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Enabling Flight: ‘She makes you believe you can do it’ Jane James – June 2011

‘She makes you believe you can do it’ ‘Come to the edge,’ he said. They said, ‘We are afraid.’ ‘Come to the edge,’ he said. And they came. And he pushed them … and they flew. Guillaume Appollinaire

One hundred pink and black balloons were being painstakingly inflated by three parent volunteers in the staffroom. Under the headteacher’s desk was a black and red fifties outfit, ready for her to wear at the Year 6 ‘Prom’ taking place that evening – so she and the other teachers could recreate the atmosphere of ‘Grease’. The children too would be dressing up but what they didn’t know was that a pink stretch limo had been arranged for the start of the event. These details of planning and of ‘going the extra mile’ were typical of Netherfield Primary School’s approach. Since taking over as head in September 2009, Sharon Jackson has demonstrated to her sixty-strong staff how to ‘dig deep’ inside themselves and find all kinds of capabilities and potential which, with support, can blossom and enrich the lives of the children and families in the community. ‘She makes you believe you can do it,’ says Lesley Balfe about the woman who has had an inspirational impact on staff, parents and children. Lesley has worked at the school for twenty years as a TA and SMSA but is now a Home-School Liaison Officer responsible for communicating with parents, carers and families at every opportunity in order to know about and understand the lives of the children in the school. They approach her in the playground at the start and end of the school day and find that they can sometimes say things to her more easily than to a teacher. Sharon had invited ecl to visit her school to see for ourselves some of the innovative changes she has instigated since her arrival. She was an early adopter of systemic approaches in schools and Teachers’ TV made a programme about the special school where she was head and the impact of systemic practices on the children. Now she is leading a primary school on the outskirts of Nottingham in one of the most deprived areas of the country.

From the moment we arrived at the school at 7.45am on the last Monday morning of the school year, several things were clear. First of all, the car park was full – all the staff seemed to be in school well ahead of the start of the school day; busy preparing and organising. Breakfast club opens at 7.45am and is oversubscribed. Children, parents and even some students from the nearby secondary school are buying toast and beans, fruit juice and yoghurt to eat before the start of the school day. The breakfast club also offers sports and games activities and areas for reading and talking. Sharon is adamant that the facility should be free and somehow finds the funds to staff it appropriately. This provision of food and an ordered start to the day are important to some of the children - especially those who might not otherwise get any breakfast and those who are coping with chaotic or troubling circumstances at home. A second feature of the school becomes clear as we enter Sharon’s office – there are a striking number of thank you cards and presents everywhere. Yes, this is the end of term and the season for cards and letters of appreciation, but when Sharon allows us to read some of them the touching nature of the messages can’t fail to have impact. As we walk through the hall three members of staff stop Sharon to give her a gift basket filled with French food and small mementos of the children’s trip to Paris the week before. She is taken aback but is soon laughing with them as they recall the incidents and how much everyone enjoyed the trip up the Eiffel Tower and the day at Disneyland. Sharon herself says she has spent the weekend writing thank you cards. This is probably not an exaggeration – we get the impression that there would be nobody in the school who would be missed out. Without exception people spoke positively about Sharon and she about them. So the order of give and take at Netherfield seems to be that the leader has modelled ‘giving’ from the start and gradually others have learnt to give freely too. Now there is a rich flow of generosity and appreciation. Children don’t need to be reminded to ask politely and to thank; it happens as a matter of course and courtesy. These respectful gestures and ways of being are infectious and ease the relationships for learning in the classroom and throughout the school community.

Sharon Jackson

‘Everyone a leader; everyone a learner’ is the school’s inspirational motto.

When Sharon was appointed as head, but before she took up the post officially, she set about finding out as much about the school as she could. She wanted to ‘hit the ground running’ and by all accounts achieved that aim. It quickly became clear to her that the changes she wanted to make would cost money and at the same time the school was carrying a financial deficit. She was determined to arrive with funds and badgered the local authority and other local sources of funding. She arrived with £50k secured and since then has been dogged in her determination to apply to any trust or funding body that might be able to contribute to lifting this school to a different level of possibility. There is an area of land at the back of the school site with mature trees. The plan is to build a Learning Ark here – a community learning facility constructed on sustainable principles that embody the school’s inclusive and creative ethos. Fifth year Nottingham University architecture students have used it as their annual project and have built on the ideas and visions of the children in their innovative designs for the new building. Building firms and other companies are knocking on the door and asking if they can be involved – another manifestation of ‘giving’ in a very substantial way. The Learning Ark along with the small farm planned alongside will cost approximately £450k and will be a leading edge facility in this deprived area on the edge of Nottingham. The purpose of ecl is to release the creative potential of children. We have come to know that in order for this to happen parents, teachers and others involved in school and education have to release their own creativity. At Netherfield, there is a community of adults who are in the process of doing just that. Emma Essex, deputy head, explains that a creative approach to learning involves risk – risk on the part of the staff and, in turn, on the part of the children themselves. ‘They need to take risks,’ she says, ‘and to know that it doesn’t matter if things don’t work. We learn from mistakes and things not going as planned and move on.’ Creativity at the school is certainly demonstrated in the myriad of colourful interactive displays on every surface available in classrooms and corridors. Each classroom has a role play area – changed on a termly basis and fully kitted out by resourceful staff. The sweet shop in the ‘Gems’ Nurture Group room has

scales for weighing and imaginative writing about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It also has edible wallpaper made up of real sweets – flying saucers and marshmallows glued to the wall at lickable height. ‘What about the healthy eating imperatives?’ we ask Sharon. ‘I believe a little of what you fancy is very important,’ she says, ‘If we ban sweets completely, children will be all the more attracted to them. Supporting the development of self-control is a key skill.’ The school has a National Healthy Schools Gold Standard Award and this aspect of the curriculum was judged outstanding at the most recent Ofsted inspection. Creativity underpins not just the Netherfield curriculum but also Sharon’s leadership approach to strategy, structure and role definition within the organisation. She inspires creativity in others, holding a finely balanced place between encouraging participation and a strong directional drive for a vision she holds dear and articulates clearly. The co-creativity she engenders is demonstrated most clearly in the collaborative annual INSET session with all staff at the start of the year. Here they draw up the ‘PATH’ (Planning Alternative Tomorrows with Hope), which is a graphic annual plan for the school on a bed sheet sized piece of paper to which everyone contributes. Staff know their responsibilities and each other’s. Trust, energy and commitment flow from the security of well-defined roles. They are encouraged to take the initiative and try out new ideas but also have the assurance and safety of support if things don’t quite work out or help is required along the way. Netherfield School is led by a woman with passion, values, energy and commitment. She brushes off compliments with repeated affirmations of the staff, the ‘team’, the community and the children. But everyone we spoke to was fulsome in their praise and admiration of this remarkable headteacher. ‘Everyone a leader; everyone a learner’ is the school motto. This school system is led by a learner who stands out in her dedication to creativity and the fulfilment of potential – her own and those of the children, the staff and the community.

To learn more about ecl, email us at To learn more about ecl’s work with students, teachers, parents and schools, visit Or visit

Š nowherefoundation 2011

Enabling flight  

Netherfield school

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