About twenty minutes walk from Great Yarmouth train station is a school where every child will greet a visitor with a smile and a ‘good morning miss!’ It is a school where children will merrily chat about their learning. Where they are relentlessly polite, happy and friendly. Where they are proud of their school.
At the same school, teachers are encouraged to ‘lecture’ while children listen. They are unfrazzled. No one is racing anywhere. They are relentlessly happy and excited about what is happening to their school.
And so they should be. Because last year, 21 of every 30 children who attended the school did not get even a 4 in English and Maths. Behaviour was out of control. ‘Last year nearly broke me,’ said one teacher.
It is the last week of November. How on earth has new Headteacher Barry Smith managed to put in place this much change in less than two half terms?
‘It had transformed within two weeks,’ one teacher tells me. Barry spent the inset days modelling exactly what he wanted all teachers to do: I would have loved to see the teachers, filed into rows in the dining hall, being taught to SLANT by him. They worked through their own distinct ‘Being Charter’ booklet on behaviour expectations just as the children would when they arrived later in the week.
Barry roams the school during lessons. Even children on their way to isolation are polite, making eye-contact and calling him ‘sir.’ There are three children in isolation when I visit that afternoon.
Teachers are effusive in their praise of his leadership. They explain to me something I saw a lot when I worked with Barry at Michaela: he ‘bigs teachers up’ in front of the kids (‘sir, where did you go to university again? Cambridge? Wow – lucky kids!’) He is the heart and soul of the school.
But it’s not personality that has transformed Great Yarmouth Charter – it is systems. Barry has introduced a simple behaviour system, and works tirelessly to ensure all teachers follow it consistently. As a result, children across year groups and subjects are listening, focusing, learning. Their books are consistently beautifully presented, and work is always neat. They are silent, or very close to it, at every transition, even when no teacher is present. In the lunch hall, when one member of staff puts their hand up, 300 year 10 and 11 students put their hands up and are silent, including midway through eating lunch for an important announcement.
The best thing about great behaviour is that it frees children up to be excited about learning. Over lunch, a year 11 buzzed as she told me her favourite Shakespeare play (Much Ado About Nothing), and she and her friends spontaneously debated culpability in An Inspector Calls. Outside Miss Rizvi’s Maths classroom, year 8s beamed that they ‘knew all the squared numbers off by heart,’ and proceeded to chant them with their teacher’s blessing.
At the centre of all this marches Barry Smith, flanked by a host of other Barry Smith sound-alikes (teachers encourage kids continually using classic Smith-isms: ‘looking smart,’ ‘looking sharp’, ‘smart as a dart’). Teachers are unremittingly positive: ‘we can see the effects of the behaviour systems,’ one told me, ‘we can actually teach here now.’ Yet there is no complacency – several times during the day, several teachers and leaders said: ‘this is just the beginning. There is so much to do.’
One Teach Firster in his second year was glowing; in his element after a tough first year battling behaviour. I asked what his plans were – would he stay in teaching?
‘Yes,’ came the reply, without hesitation. And then, unprompted: ‘I want to stay here. Something really special is happening here right now.’ It would be madness to disagree.