Recently I visited the Flakesfleet Primary School situated in a social housing estate within the Fleetwood boundary. The town, once a noted fishing port, bears the signs of economic and geographical isolation. McNally (2019) COMMENTED:
In recent decades Fleetwood has suffered a succession of setbacks which would have tested the fortitude of the most resilient of communities. A town which was once one of Britain’s “big three” fishing ports along with Hull and Grimsby lost its deep-sea fishing role after the “Cod Wars” of the 1970s. It had already lost its passenger rail link thanks to the “Beeching Axe” which fell in 1970 and the freight rail link ended in 1999 following the closure of the large ICI plant in nearby Thornton. During the same period Fleetwood lost its ferry services to the Isle of Man and Ireland – the final service to Northern Ireland ceasing in 2010. These series of body blows were accompanied by the radical change in UK holiday patterns and choices which have impacted on so many of our seaside towns. (Chapter 5)
The headteacher, David McPartlin, took up his post in this 500-pupil primary school four years ago. The presenting problems were significant. Many were tangible such as 30% of children living below the poverty level, safeguarding, proficiency in speech and language, absence and parental distance. However, many issues were more subliminal, particularly low expectations and a lack of self-belief within the community.
There was considerable evidence of strategic response to presenting problems such as delayed speech and language with a push to develop a school-based nursery and specific specialist provision. A further five staff are deployed responding to the support of families with one, full-time, responding to safeguarding issues.
The school came to my notice after it appeared on the ITV show Britain’s Got Talent, coming third in 2019 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dijZ5lG9-uE). An internet search revealed that the previous year there was an assault on achieving the number one Christmas single, there was also the staging of a prequel of the Harry and Meghan Royal Wedding. There is the annual Flakefest with an outdoor stage and local attendance around 1500. So, is this a school addicted to celebrity culture? The interview revealed a much more considered approach. The headteacher argued that showcasing these forgotten children would develop an attitude that the unthinkable could be achieved. It is early days to see if this will begin to reverse the communal sense of hopelessness and ultimately contribute to the renewal of a town.
I undertook a drawing exercise with several groups of pupils. Each child was given two sheets of paper; one headed ‘When I feel that I belong it looks like….’ And the second ‘When I feel that I don’t belong it looks like…’. The pupils in the groups found it easy to portray activities both within the classroom and in the wider frame of the school where they felt that they belonged. When presented with the activity of depicting where they felt they did not belong they found this particularly challenging. A few depicted the expected ebb and flow found in friendship groups. Many failed to complete this second part and were unable to recall any place or incident within the school where they felt they did not belong.
A research instrument was used with school staff. This was a card sort exercise featuring nine statements around the theme of belonging. It was prioritised using a ‘Diamond Nine’ process. the card sort around statements on belonging. It revealed a homogenous result. 80% of the staff recording their primary statement as ‘ …belonging is about feeling that you are valued and are part of a place’.
This school is about an extrovert, charismatic leadership style where the head and his team are very engaged and visible. The leadership team work out of a communal office which is also a thoroughfare used by the children. There is a dog bed in the corner where the school dog, Mabel, sleeps. It is certainly unusual for a headteacher to go into a Year 4 classroom and ask ‘Does anyone want a free hug?’. There were 15 takers.
There is a reflective eccentricity in the school. The headteacher openly admits that his style does not provide a template for leading every school. However, challenges at the levels presented by this community require a radical response. Relationally the school is joyous, behaviourally it is engaged, and results are rising, and numbers are growing.
House of Lords’ Select Committee (2019) Regenerating Seaside Towns and Communities, The Future of Seaside Towns. London, House of Lords