I trained to teach with Teach First in 2010, and I will always consider that to have been a fortunate year because of one two hour, voluntary session held in a lecture hall at Warwick University. In that session, a Principal named Max Haimendorf introduced the pupils of King Solomon Academy to us, and explained what his school stood for.
Looking back, it is clear to me that this was a defining moment in education. Schools like KSA simply did not exist back in 2010. It’s hard, having experienced the best part of ten years of free schools trailblazing innovative practice, to remember a time when no children in England did “two claps on three” and chanted “you’ve got to read, people read.”. Back when schools were just schools – they didn’t grow from nothing; they occasionally changed their name or tragically closed – but that was that.
In 2010, as KSA’s founding cohort were finishing their first year, the simplicity and scope of Max’s vision was ground breaking: if 97% of privately educated children go to university, why not 97% of the children we serve? If we accept 97% as a benchmark, why not make it 100%? At that time, only 16% of children in receipt of free school meals were going on to university. The contrast of these figures could not be more stark.
That session in 2010 marked the first time someone had put it to me in those terms. I honestly think before that moment I had somewhere thought that some children were smart, and some children were not, and schools had to do the best they could with that. Max and his team’s beliefs completely changed mine.
What is so humbling about the KSA story is its sustained excellence. That first cohort of children came out with stunning results – 93% of children gained five GCSEs at A*-C including English and Maths. But as the years have gone on, the school has continued to wildly exceed expectations, and put its children on a path to university and genuine life choices: in six years of GCSE results, five of the cohorts have achieved progress in the top 1% of all schools.
I’ve been privileged to visit the original dream school four times since that day, and every time I’ve felt moved by what that team does – day in, day out. The belief and the vision are strong as ever; the behaviour and the respect for adults from the children is clear; the copious amounts of work in every lesson and the focus on an academic core of subjects are still strong. After 10 years the results are still impressive. And after 10 years, Max is still there. In a sector where people often move on rapidly, or see success as running many schools over a career, to stay with the ever changing and ever challenging school you first founded seems to me the most admirable choice one could make, and illustrates the total commitment to mission that founded the school in the first place.
I remember leaving that meeting in 2010 buoyed with the infectious enthusiasm of the KSA team. I remember my shock that not all my Teach First colleagues felt the same.
“The clapping was weird.” “I didn’t like the chanting.” “I don’t think they’re right – university isn’t for everyone.”
The clapping is weird. So is the clicking. So is the chanting. But for me it is weird in the way Shakespeare is weird: it creates a new world –one of endless possibility.
School is, at its heart, a place for reinvention. School is the place where children come, independent of their families and their backgrounds – they leave whatever home they have come from, and whatever troubles or issues might be present there, and they sit side by side with their peers and learn from the same teacher. At school, a child can be anything they want to be.
KSA taught me that the job of a school is to believe the impossible is possible, and to know that getting there will look different and feel, at times, different or even uncomfortable. The promise of university necessitates difficult choices on curriculum, on pedagogy and on ethos. But for the schools that make that promise, the results are extraordinary.