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:
- Evolution not revolution
- Less is more
- 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’.