THIS time last year, Alton Park Junior School was in dire straits.

Ofsted inspectors had not long slapped it with a damning report and its ability to follow educational protocols was being called into question.

The Clacton school’s buckling infrastructure, for example, was failing to provide its 400-plus pupils with sufficient safeguarding and little was being done to prevent displays of bad behaviour from further diminishing its reputation.

The quality of teaching was also deemed to be inadequate and, according to Government figures, just 13per cent of the school’s pupils were achieving the expected target in reading, writing, and maths - the lowest across junior schools in the area.

As a result, the seaside town school was forced into special measures and its future looked as turbulent.

Something drastic had to change and it wasn’t long before the Sigma Trust was parachuted in to provide support.

“By this point, all the leadership, except a deputy headteacher, had either moved on or were taking time off due to illness,” said Jeff Brindle, the chief executive of the Sigma Trust.

“The school had a lot of temporary staff and was in real crisis, it had been through a really tough time.

“Everyone felt insecure, and it is crucial, particularly in this community, that the children feel secure and cared for.

“The children need to know someone is going to be there for them tomorrow as well as today.

“So, the immediate need was to get experienced staff in for the start of September. A lot had to be done.”

One of those professional staff members was new headteacher Nicky Sirett, who was initially coerced in to lead the turnaround on an interim basis.

But after “falling in love” with the school, she opted to make it a permanent relationship and ended up staying on.

She said: “The children didn’t feel safe or happy within the school and the Ofsted report was an accurate reflection of that time.

“But I felt there was great potential in the student population.

“I was quickly saying I wanted to commit to it.

“I really wanted to help move it on for everybody. I do like a bit of a challenge.”

Clacton and Frinton Gazette:

Before too long, fresh leadership teams were starting to build relationships with the pupils, clear and concise rules and sanctions were being established and ways to safeguard the environment were being immediately explored.

The fast-track approach is already said to be achieving positive results and a more tranquil vibe has enveloped the school.

Mr Brindle said: “The improvements when you walk around are immense.

“The real difference you now see is there is a calm, working atmosphere and students are engaging.

“Similarly, the staff are working in a place they want to teach in and that was key.

“It is all credit to Nicky and her team, because the speed at which this has been achieved has been remarkable.”

Miss Sirett echoed Mr Brindle’s views on the turnaround, and also heaped praise on her new colleagues and pupils.

“It was tough to start off with but by putting clear boundaries in place and having everyone be consistent, has turned things around really quickly,” she said.

“The children tell us they feel happier and more secure in the school now.

“Staff were really invested in the children from the start and I love the children here.”

“If you take an interest in them and listen to them, they will do anything for you.”

Clacton and Frinton Gazette:

Now the school has a better sense of stabilisation, a new, tailored curriculum is gradually starting to be introduced.

A more hands-on and technological approach to science experiments, for example, is said to be succeeding in better engaging pupils, while homework assignments are encouraging increased levels of interaction between parents and pupils.

Gavin Bradley, primary executive lead at the Sigma Trust, believes the small changes are having a huge impact.

He also suggested the success of the alterations is down to having a dedicated team in place which can implement the vision.

“We are trying to make the experience worthwhile and make sure the pupils know why they are being taught something.

“We also now have secure staff following how we want the children to be taught.

“The teachers and leaders are here for the foreseeable future, so we can go on that journey together.”

Employees at Alton Park, as well as other schools across Clacton, are now being taught how to provide support to children suffering from trauma and depression.

The idea behind the practise is that staff will be able to better identify the warning signs of trauma in a child and be equipped with the skillset to aid struggling students.

Miss Sirett emphasised the importance of the students’ mental wellbeing, but suggested the lack of help is putting an added strain on those in education.

She said: “Increasingly schools are being left to step in to help fill the gaps in mental health provision and social care.

“We are having to step up and support.

“Every member of staff’s first responsibility is safeguarding.

“It is becoming an increasing challenge because there isn’t always the support mechanisms available.”

Mr Bradley says the increase in the number of new pupils he sees every year with depression is devastating.

The trust’s primary executive lead also believes mental health is the biggest stumbling block preventing children from progressing in school.

“Even with two and three-year-olds you can see it creeping in,” he said.

“It is really challenging because younger children can’t always communicate what the problem is and can’t say what we can do to help.

“Every year I see more children who are suffering. When is it going to stop?”

Clacton and Frinton Gazette:

Alton Park Junior School still, of course, has a long way to go before it fully reaches the heights it would like to, which Mr Brindle, Miss Sirett and Mr Bradley all acknowledge.

But it is clear the efficient, new strategies in place are beginning to positively play out.

Mr Brindle suggests the school’s new found potential stems from multiple schools working in unison and pulling together for the sake of young learners across the area.

“Working collaboratively is what is needed for schools in Clacton,” he said.

“Far too often schools are not working together, which is something I believe we need to change so there is always that support.

“The Sigma Trust is a mini local authority but when we were part of the local authority, we were just all competing against each other.

“But now we are all collaborating together, which is how it should be.

“We have to do the best for all of the pupils, not just the ones at a certain school.

"It has to be the best we can achieve for all of them.”