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Do it yourself: the reluctant leader who built and grew her own ACE school

Few leaders get the chance to create their own school literally from the ground up. Fewer remain in post 18 years later, seeing how their vision and decisions have panned out. 

And fewer still then observe: “I never wanted to be a head teacher – I loved being an outstanding teacher and that passion you get from being in the classroom.”

Helen Stott’s unplanned headship began shortly after she arrived as deputy at Allerton Church of England primary’s predecessor school. Rolls were falling, and the decision was made to close two schools and open a new one in their place. “It was a shock when the head teacher left after I’d been there a term, and then I had to close the school and plan the new one. I had no intention of being a head teacher, but then I thought, actually, I needed to give it a shot because I thought it was going to be a great school.”

“Now, my passion is being a head teacher, seeing children and staff thrive and being creative. On training days, we talk about our values and vision and what drives us.” Asked about her vision for the new school (“it’s brilliant that it’s called ACE”), the Post-It notes Helen wrote described “a supportive community, a faith community and a creative community”. She reflects: “Five years ago, when we reviewed that, I thought it was bang on with everything – it’s the same, but a bit more honed.”

Eighteen years in, the Leeds primary looks idyllic: 700 children attend what has grown into a three-form entry school with nursery, children’s centre and community café. A library is entered through a wardrobe, like Narnia. Buildings are bright and cheery, with fantastic outside spaces. Arts are its beating heart. 

A few children are “walking examples” of ACE’s six learning characteristics, wearing special uniform jumpers. They are chosen by staff and children because they exemplify concepts developed from the vision like ‘open hearts’ and ‘helping hands,’ developed from the vision and aspirations for other children and show visitors around. “It’s not an easy job – we meet them, draw up a contract, but it is just amazing.” Occasionally, children don’t want to do it – one wanted to concentrate on his academic work, and another didn’t want to be seen as different (he was persuaded).

“We want to prepare them to be lifelong learners and have intrinsic motivation. Then, when they’re in high school and don’t like a teacher or are struggling with a lesson, they are motivated,” says Helen, explaining that bringing the characteristics to life in this way transformed their effectiveness. “It’s taken a while, but it is one of the most powerful things we do.”

Her time in post is also important for the school’s special educational needs (SEN) provision, of which Helen is very proud. As well as 43 children with specific funding, many others are waiting for assessment. “We do try to be fully inclusive, which takes a lot of work, and I am really honest with parents – I think that comes from having 18 years as head teacher.” 

Some children, says Helen, should be in specialist provision, so ACE’s extensive support structure now includes a bespoke sensory cabin in the grounds, a calming space with special lighting in which music can be played. “It’s a fantastic space – I wanted something that was away and quite special. Multiple children use it as part of our offer to meet their individual needs, sometimes as a calm space when it’s overwhelming.” 

Another important element of the special needs provision is funding therapeutic places with a charity that brings together children and ponies. The sessions teach the children they cannot ride or lead the ponies if they are angry or dysregulated. Helen says: “You see children who struggle in school thriving with the ponies. It is amazing, and no question – it stays in the budget.” 

Again, Helen’s time in the post is crucial. “A benefit of having been here since we started is that I am really confident about my budget. If I came into it now, it would be horrendous, but I know we can offer these additional things because I know what resources and capacity we’ve got.” 

After 18 years of growth, the school, which was created as a result of falling rolls, is being affected by them – but the mood remains positive and buoyed by Helen’s winning Primary Headteacher of the Year in the National Teaching Awards. Arts and special needs provision remain as important as ever, with commitment and wily budgeting. Helen is reflective: “It’s amazing to think where we started.” 

Susan Young photoSusan Young is a journalist who writes a regular column for NAHT’s Leadership Focus magazine

First published 07 November 2023