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.