Teaching at Ark Soane Academy

As part of the Ark network, Ark Soane Academy will benefit from a wealth of expertise on teaching and learning. Ark provides central professional development that is second to none, as well as facilitating teachers to study for professional qualifications like the NPQML or NPQSL. 

But we all know that professional development of teaching is about so much more than professional qualifications.  

Teaching and learning at Soane will centre on a spirit of continuous improvement. Teachers at Soane will always seek to get better at the most important thing they do: teaching. 

We’ll work in the context of cognitive science: we believe that something is only learned when it is committed to long-term memory. We believe in frequent, low-stakes testing to support learning. We believe in clear teacher-instruction, and teacher-led questioning and discussion. We believe in extended practice focused on the core aspects of the subject. We believe in frequent, subject-specific, feedback; not onerous marking. 

 Excellent teaching will be ensured by two central concepts: impeccable behaviour and coaching.  

Impeccable behaviour will be ensured from day one at Soane, with children inducted into the school’s behaviour policy for one whole week at the start of year 7. A centralised detention system will support teachers to enforce high standards. Plenty of whole-staff training will ensure that teachers are as consistent as possible when applying sanctions, to ensure we can be completely fair to those in our care. Impeccable behaviour means teachers can focus on the most important thing: teaching their subject to children.  

Our coaching model will support and stretch teachers at all stages of their career. We know that one-size-fits-all professional development alone will not deliver world-class teaching. At Soane, all teachers will teach with their doors open; a signal to their fellow professionals to come and look at what’s going on. Teachers will provide feedback on teaching to all members of staff, regardless of the supposed school hierarchies. Every teacher will observe another teacher weekly – a short observation, just 10-15 minutes – and give feedback and an action step to improve teaching.   

We can all always get better at what we’re doing. If the idea of continuously improving, while supported by strong school systems, appeals to you, we’re hiring now. 

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.

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.