A MERE three years ago, Fiona Pierson, a science teacher at one of Colchester's poorest performing schools, faced what she described as a "whirlwind".

"I drove in that morning as Assistant Headteacher and drove home that night having been asked to be Head of School," she recalls.

"That was probably the best preparation for it because you don't have time to worry about it or plan for it, you just had to get on, which for my personality worked out fine."

Fiona, 34 at the time, is referring to the sudden departure of Barry Hersom who for five years had been the principal - for three of those her boss - at Colchester Academy in Greenstead.

Gazette: Ex - Barry Hersom, previous head

Shock - former head Barry Hersom 

His shock departure - in April 2015 - came amid a shake-up of the school's academy sponsor from Colchester Institute to Bright Tribe.

Barry had been principal at the Greenstead school for five years.

"Staff rallied around me at the time and throughout the three years they have always been 100 per cent supportive of my needs, I cannot fault the staff.

"That made the whole process a lot easier," reflects Fiona.

But the pressure was on and understandably tension was in the atmosphere.

One of the first things Fiona had to do was reassure staff their jobs were safe.

Gazette: Pride - Fiona Pierson outside Colchester Academy

Pride - Fiona Pierson outside Colchester Academy

"First and foremost I wanted to gain the trust of staff by talking to them and letting them know they would be listened to and the change that happened wouldn't affect anybody else."

She adds: "Looking back, on reflection there were great threats at that point where we still had the Ofsted inspection and framework to meet and the change of leadership happened so quickly.

"There were no indicators that was going to happen so quickly.

"It could have culminated in going horribly wrong for the young people in the school.

"What I mean by going horribly wrong is not being able to move out of the Ofsted category.

"But the success now is really down to the staff and support staff supporting me from day one."

The school's Ofsted rating was a rather undesirable 'Inadequate' and Fiona knew things had to change.

Supporting Fiona in her new role was Linda Bamford, who she calls "her absolute professional rock" and likens to a "professional mum".

Linda was one of Bright Tribe’s centrally employed executive heads and former head of Sir Charles Lucas school - the academy's predecessor.

She remained in the role to Fiona until last Christmas.

"I would phone her up at all hours and present the scenario and she would say 'what do you think you should do?

Gazette: Going - Zoe King of St Helena

Going - Zoe King of St Helena

"I had a really good mentor who I guess has made the headteacher I am today," Fiona says.

A priority for Fiona was to change the behaviour policy which included scrapping unpopular Saturday morning detentions but also giving other senior staff more power over disciplining pupils.

"I did remove Saturday morning detentions because they weren't forming any positive relationships with parents at all.

"I now have a more positive dialogue with parents - they have supported me through my three-year tenure."

Mobile phones are banned from being used and confiscated from pupils until the end of the school day if that rule is broken.

She continues: "The behaviour policy is quite clear with quite clear thresholds to pupils and parents about what the punishment is and what's going to be tolerated and at the end of the day, that's what students want, parity.

"I can categorically say the three years I have been head here, I have had the full support of parents throughout."

Another change and one reflected in last year's GCSE results, was for staff to give extra help to students not on target to meet grades.

Staff work extra sessions, including Saturday mornings and in school holidays, to help them and Fiona says they have been well attended.

"The worst thing you can do is to make things like that compulsory because it really disengages students."

According to ‘Progress 8’ measures for school performance, Colchester Academy was last summer the fourth most successful school in the Colchester area and one of the most improved in Essex.

That's not been without its stresses for teachers up and down the land though, says Fiona.

"The last three years schools have endured sometimes an overwhelming amount of change."

Grading by letters has also switched to a numerical system along with more financial pressures on schools.

Fiona says there isn't really much that hasn't changed in the last three years.

"It has been almost overwhelming and they are just a couple of examples," she admits.

But the highpoint of her headship came just a few months ago when the school was re-assessed by Ofsted and unusually had moved up two levels to be rated 'Good'.

"One moment in the inspection was walking into the staff room and being able to announce we were 'Good' in all categories, and seeing staff that had taught here for 20 years or more just burst into tears because it felt so much to them," she says.

There have been tough times too - not to mention the long days and being the mum to twins aged just two and a half.

Fiona's partner is a deputy head teacher meaning the two know where each other is coming from as they juggle life and work.

She says: "It is the unknown in headship in all schools.

"You never know what's going to present itself when you drive in in the morning."

So having been at the head of a school that has come so far in such little time, why is Fiona leaving in July?

"The school is ready for somebody else to come and take it onto its new chapter. The six years I have been here I have enjoyed every single minute of it, whether it be a challenge or celebration.

"A sign of good leadership is knowing when it is time to go and you have done enough to get a school as far as you can. When I took over three years ago I remember saying to Linda 'I will take the school to Good'. I feel I have given the staff, students and community what they need."

Fiona starts her new job as head of St Helena School in Colchester, in September, replacing Zoe King.

It's rated Good by Ofsted so while she's reluctant to declare she'll improve on that, Fiona is looking forward to working at the school which is part of the Sigma network of six north Essex academies.

This means the schools provide support and expertise to each other in what she calls "times of uncertainty".

One thing that is certain, even if she won't say so herself, is that it has been a job well done by Fiona at Colchester Academy.