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I’ve worked in education since 2010, as an English teacher, Head of Department, Assistant Head and Deputy Head in five schools. I write about curriculum, pedagogy, theory, English and books. You can read about what education means to me and why I do what I do here.

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Leading at Ark Soane Academy

Starting a school from scratch is the opportunity of a lifetime. You have a blank slate on which to project your every hope of what a child’s education might be. While those limitless choices might seem daunting, we are lucky to be surrounded by a group of highly successful schools with Ark, including a number of successful new-start schools. There are no shortage of smart, experienced educators to guide Soane’s way.

What would you do if you could start a school with only year 7? What would the ideal behaviour policy, curriculum, lesson look like? What systems would need to be in place to make that happen? Which parts of all the best schools you know of would you take with you?

We already have a clear idea of the kind of school Soane will be: a rigorous curriculum delivered by subject experts who plan lessons with the lessons of cognitive science in mind, high expectations of behaviour, and opportunities to build cultural capital through enrichment. The large-scale values are in place.

What is not yet in place is the fine detail.

We are looking for exceptional teachers and leaders to lead at Soane. Every teacher we hire for September 2020 will be a leader: unlike a long-established school, the founding teachers always have a special place in a new start school. Whether they choose to pursue promotion or to stay in the classroom, no other teachers who join us later will have created the founding systems of the school. No one else will have as strong a sense of the school. No one after will have made the school from its foundations up.

If you believe strongly that every child is capable of academic success, that every child has the innate potential to be an upstanding citizen, and that the highest expectations of behaviour allow children the freedom to learn, leading at Soane may be the right place for you.

Over the coming weeks, we are welcoming applications from motivated teachers at all stages in their careers to join the founding team to begin our school. It will be a rigorous process, because there will never be a more important team than those who found our school. You will need to be an excellent classroom practitioner, have a strong understanding of the science of how children learn, have a mind for detail and a wish to create and perfect new systems at all levels of school life. Most importantly, we are looking for people who love their subject and who love children.

Please see the ‘vacancies’ tab on our webpage to explore current opportunities with Soane.

“Radical Candour” and staff culture

As we start preparing to hire our founding teaching team at Ark Soane Academy, I’ve been thinking a lot about staff culture. Speaking to a wise headteacher colleague recently, I was struck by her advice: “when you get that founding team together, there will be zero trust in the room.” She advised me to think deeply about how to build that trust so they can become a team that executes excellence. And she told me to read Kim Scott’s Radical Candour.

The combination of my colleague’s wisdom and reading Scott’s book have given me a clear steer on staff culture. Radical Candour is essentially about how to set up strong team relationships so you can hold each other to account and continually improve. In Scott’s latest introduction, she notes that she almost called the book “Compassionate Candour”, which I far prefer. What this means for Scott is that you need to both “care deeply” about each team member and “challenge directly.”

The book opens with the all-too recognisable story of the anonymised “Bob.” Bob came to her company with great references, but his first piece of work was sub-par. Rather than challenging him on it, Scott insincerely told him the work was great. This meant Bob assumed that this standard of work was acceptable, and continued with it. Which meant the team kept having to cover for him, and then they themselves stopped seeing why they should put so much effort in when Bob was praised for so little. Eventually, having avoided Bob in the office, Scott finally built up the courage to talk directly – and fired him.

Bob’s reaction? “Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

It is easier to care deeply than it is to challenge directly – I’ve often fallen into the trap of what Scott calls “ruinous empathy”: “I won’t have that difficult conversation today because this person is feeling under the weather/has just come back from being ill/is having relationship problems.” And of course, sometimes it’s right to put off a conversation (in fact, Scott says picking people up on every little thing, in work as in relationships, is not advised: she suggests leaving “three things unsaid” each day). But ultimately, there are some hinge points where you do need to hold others to account.

A large part of this book explores the concept that you as the leader need to model welcoming feedback. In fact, if you are constantly seeking, inviting, relishing and (crucially) acting on feedback, you encourage this culture in your organization. People might not have to steel themselves for the “difficult conversation” if everyone is constantly saying: ‘what do you think? What could I change? How could I improve this?” It becomes part of the natural dialogue. Scott describes a culture at Google and Apple where the top leaders – CEOs, founders – would relish being shouted down by others, and thank them for being so direct. She cites Steve Jobs: “I don’t mind being wrong. And I’ll admit that I’m wrong a lot. It doesn’t really matter to me too much. What matters to me is that we do the right thing.”

So as leaders, we have a huge responsibility to always seek feedback, and then to genuinely act on it and show we have taken that feedback seriously to build that culture of constant improvement. This culture is especially crucial to an organization that is growing.

Scott talks of the particular nature of start-ups, which of course resonates strongly with me at this point: with a tiny team, everyone knows each other extremely well. You tend to find it easy to have radically candid conversations, because you know each other well and the care is evidently there. But as a start-up begins to grow, this does not scale. You can’t deeply know one hundred people in a genuine way. You can’t go around “just being honest” with people you haven’t built relationships with. That, Scott advises, makes you an “a**hole.” The trap is that people actually prefer a competent boss who is a “jerk” to an incompetent boss who is nice to them. The danger of this is that the jerks begin to flourish, and all of a sudden you have an organisational culture that becomes pretty toxic.

How do we guard against this? How do we safeguard the culture, while still being honest with each other about how we’re doing?

The first step, as above, is to model from above. Scott notes that for CEOs (headteachers), the way you line manage others will be mimicked by them: you influence your organization much more than you are ever aware (she tells the memorable story of a hold-up in making a shuttle bus for workers at one company because the team in charge looked at the CEO’s car and chose the same colours for the bus, which then took longer to make. The CEO hadn’t mentioned this and didn’t care what colour the bus was, but for those he managed they added weight to his every visible movement).

Secondly, perhaps having a dialogue of compassionate candour between line manager and managee, i.e. those who have formed a trusting relationship, is the best place for candour to remain. A positive culture focused on excellence can only be built when feedback is freely given and underpinned by the understanding that the person giving feedback genuinely cares about the person receiving it – and relationships do not scale in the way we imagine they do. But if everyone is continually seeking to improve with the support, guidance and challenge of those who know them the best – I think that’s a staff culture I’d want to be a part of.

If you like the sound of a staff culture focused on continual improvement, founded on genuine care for others, we’re starting to hire our founding team in December. Stay in touch!

Curriculum and enrichment

It goes without saying that the curriculum is the education preoccupation of the moment. As a profession, we’ve come to recognise the limits of a focus on pedagogy alone, and we’ve moved towards a debate on what children study, what their entitlement is, and what that looks like in a school.

In creating the curriculum entitlement for Ark Soane Academy, I’ve had to do some soul-searching. It became rapidly clear, staring at those 29 squares of lesson time, that there was no way we could do everything we wanted to. My own dream curriculum would have 7 lessons of English a week, 8 of Maths, 3 History, 3 Geography, 2 Religious Education, 5 MFL, 7 Science, 2 Art, 2 Music, 2 PE, 2 Drama… we’d have to either find 14 additional hours, or compromise. It came to me early on that we couldn’t do everything, and we certainly couldn’t do everything well.

So, moving away from the boxes, I went back to first principles. We want to ensure that students can achieve great results in academic subjects, not only because academic subjects open doors, but so they can be introduced to the academic conversation, participate in cultural debate and discussion, and have a broad awareness of human thought that is the entitlement of every child. With that in mind, the curriculum at Soane will be highly academic. We make no apologies for wanting every child to learn core academic subjects, and expect all Soane students to study the following to GCSE level: English, Maths, Science, History or Geography, and a foreign language.

That is not to say that we only care about academic subjects at Soane; far from it. After all, we take our name from the most famous architect in British history: Sir John Soane. Soane, born the son of a bricklayer, made his legacy through his art: in his case, designing innovative, enduring buildings like the Bank of England and the Dulwich Picture Gallery. We absolutely recognise and celebrate the importance of the arts. In fact, to designate the arts “non-academic” is clearly inadequate. The arts can be taught as “academically” as any other subject, and they will be at Soane.

Another thought I could not shake was the importance of enrichment. I was inspired hearing Lizzie Bowling’s speech at New Voices last year on enrichment, where she lamented how few children came to her wonderfully planned, hugely inspiring lunchtime clubs. Her rallying cry: “enrichment for all!” rang in my ears. We had to ensure every child had an enriched experience of school, not only those who chose it. So we have built enrichment into the school timetable, to ensure every child who attends Soane gets to choose something extra-curricular to pursue. Our aim with enrichment is to provide students with a broader educational experience, and to enable them to have an aspect of choice in their education: students will have free choice over a myriad of possibilities, and the opportunity to change each term to try something different. What these possibilities look like will be shaped by the passions and expertise of the teachers we hire in January and February next year.

At all open events, the children want to hear about school trips. I’ve worked at schools where teachers ran trips every week, taking a handful of children to some new and exciting place. This ultimately left behind cover work  and all its attendant difficulties for the teacher’s classes, and scores of children crying “unfair” – it was often seen that the same students got lots of opportunities, and others very few. In other schools I’ve worked at, we would run trip days or “academy days”, like I know a lot of schools do now. Taking a whole year group out on an enriching trip means no cover left behind, and no children left behind. This will be our approach to trips at Soane.

If you like the sound of an academic curriculum full of cultural capital with enrichment as an entitlement for all, please stay in touch – we will be accepting applications from December 2019.

Jerusalem

I didn’t want to go to Israel. I know that’s a terribly spoiled child point of view, but that’s the truth. When I looked it up the first search hit was “terrorist threat” (which, if you’re interested, was not considered zero). In fact, it was a chance conversation with my friend Lia who told me she was considering going there at Christmas that made me think again.

My Israel trip coincided with discovering Ann Patchett. Readers will be familiar with the “reading rut”: you’ve exhausted all your go-to reads, and nothing on your shelves seems appealing. All of a sudden, a writer emerges – an odd article mentions them in passing, and you’re away. How had I never read Ann Patchett before? Wonderfully, you discover their large back-catalogue, and suddenly the reading vista seems plentiful again; the reading world infinite once more.

So much about This is the Story of a Happy Marriage spoke to me. In “Do not Disturb” Patchett writes:

“what we want out of a vacation changes as we age. It changes from vacation to vacation. There was a time when it was all about culture for me. My idea of a real break was to stay in museums until my legs ached… later I became a disciple of relaxation and looked for words like beach and massage when making my plans… Now I strive for transcendent invisibility and the chance to accomplish the things I can’t get done at home.”

As a full-time, main scale teacher, I went on holiday to do two things: 1. To read books; 2. To sit still. The daily life of a teacher is energetic to say the least, and so all I really wanted to do was sit down. (I always want to read, so that is always my number one aim of anything I’m doing or anywhere I’m going.) My partner, by contrast, has a job that involves a lot of desk-sitting, so his ideal holiday consists of moving and doing. We are not, sadly, ideal holiday companions. This time, we took the advice an Israeli colleague and headed for Tel Aviv, which seemed to have it all: beaches for me to sit on, and no end of things to see and do.

On the penultimate day, we took a small group tour to visit Jerusalem. I want to write about Jerusalem while it is fresh in my mind, and I want to write about it when it is not. I want to find out what stays with me and what melts away, though I suppose writing about anything will also change the experience.

In my ignorance, I’d not known that Jerusalem is a city of three religions: I knew, of course, that the city was disputed by Jews and Muslims; I had been less aware of the Christian elements of the city (and the Armenian presence was a mystery to me). Friends had warned me that I might find disapproving looks from the ultra-religious in the different “quarters”, but that wasn’t the case. In fact, the only location where anyone glanced at our group with anything approaching distaste was during prayers at King David’s tomb, when, perhaps understandably, a man trying to focus on his prayer in the space (which is also a synagogue) was unhappy at our looming, encroaching presence.

At site after site, our tour guide spoke honestly of the reality of what we were seeing: “this is where they say Jesus died… but we don’t really know. This is meant to be King David’s tomb, but it probably isn’t. This is where some Christians believe the Virgin Mary ascended to heaven… But some Christians think it’s somewhere else.” For my scientific other half, this served to strengthen his view that religion is “made up”. But what came through for me was the power of tradition to help us connect to something bigger than ourselves. I don’t think I have ever felt the power of belonging quite so strongly as standing side by side with the women on the ladies’ side of the Western wall, or watching a boy read his Bar Mitzvah Torah as his joyous relatives celebrated his coming of age in the streets, or seeing large groups of Muslim worshippers outside the Dome of the Rock eating a shared picnic and holding out bread for us to join them. Religion connects us, and that’s not nothing.

And though the city has had a fractured past (to say the least), and though I can’t speak for those who live there, there was something astonishing about people of such extremely diverse backgrounds living so closely and so, apparently, peacefully (I asked my tour guide if the city was “safe” and she unhesitatingly said “of course!” before adding: “but I am from South America, so,” and shrugging). I’d been warned before visiting Israel to be ready to see the military walking the streets armed with terrifyingly visible weapons, but found that to be vanishingly rare. In fact, I saw this only twice, by those guarding the most sacred places in Jerusalem.

Who are the Jews who live in Jerusalem, who pray three times a day, who dress in the ultra-orthodox manner? Our guide explained that many devote their lives to studying the Torah – they don’t have what we’d consider traditional employment. The depth of the knowledge they must have of this sacred script seemed awesome to me, and reminded me that we need all focuses to make up the intellectual world: the polymath is just as crucial as the post-doc. Why is Judaism the oldest surviving world religion, asked our guide? Because of these people, who devote their lives to fully living this tradition. Without them, she posited, the religion and culture could have died out long ago. So from the Jewish quarter, I felt the value of tradition and the value of deep knowledge.

We learn more from travelling than we would have learned from a textbook not because of our own physical presence somewhere foreign, but because of the people we encounter. Our tour was made up of kind and fascinating people: a couple from Turkey and their colleague, who sold smart fridges and were passionate about their technology. An Italian couple, living in London; one of whom taught Maths, one of whom worked at the Wellcome Collection. A couple and their daughter from Hong Kong, who talked about the protests they were currently living through with great fortitude and occasional humour. And a final couple, who I didn’t manage to talk to until lunch. We had two options, lamb and falafel. I ordered the latter. “My daughter’s a vegetarian as well,” said the gentleman. I was pained to admit that I was not a vegetarian, I just loved falafel.

As we walked together after lunch, I found out he was from Athens and had studied Computer Science in Scotland in the 80s, where he was “part of this incredible revolution.” As we moved on to our next stop, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, he said to me: “this is the dream of my life. It is the dream of my life to see where Jesus was buried and resurrected, and now I get to be here.”

“The dream of my life.”

His words haunt me. I feel honoured to have been there at the moment where this man accomplished his life’s dream, but I also feel deeply troubled by his words. To me, there is something infinitely admirable about having such a dream. What, I immediately worried, is the dream of my life? To run a school? To own a dog? To have a child? To read some books? To write some books?

These are ambitions; they are actions I can do, and when they happen, what will be the outcome? Will I say “well, that’s the dream of my life. Onto a new dream.” Beside this man’s enduring faith, all my dreams seemed suddenly stripped of meaning. This man’s faith taught me that we need to seek something more in life than milestones and accomplishments.

I don’t like to think of myself as a superstitious person, but I probably am. When I lose an eyelash, I blow on it and make a wish. For years, I wished for the next rung on the promotion ladder. (I don’t wish for that anymore.) I used to wish I would have children, but for reasons too complex for this essay I don’t wish for that anymore either. On the times that I would pray, I would wish for these two things. I would also pray for friends who were in physical or mental or spiritual pain, or I would ask for those closest to me to be protected, or, embarrassingly occasionally, I would express my gratitude for what I have.

A couple of weeks ago, my step-father’s cancer was given the “terminal” diagnosis. It was very unexpected, and deeply troubling with how rapidly “some tests, nothing to worry about” had become “weeks, maybe months.” When I got to the world’s most holy place, it struck me that the thing I would most wish for, the object I would most want to pray for, is for him. But for what? A miraculous recovery? It seemed so unlikely, so small a wish to put up against the forces of nature that are ravaging his body.

And it came to me as I stood by the Western wall, surrounded by those for whom faith forms a central part of their lives, that prayers are not wishes. That I had misunderstood. Instead, I turned my thoughts to the inner life. I prayed that my stepfather would have the mental strength to die with dignity and to overcome the suffering that was now inevitable, and that I and my family would find the strength to let him go thirty years before anyone expected that to happen. And instead of praying to become a Headteacher (thank you, God), I prayed that I would have the strength to do the job well, and the moral compass to add to the world’s good in my small sphere.

Reading Patchett’s thoughts on dogs, death, divorce and marriage, I reflected that I have written too little about too little. I have stayed in a small sphere, not seeking to contribute elsewhere. I resolved to give more time to more areas of my life, and to reflect that time in the things and in the way I wrote. Because how can I answer the question: what is the dream of my life? It will take much more time, knowledge and experience.

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How do Success Academies achieve such exceptional results?

In Robert Pondiscio’s brilliant book, How the Other Half Learns, readers gain a real insight into the workings of the Success Academies through an in-depth look at one school year in Bronx 1, one of their primary schools. In this post, I’m going to explore Pondiscio’s writing in an attempt to draw out what makes Success Academies so, well, successful. And before we think about the “they choose their children” argument so often levelled at successful schools, I will quote the author: “While critics frequently attribute Success Academy’s results to systematically weeding out low-performing students, it would be hard to get anywhere near these targets, even if you hand-selected each child. Success Academy outperforms New York City’s gifted and talented schools, which actually do handpick their students.” Success’s results are astronomical: on state standardised tests, the network averages 95% proficiency in Maths and 84% in English, far above even the state’s most selective schools. For me the key learning points that shine through Pondiscio’s book are:

  1. Curriculum
  2. Teaching, and the leadership of teaching
  3. Parents

 

  1. Curriculum

The narrowing impact on the curriculum of national tests is something we in the UK can readily engage with. Pondiscio describes low-income children’s “starvation rations in history, geography, science, art and music” as their teachers prioritise a narrow range of skills to pass state tests (the irony being that a more narrow curriculum drilled tightly to the test tends to have the opposite impact on scores). The impact of the Common Core, introduced in 2013, saw depressed results across the board as children’s lack of a broad curriculum experience emerged – in all except Success Academies. This attests to Success’s rich, rigorous and broad academic curriculum. Success employs a common, shared curriculum across its schools, meaning that their teachers focus instead on “intellectual prep”: i.e., how they will deliver the lesson to their specific children. One of my favourite sentences in the book is this: “once children can decode a piece of text fluently, a reading test is hardly a reading test at all; it is functionally a test of background knowledge.” The Success curriculum is a knowledge rich curriculum.

 

  1. Teaching: behaviour management and teacher instruction

Behaviour is always a priority at Success, and this is quantified for rigorous follow-up. The SLT talk about “deliverables”: children are expected to be on-task 95% of the time; teachers are expected to notice and correct off-task behaviour 100% of the time; teachers should be able to de-escalate challenging behaviour 85% of the time. Why is behaviour so key? Pondiscio writes: “Children who are ready for new intellectual challenges pay a price when they sit in classrooms focused on their… less engaged peers”.

The culture of learning at Success emphasises what Doug Lemov calls “ratio” – putting the learning onto the children. Teachers at Success are repeatedly described as creating situations for children to grapple with difficult concepts, even from a very young age. One teacher in Pondiscio’s book advises that: “one of the most dangerous mindsets to my mind is ‘it’s too much, you are all doing too much, it’s too hard on them’… Kids are so resilient.” Later, another teacher concerned about her class’s poor performance brings in all the parents for a meeting, telling them: “we will never lower that bar because it’s too hard. We will figure out other paths to get to the destination.”

 

2a. Leadership of teaching

Coupled with these foci is the amount of time invested by leaders in observing and improving teaching. SLT conduct daily “walk-throughs”, giving feedback by email or in the moment (I wrote about this live coaching in my previous Success post, Mission Possible). The principal ensures their SLT are united in their approach, conducting joint walk-throughs initially and asking for their thoughts to check that everyone is looking for the same things ( “what did you see?” – “I want to see that you’re noticing the same things I’m noticing”; “what [feedback] would you prioritise?”) This culture is led from the very top – Eva Moskowitz herself visits Success Academies frequently, and her feedback as described is rooted deeply in her values and ethics: “you’ve got to ask yourself, Would you have your child in that classroom?” The job of the principal at Success is to focus “entirely on instruction, student data, and outcomes” – all operational issues are delegated to a specific, high ranking individual.

 

  1. Parents

By far the greatest learning for me in this book, as with Mission Possible, was around parents. Pondiscio puts it superbly: “Among education reform advocates, there is a regrettable tendency to view urban communities through a lens of dysfunction… ‘Schools should not expect much from parents at all,’ the founder of one national charter school network told me… Success Academy’s relationship with its parents suggests precisely the opposite view. The network makes significant demands of parents, assumes significant leverage, and makes no discernable negative assumptions about parents’ ability to contribute materially to their children’s education. Very little in the network’s expectations, for good or for ill, suggests a view of low-income parents as any less capable and competent than affluent ones.”

Throughout his book, we learn of the almost constant contact with parents and the logistics of how this works. Teachers call, text and email frequently, and daily during important testing preparation periods, about children’s progress, behaviour, or test scores. We are treated to a blow-by-blow account of a parent meeting, where the teacher explains the minutiae of the school day to ensure parents understand why she is asking for what she is asking for, along with offering to support them in any way they need (“You need more stickers? Just ask! You need more cubes, tiles, index cards? Just ask, ask, ask. We’re happy to give you anything you need to support your child at home”). Just as teachers have “deliverables,” so do parents: “97% of students present, 96% on time, 97% in uniform, 97% of homework completed.” Pondiscio even describes a “parent report card”, which was received without argument.

The unavoidable trade-offs

Pondiscio does not shy away from the inevitable trade-offs required. Ultimately, we can’t do everything. He writes that we can either “attempt to serve all disadvantaged children equally and labour to close the achievement gap” or we can  “do all in our power to ensure that receptive and motivated students can reap the full benefit of their talents and ambitions because that is what’s just”. He notes that the latter is what well-off families secure for their own children. Exposing a second moral quandary, he asks: “when a school or teacher fails to engage or manage disruptive behaviour, children are cheated. But who, exactly? The disruptive child who is suspended and excluded from class? Or the diligent student whose education bleeds away hour after hour while her teacher responds to antisocial outbursts or focuses on her classmate to prevent them? The weight of education policy and practice, as enshrined in impulse, empathy, and the law, comes down on the side of the disruptive child. But not at Success Academy.” Pondiscio does not cover all the trade-offs, however, and I would have liked the author to look more into the high staff turnover at Success.

Ultimately, Success exemplifies the Charter movement: exceptional achievement, at a cost not everyone is willing to pay: “her methods may not work in all schools, and not all parents would want to send their child to a Success Academy even if they could.” Me? I’m totally sold. I would send my children to Success in a heartbeat, as the CEO Eva Moskowitz herself does. Now, to find out how to visit…

Ark Elvin Academy

When you complete the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH), you are required to spend nine days at a second school. I chose Ark Elvin Academy partly for their phenomenal turn-around, and partly because one of the most inspirational educators I know, Sarah Donachy, is now a Vice Principal there.

I worked with Sarah a few years ago, and found her to be one of the most relentless and intelligent professionals I have ever met. While I could not foresee what I might glean from a second placement, I knew that time spent with her would be developmental – it was a sure thing. She had moved to Elvin, a school I only knew by its reputation some four years previous as being pretty difficult. Sarah assured me it was very different now.

I could tell from day one she was right. When I arrived, children were waiting calmly outside the gates, speaking in low voices with small groups of friends. When the receptionist opened the gate for me, a flood of children also came in, walking purposely to their courtyard.

What I saw, in every aspect of school life, was hugely impressive. Any child whose opinion I asked about school could only say positive things. On the first day, I watched over 900 students fall into year group lines in total silence and then, when dismissed, walk to their lessons in around three minutes. I turned to Sarah and grinned. She grimaced: ‘Needs to be quicker.’

And that attitude summed up every interaction I had with teachers: everyone was constantly asking ‘how can we improve’? When I asked the Principal, Becky Curtis, for her thoughts on the school’s transformative journey, she started by noting: ‘we approach everything in the spirit of constant improvement. We know we’ve still got a long way to go. Our children are not getting the grades they need to transform their lives.’

When Curtis took over in January 2017, she was the year 11s’ fifth Headteacher. In her first six months as Head, she took a narrow and laser-focus to the actions she felt would have the highest leverage in improving the school: making line-up (before school, after break and after lunch the students line up silently to transition quickly to their next lesson) more efficient and a more positive experience for students; ensuring a purposeful start to each lesson; and behaviour management. For the third action, again she broke this down into just a few clear focuses: teachers should use ‘three step instructions’ (1. Tell them the task 2. Tell them how long they have 3. Clarify the voice level expected) and then positively narrate what they saw. Only once this training had been embedded did Curtis review the sanctions system, centralising detentions in an early move to ensure staff were supported.

Similarly, as the school goes from strength to strength, the SLT retain this laser-like focus on only a small number of priorities. This is especially evident in teaching and learning, where the school will focus on only three core ideas until they are embedded, usually for the whole academic year.

For Curtis, a great school is one that can be sustainable over time. She has much to build on: staff satisfaction is high. Curtis attributes this to making Elvin a team effort: teachers know they are cared for and that their opinions count. Curtis talks about ensuring people have both the training and time to do their jobs well. Such pragmatism is typical: Curtis says that ‘at the heart of school improvement is an organised school.’ She means this on every level: clear systems, strong training, and a sensible calendar with deadlines planned in advance so nothing comes as a surprise and people can plan their workloads.

In fact, one of my favourite take-aways from Elvin was the time spent thinking about when people will do the work. During meetings, Curtis includes ‘togetherness’ time so everyone can plan in any new projects. They also work out what might need to be dropped in order to fit in a new priority.

Another learning point was Becky Curtis herself. She is stunningly clear on what she wants in Elvin and how she will rally the team to get there. She and others continually say: ‘what does great look like?’ For all the staff, the first step is to be clear on what ideal practice is. In my nine weeks at Elvin, I too started to internalise three core principles I heard Curtis say again and again:

  1. Evolution not revolution
  2. Less is more
  3. If something is worth doing, it is worth doing it right

So, where next for Elvin? Curtis is still focused on dramatically improving outcomes, and the school will also reopen its sixth form in 2020. For 2019-20, Curtis wants to make sure all teachers and children can articulate the purpose of why they are doing what they are doing. She also says ‘structure should liberate’: the school is a well-oiled machine. Now what? With the safety of these strong structures in place, Curtis wants to untap creativity within the school, so staff and students take ownership. Finally, she wants to build what she calls ‘a genuinely developmental culture of constant improvement.’ Curtis’s aim is to sustain excellence over time, a concept I saw scrawled large on the whiteboard in her office that the leadership team had used for planning their next academic year: ‘excellence isn’t a prize you win once; it is continuously earned’.

Ark Soane Academy

The opportunity to found a school from scratch is an incredible one. To do it within the expertise and support of a large network with whom you align is a dream beyond belief. Today, I’m going to share my vision for Ark Soane Academy and what I hope for when we open in September 2020 and beyond.

My three central beliefs will underpin every decision we make at the school:

  1. Impeccable student behaviour is possible and desirable.
  2. A challenging curriculum full of powerful knowledge changes lives.
  3. There are no limits to student achievement.

 

1. Impeccable behaviour

I’ve worked in schools where behaviour is impeccable; where it is quite literally perfect. I’ve seen and experienced what it is like to work in an environment like that: to be able to teach your subject with the passion, joy, energy and humour you dream of. It means you come to your classroom every day, energised to work hard for the children. It means no more Sunday dread, no more grinding conversations taking up learning time, no more bargaining about sanctions.

But what it also means is a huge amount of time invested in establishing a cast-iron system, and building positive relationships with students. The systems have to be robust enough to support all teachers, so everyone’s classroom displays impeccable behaviour – including new teachers, who often struggle with this. We cannot rely on individuals to make the behaviour policy up as they go along, as happens in some schools: that way lies inconsistency. When children spy inconsistency, they are apt to cry ‘unfair!’ and are even less inclined to follow routines.

Importantly, some children find living up to high standards hugely challenging. This is still a school for them. In fact, those children need high standards the most. We cannot ignore or push out those for whom education and self-regulation are harder. By investing in a strong pastoral system of support, by knowing all children individually, and by working closely with families, we can help all children live up to the highest of standards.

 

2. A curriculum full of challenge

All children have the right to access the best that has been thought and said. It is simply not right to exclude some children from a canon of thought that has shaped the Western world, just because they happen to have struggled academically. An appropriately timetabled school day is the way to ensure all children enjoy a curriculum we would want our own children to learn. Some children will struggle academically, we know that. That doesn’t mean classroom A learn Great Expectations while classroom B work through Spot the Dog. If the Head of English has chosen an extremely challenging text for that year group, then both classrooms should benefit from its inclusion, with classroom B being given more time and more support to ensure their experience is fulfilling and enjoyable, not frustrating.

In Mission Possible, Eva Moskowitz, the founder of the Success Academies – which are primary schools in challenging neighbourhoods in New York City – talks about their belief that children are ‘short, not stupid.’ She passionately argues that if we think they can’t, then our expectations are too low. We simply must expect more from all children – the higher our expectations, the more likely children are to rise to them. If we know all children individually and work with them and their families closely, I am confident all children can catch up and achieve academically. Yes, all children – which brings me on to point three.

 

3. Limitless potential

I know a lot has changed in the ten years I’ve worked in education, but I’ll never forget being given a bottom set year 10 towards the start of my career and being told: ‘we don’t expect them to get Cs so don’t worry too much about what you do with them.’ I have been told by colleagues in other schools that ‘some children won’t get there,’ or ‘an E is a tremendous achievement for a student like that.’

I don’t believe that. In the aforementioned bottom set, a girl was sent down from set 4 on day one of year 10. She was devastated, and told me: ‘that means I’m thick Miss.’ Luckily, she was also hugely resilient and fiercely driven. She and her sister – also in set 5 – badgered me for extra work and completed it. Both girls achieved A grades. Another student I taught who coped with huge traumatic change in year 11 (including, but not limited to, her entire family relocating four hours away, and staying on her friend’s sofa for the duration of her GCSEs) achieved a B grade. Another, apathetic and heading for failure, was blessed with a mother who forced her to attend intervention (I will always remember her phone going off, and me being so shocked that she answered it, but then her handing me the mobile and saying: ‘tell my Mum where I am please’) and supported the school to such an extent I really think it is her who managed to get her child a B and not an E, as she was predicted.

And I have seen the reality of failure. One student in year 11, barely literate, told me with pride about how ‘we’ve had so many amazing teachers.’ He went on to list seven or ten names of teachers, none currently at the school. When he left the room, the teaching assistant confided that all of these teachers had been long-term (or short-term) supply, and many were not ‘amazing’ as he had so sweetly said. In another school, I remember having to tell the kindest boy that he couldn’t come to our sixth form – he had not passed any of his subjects, and we had no provision suitable for him. He looked up at me, someone who was meant to guide and care for him, and said, tears in his eyes: ‘what do I do now?’

In both those cases, these were year 11 boys who had been let down by us. In both cases, the schools had been taken over and turned around in the time they had been there by inspirational headteachers who are a credit to our profession. But in both cases, that change came too late.

There is a tremendous benefit of a new start school. No child will ever be in the position of the two boys above, because we can focus on the incoming year 7s and make sure they never fall so far behind. That is a luxury other schools do not have. At Ark Soane Academy, there is no reason why every single child cannot succeed and achieve academically.

 

As this year goes on, I’m going to chart the journey of setting up a new school. If you like what you’ve read, we’ll be recruiting our founding teachers from January 2020.