Leading Leaders Network

LLN in London – July 2013 event – Tollgate visit

LLN in London – July 2013 event – Tollgate visit

We were delighted that Tom Canning and his team at Tollgate hosted our optional visit on 4 July 2013 – it was a very popular option as 19 of us had the pleasure to visit this outstanding school with Teaching School.

Our visit

Tom and all his staff were extremely welcoming and open. They gave us time and were happy to share ideas, thinking and approaches and of course the young people were a delight to meet and so engaging.

Our visit was stunning – so much has happened at Tollgate under the stewardship of Tom in such a short time. Tom took over the leadership of Tollgate following an Ofsted judgement that the school was failing and he was the 4th headteacher in one year. The Governing Body made a commitment to improving the school, they gave the highest incentives to attract the best staff in a time where they had no money and the general infrastructure of the school was poor. Tom established a new leadership team, ensured its focus would be on pedagogy and developed further strengths in teaching and learning and leadership and management, creating a very lean machine with nowhere to hide and strong levels of accountability.

Through his leadership, within 4 years the school had been judged Outstanding!  Tom shared that “keeping on top is the most difficult thing you ever do, yet the school is flourishing against the odds”.

Tollgate is not a small school – it has 550 pupils plus 27 identified for specialist ASD support and a pre-school of 29. There are 28 teaching staff and 48 TAs plus learning mentors nursery nurses etc., in total there are 90 staff with a budget of £2.8m pa. In early years there are 25 per class and from KS1 and above, there are 30. There are no other adults (other than teachers) in KS2 other than specific ASD provision.

Tollgate is also the hub for the Tollgate Teaching School Alliance that consists of 20 partners and provides a strong area alliance for Newham, Waltham Forest and Haringey. The commitment to staff development means that School Direct lead school based training for 20 salaried and 20 non-salaried teachers though University of East London. 80% of their teaching course is undertaken in schools across the alliance with a 100% placement success.


Contextually, Tollgate has many challenges including 33% annual churn of learners excluding Yr 6 transition and with a high percentage of non-English speaking pupils (47 languages from 35 countries are spoken). Many of the learners arrive with non-verbal and low cognition levels with young people up to 2 years behind their peers. The diversity, challenge and context are however seen as positives, defining the school and what it sets for aspirations. With a deprivation factor of 0.7 (normal is 0.2), the school is “bucking the odds contextually” in its successes.

The locale consists of mainly family homes of multi-family occupancy. The area has many challenges reflected in difficult home circumstances and with severe social deprivation including many families unable to access benefit. The school and Centre is open from 08:00 to 18:00 hrs for 51 weeks per year. It is a community hub providing pre-school day care, a Children’s centre, a Primary school and Teaching school. It is a place of trust for parents where they can access a range of support including health care, immunisation, well-being clinics, support for job, CVs, back to work and local care.

Tollgate works hard to bring parents in “to demolish their preconceived ideas”, working closely with the community, and dealing with challenging issue as head on e.g. no withdrawal for sex education. This accessible and up front approach has helped develop a real passion within parents for their school, that is now also a safe ethnic hub with many using school as a point of contact and with representation on Parents Council from all ethnic groups

What is it that works?

Tom shared some of the components that “make the difference”:

  • The school is wholly inclusive.
  • All teachers support pupils from P1 right through to L6
  • There is an absolute commitment to staff and their CPD
  • A shared passion for social and moral justice and to take pupils forward
  • Belief that the school is here to “to show them what is possible”
  • A strong push from EYFS upwards to avoid catch up later
  • Do whatever it takes to break down barriers to learning
  • Aim to be breath-taking, awe inspiring and knock them out!

The approach developed by the school and staff has developed what has been described as an “Oasis of responsibility”.

Learning and Teaching

It is clear that there is a strong culture and commitment to outstanding teaching. There is an unrelenting focus on improving the quality of teaching and a passion for demonstrating and celebrating pupil work, showing written work including teacher script. Although there are national changes underfoot, the school believes in determining progress through appropriate assessment and encourages teachers to speak the language of APS with a core target for all learners to show a minimum of 3 levels of progress. SIMS is the core school MIS product with Assessment 7 used to support teachers – additional spread sheets are not used.

The lesson approach is consistent across the school, lessons start with 15 minutes exposition “the power base of the lesson” followed by 30 minutes of pupil activity (this time is protected) that includes a focus upon progression in lessons as well as progress over time. The end of lesson time gives close attention to “mopping up misconceptions”.

Teacher observation takes place twice per term; books are seen and reviewed every two weeks. The leadership team see that their Key role is to make teachers outstanding and deploy a well-oiled performance management system that ensures reward on merit not time.

EYFS is a critical foundation for success. 30-40% of pupils exceed EYFS goals with a clear impact on KS 1 and KS 2 performance and progress. This is supported by a school-wide investment and focus on EYFS including £100k on a stunning learning-based play area.


We saw technology in use and available across the school. Staff and pupils choose when and when not to access technology as they deem appropriate. We saw some fantastic use of a range of devices and products. The ICT suite was given up earlier this year and the whole school now has Wi-Fi access and there are 400 devices consisting of a mix of  laptops and portable tablets (iPads). ICT is seen as an integral part of the school and not a bolt-on. For their context, the value of the iPads to support non- verbal children and their engagement is stunning.

There has been a big push to “bring parents in” and allowing laptops home (but sometimes, they can go missing). The school is in a challenging area including the risk of theft including lead, copper, roof, cabling and of course technology. Although measures are taken to reduce risks, the school will not reduce its commitment to technology, believing in the impact it has for their leaners.


This brief summary barely touches the surface of what makes this an outstanding school. We were privileged to visit and very grateful to Tom Canning, all staff and pupils for making our visit so memorable, so uplifting and so though-provoking.

Thanks Tollgate!