David Copperfield

I did not like Dickens until I was 28 years old. When I joined a new school, the whole of the Autumn term for year 7 was spent reading Dickens, which I thought I hated, so I decided I really had to read some. The good news was that I was totally wrong. Dickens is great, once you get past the excruciating syntax and accept that these are not, in fact, capital “S” Serious books.

In fact, David Copperfield may be the greatest comic novel ever written. It is a thinly veiled autobiography, and full of the most genuinely humorous scenes in all of literature – not just Victorian literature, all of literature. It is a masterpiece and you must read it if you have not already. (You’re welcome.)

What is good but in a different way is the recent film, The Personal History of David Copperfield. Like the novel, it is hilarious. Unlike the novel, which usually comes in at around a thousand pages of printed text, the film delivers the most vital storylines in under two hours. A recipe for disaster, some may say. Luckily, Armando Iannucci wrote and directed it, so it is a work of pure genius.

And what happens in the film, when you squash up all those thousand pages, is you see more clearly the peaks and troughs of David Copperfield’s life. The vista is one of extreme success and extreme failure, cycling around. An idyllic early childhood gives way to the entry of an abusive stepfather; poverty and drudgery give way to fame and fortune. This is repeated several times.

I found this film incredibly profound. For me, no other film has quite captured the essence of reality so well as this sometimes surreal piece.

In March 2019, I was reeling from a spectacular failure. I’d applied for a headship and arrogantly assumed I was a shoe-in. I’d done heaps of preparation, redrafted my application several times, and conducted three mock interviews with three different, very kind individuals. I was absolutely ready. This was my school.

I didn’t even get through to day two of the interview. I was crushed.

Reading back over my diary at that time, I laughed at how crushed I had been. I wanted to tell that sad, pathetic woman: “don’t you worry! In a couple of months time, you’re going to see the dream headship – a new start school in London with your favourite academy trust – and they’re going to be mad enough to give it to you!”

Deflated and humbled by my earlier failure, instead of putting in hard hours and preparation for this second attempt, I rushed an application to get it in by the deadline and repeatedly believed I wasn’t going to get called to the next stage of the interview.

Reading my diary in the months after my appointment is a whirlwind of disbelief: how did I get to do this job? How did I get to work with these incredible people? What had I done in life to deserve such riches? Once the interviews for our founding staff began, my disbelief doubled: never had I ever turned away so many extraordinary professionals. We hired a dream team. For each post, we would worry we hadn’t shortlisted the right people, and then at the interview day they would just gleam like gems. Every member of that team was a star player.

And then, when we had recruited our entire team, COVID-19 struck.

One evening early on in the crisis a very close friend had sent me a text message: “your school’s not going to open!” I laughed then, as they were joking and we have that kind of relationship.

But as the weeks crept on, and schools closed, and shops closed, and we were all sent home, and the children came in twos and threes instead of hundreds; and our building slowed and slowed, and the supply chain was disrupted, and the contractor for the second half of our building wouldn’t sign until after the virus was “over,” and the Department for Education couldn’t sign the funding agreement without a building, it began to sink in. Our school wasn’t going to open.

While personally hugely disappointing, the decision makes perfect sense. The DfE’s understandable priority is existing schools: the logistical challenges of reopening schools is immense; time and resources are limited; of course they want to place those limited resources into current schools rather than opening new ones. The DfE are supportive of a new secondary school in Ealing, which is desperately needed in years to come due to the large numbers of children going through the primaries right now: they, and we, are confident that Ark Soane will open – in 2021. While a deferral is disappointing, our founding team are committed to coming back next year stronger than ever – a year spent working in one of our other Ark schools, thinking carefully about Soane, is a privilege in many ways.

It is nonetheless desperately sad for all of us – “our” year 6s who will go to other schools, as well as our founding teachers who were excited to build something brilliant in September.

And so I turn to David Copperfield. I’m not working in a blacking factory (or a bottle factory, as the thinly veiled autobiography has it); it’s not so bleak as life for my furloughed friends and family. But there is, after all, no hierarchy of pain.

The hope I draw from Copperfield is this: this life will be full of tragedy and joy. These will cycle around, and we should always be wary of our highest points because they will not last. As I read back in my diary, I want to warn that joyous woman that her dream school will remain just that – a dream – for longer than she can imagine.

Yet at this very low time, where we are all united in fear for our families and our lives and our jobs and our world as we know it, I know that more positive times will come. I can’t wait to see where the next joy enters.

West London Free School: Knowledge Rules

West London Free School is well known as the flagship free school. Opened in 2011 by a parent group and spearheaded by the indomitable Toby Young, it has championed a knowledge-rich curriculum, and attracted a number of luminaries of traditional education to work there.

I arrived for my visit at lunch break, and was met with the very usual sound of a playground full of excited children. The outdoor space, as with so many London schools, is limited, which does have the benefit of ensuring the children are really looked after by teachers. As the children merrily chatted, teachers weaved in and out of friendship groups, chatting with their charges.

West London Free School’s corridors are not silent, but I did note a marked difference between volume on the playground and the volume as the kids filed into lessons after the bell rang. There was a low whisper between some as they made their way into their classrooms, and behaviour expectations were rigorously reinforced. Expectations of pupils’ behaviour were high, with the result that across the school the worst behaviour I saw was some covert whispering, generally spotted quickly by teachers, who dealt with it with meaningful pauses or ‘the teacher stare’ rather than sanctions.

Across the school – across year groups, subject areas, and ability groups – the pupils’ focus was superb. The atmosphere in classes was one of concentration, but also energy. I firmly believe that this is because the children at West London Free School know they are learning. In every classroom I visited, the teacher’s style was traditional. Desks were in rows, and teachers were at the front, often sitting and commanding the class with their (clearly expert) subject knowledge.

In year 11 English, the teacher led a whole-class discussion as pupils annotated the poem. The only resources being used were the GCSE anthology and a pen. The teacher’s own copy had been annotated in huge detail, showing her lesson preparation and own subject knowledge. In year 10 History, pupils were learning about the suffragettes, using the textbook with teacher guidance, additional information and questioning to extend their learning. In year 8 Classics, the pupils listened to a reading of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ while taking notes about what they were hearing.

Lesson changeover was tricky, as the school is served by one narrow staircase, and moving that many children up and down is always going to be a challenge. Yet the trainee science teacher I saw moved from entry to beginning the pupils’ learning in under two minutes, with every child focused. The Head of Science played a large role in her corridor, popping into every science classroom to support with settling pupils rapidly.

I can’t finish this post without mentioning the children of WLFS. I know children are always lovely, but I was really struck by the politeness of every pupil I encountered. In every lesson, they moved their books so I could see them, often whispering to me to explain what they were learning. In every room I went into, pupils stood ‘for the visitor’ and were unfailingly polite and welcoming and happy. They are an absolute credit to their teachers and their community.

Visiting West London Free School gave me great hope for the knowledge community. It is clear to see that when children behave, and teachers know their subject and prepare well for their lessons, a really lovely atmosphere of focus and achievement can be created. I am very excited to see what the next chapter for West London Free School holds.