How do you revive the fortunes of a struggling school? According to Dominic Vernon, head teacher of St Vincent’s Catholic Primary School in Warrington, ‘a bit of energy and enthusiasm’ is one key ingredient. Soo too ‘a belief that children and staff have huge potential’. He should know for, since arriving at the school in September 2017, his work in supporting both its 155 pupils and his fellow colleagues in fulfilling that potential has had a noteworthy impact, earning him in the process the 2020 Primary Headteacher prize at the annual Archdiocese of Liverpool School awards.
On his arrival three years ago, St Vincent’s had just received an Ofsted rating of ‘Requires improvement’. In September 2019 – little more than 18 months after his permanent appointment as head – Ofsted returned and judged the school as ‘Good’. He recounts: ‘I joined the school as interim head teacher and very quickly fell in love with the place and realised we’d started on a journey that I wanted to see through.
‘Our main focus initially was to bring the school together and build a clear vision,’ he adds, noting the work done to ‘build that culture and common purpose within the school’. That culture included a greater ‘openness with the wider community’ which meant inviting parents in for events such as assemblies and open days. ‘It’s about bringing everybody with us,’ he explains. ‘Parents weren’t really involved in the day-to-day life of the school so one of the earlier things I did in terms of engagement was to open our doors and live that open-doors policy.’
Dominic, a former pupil at St Gregory’s Catholic High School and current parishioner of St Peter’s parish in Warrington, was well equipped to understand what St Vincent required given the depth of knowledge that comes from having spent his entire teaching career within the local Catholic sector – his CV includes posts at St Benedict’s, St Bridget’s and St Peter’s primary schools, where he was deputy head, before his first headship at St Paul of the Cross. ‘I’m Warrington, born and bred,’ he observes and this extends to a passion for rugby league, which he has passed on to his daughters, Evie and Elise, who are pupils at St Vincent’s and, in normal times, accompany their dad to Warrington Wolves matches.
As for his passion for education, he points to the examples presented by his mother, Terry, and wife, Rebecca, both of whom teach. ‘I was inspired by members of my family who are in the teaching profession and teachers who I had as a child and who, through my education, made a difference to me and the person I’ve become,’ he reflects. ‘I wanted to be that person for other children moving forward.’
Satisfaction, he continues, comes from ‘seeing the difference that you can make not only for the children but for the staff. We talk about our school as our school family and in the same way that I want the best for my two girls I want the best for the children and staff within the school as well. It is that which drives it. They’re like my second family.
‘We’re in a lovely position now to see change as an exciting opportunity rather than something that is imposed and a bit of an inconvenience, which can happen from time to time. We really are continuing to drive the school forward on the back of a huge amount of work that’s gone into building up that culture and getting the school into a good position, with the backing of a fantastic team and a brilliant governing body.’ That, and their award-winning head.