable for staff – and more valuable for visitors – Nicola and her senior team have introduced professional learning mornings for external colleagues to attend.

The sessions look in detail at a specific area of practice, with the opportunity to visit classrooms to see learning in action. Currently on offer are workshops around using values to improve behaviour, curriculum design, provision mapping and ‘flipped quality assurance’.

The last of these was the school’s response to a problem that surfaced a few years ago.

Nicola found that the school had lots of competent leaders, but they often fell back on telling staff what to do, rather than building capacity in people to make their own decisions and take responsibility for their teaching.

“We did a staff survey and people said they felt quite ‘done to’” explains Nicola.

“That doesn’t build trust or engagement from staff so we quite literally flipped the process. Teachers now self-assess against a set of criteria which the subject leader has come up with, before meeting up to discuss what they’re good at and what they need to work on. It embeds a practice of everyone continually learning. It places the responsibility in the hands of the teacher and makes them really proactive in identifying their own areas of development, which is great.”

After running a second staff survey, Nicola was pleased to see that staff now feel empowered and enjoy the feedback process a lot more. It’s also no longer just struggling staff members who get extensive feedback.

“Everybody gets the same amount of time for discussion under this model and it becomes a dialogue, rather than a judgement, which is really important,” explains Nicola.

Teachers attending the half-day learning sessions are charged £100 (with additional participants from the same school or trust given a 50% discount) to enable the school to provide cover for teachers running the courses and cover the costs of resources given out.

“With budget cuts you have to be creative and this enables us to fund other things that are needed,” explains Nicola. “Rightly, the fees aren’t huge, because it should be fair to other schools, but they ensure that our costs are covered. After all, the time that we spend doing that could be spent doing other things.”

4 | Always evolving

For Nicola, the idea that Surrey Square continues to evolve is hugely important. “It takes time to create the level of excellence that we have here – it doesn’t happen overnight,” she explains.

“Yes, you can make significant changes in an organisation in a short space of time, but to sustain them and ensure they continue to evolve takes time.”

Another benefit of a long-standing body of staff is the relationships it allows teachers to build with families. “Loads of our former students come back and see us,” explains family worker Fiona.

“If they’re in trouble they come back for support.” Nicola adds, “Our door is always open and we’ll continue to support them. The reason the word ‘personal’ appears first in our mission statement is because we believe it’s so critical – perhaps more important than the academic. As such, we treat it that way and we teach our values in the same way that we teach maths or history. That’s our responsibility.

“Staff do such an incredible job here. They are a talented bunch who are incredibly committed and see that their work is more than just about the academic.”

Pupil voice


It was hard for me and my sister to get British citizenship. I only got one Christmas present, but a week later my mum told me to close my eyes and asked me if I was expecting anything. When I opened them, my passport was in my hands. I want to play for England but you can’t do that without a passport.

Tomorrow we’re having the P Factor, which is a talent show for National Poetry Day. Each class has to perform a poem in front of judges. This school feels like a family. I’m not saying that I don’t like to be at home, but when I am, I miss Surrey Square a lot.

We can stay in breakfast club until 8:30am and they hand out free bagels. When we had Night at the Museum, my role was welcoming people in and telling them where they should go. There was a cafe where people could have a drink. What I like best about Surrey Square is how welcoming and fun it is.

Meet the staff

Leila Douiri, Y6 teacher
I love our core values because I feel they teach the children morals and beliefs, as opposed to simply giving them a set of instructions about what they can and can’t do. In the real world, they’re going to have to apply all of these values, whether it’s in further education or when they have their own family or go to work.

Fiona Redmond, Y1 teacher
I think this school is special because it’s such a supportive environment. I had a Schools Direct interview and moved straight from Ireland to here. I moved abroad by myself for the first time but I’ve felt so supported since day one – it feels like a home away from home and there’s a real sense of belonging.

Serife Mentesh, learning facilitator
Our annual conference is very special – I’ve never heard of any other school doing that for their staff. The only time Fiona and I normally get to speak is when we’re coming in through the gates or are on the same bus, but conference gives you a chance to catch up and chat. It brings everybody together.

Fiona Carrick-Davies, family worker
A mum came to see me recently because she’s not coping well and has been signed off sick. Her tax credits have been reduced and she’s stressed. I contacted an independent food bank and she went that day. She couldn’t believe that she suddenly had all this food – she had been going without so that her daughter could eat.

5 ideas to magpie from Surrey Square Primary

  1. Use the Family Caring Trust’s eight-week programme to deliver workshops to parents about improving relationships with their children.
  2. Invite parents in to create a heartwarming music video to show to pupils to highlight one of your school values. Set it to a well-known song and help parents to come up with appropriate lyrics.
  3. Use two Inset days to take all staff on an overnight CPD event at a local hotel. Organise workshops, guest speakers and team-building opportunities around a certain theme, such as talk for writing, wellbeing or oracy.
  4. Share best practice with external colleagues by introducing paid-for professional learning mornings.
  5. Flip your quality assurance process and embed a practice of everyone continually learning by asking teachers to self-assess against a set of criteria before meeting up to discuss what they’re good at and what they need to work on. Ensure every member of staff gets the same time dedicated to feedback.

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