A couple of years ago, two people who are very high profile in education advised me to visit Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford.
It took me two years, but with a 5am start (so that I got to see morning meetings) I took a colleague and we drove up for a day of great CPD. It is hard to express everything I experienced and learnt in a single blog, so I’m going to summarise a few of the points. I can’t possibly do justice to this wonderful school, so I encourage you to visit, to apply, and to join. I found myself wishing my early years in teaching had been spent somewhere like DTA.
Bradford and DTA:
Half of the children who attend DTA live in the five poorest wards in Bradford, a city that was recently voted the worst place in Britain to live. If any families need a school like DTA, it is those in Bradford. DTA has to overcome the challenges of teacher recruitment (unlike London, there is little to attract professionals to the area) and poverty.
However, 100% of pupils in the school say they enjoy school, and 100% of parents would recommend the school to others.
The school has recently entered the entire Year 10 cohort into Science, and has achieved 93% C+ and 97% 3LOP. The grades at C+ match the local private school entries in Year 11.
Values, Vision and Drivers:
“Our emphasis on drivers is one of the things that makes us different” – Luke Sparkes, Principal
Hard work, fairness, and trust are the values that sit behind the DTA vision. This could be considered fairly standard fare from a senior leader or headteacher. However, Luke was explicit about what makes DTA different. The Principal Luke Sparkes is overt about the values and vision the school is built upon. This is not uncommon, but having been heavily influenced by the charter school movement in the US, established successful schools in the UK, and Dan Pink’s book Drive, DTA explicitly talks about the drivers. In my experience this is unique to DTA.
Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose drive DTA. The students, the staff and hence the institution are built on and by these drivers. The desire to have control over one’s life, the urge to become better and better at something, and the idea that there is a role to fulfil that is greater than the impact on oneself. Every pupil, every member of staff, and the school have a sentence that expresses how they would like to be remembered, and the school fosters autonomy in order to strive for mastery.
The drivers at the school are embedded through artefacts – like the rituals and routines of the organisation, the language that is used, the stories and heroes that they reference. In particular at DTA, they ‘go big’ on routines. The adults practice these themselves, and hence practice managing them while pupils are in morning meetings (a version of an assembly, or prep for the day, or additional homework).
“We don’t have many ideas. But we do them with rigour” Luke Sparkes
None of the DTA staff claimed a monopoly on their ideas. Even when talking about what makes them different, like the drivers above, Luke was humbly deferential to where the ideas had come from, be it a book, an individual, a blog or another school. However, throughout the day, when asked how aspects of DTA had been created, the answer came back to implementation – and that means clear vision from leaders, and all colleagues implementing the strategies promoted by leaders.
Luke talked of repetition. He said that his presentation on vision, values and drivers that he had just shown us had been delivered to the staff four or five times this year, and that pupils and staff hear the same messages repeatedly. They have no new initiatives, but concentrate on implementing and embedding their prioritised improvement strategies well. It was clear to me that Luke had been influenced by some of the same people as me when he used said that at DTA the staff “sweat the small stuff” and that they “stop doing some good things in order to do even better things”. While both of these things are features of what we do at Cottenham Village College, I took away the thorough and robust implementation as a key learning point from DTA.
Humility and leadership:
If Luke is impressive when he talks about founding the school, the work that went in, and the vision that has seen the school become hugely popular and successful, his humility is all the more striking. Like his school, Luke is confident, but eager for feedback. He talked to me several times during the day and was eager to gather feedback to improve further. He was generous with his time, and open about things that might not be perfect. It seemed to me that his leadership was significantly influenced by his experience as a senior leader in a successful turn-around school.
“Leaders like measurements, leaders are adrenaline junkies, and leaders pride themselves on their intelligence” – Luke Sparkes
However, DTA and its success are built on things that are mundane, done repeatedly. It doesn’t require intelligence to enforce the same routine on the 70th day of term, but it is essential. At DTA “we have our bad days” the staff said, “but the bad days are days when a leader or a group of people don’t enforce the simple things, and we fix it”.
It is clear that routines and systems, not leaders’ egos, are at the centre of DTA’s success. It is because of this that leaders don’t continually try to implement initiatives. It is because of this that staff and leaders are constantly on the look-out for feedback, and it is because of this that they are able to implement their ideas with rigour that I have rarely witnessed.
The focus at DTA isn’t on initiatives. It is on a cohesive team, creating clarity, on over-communicating that clarity and reinforcing that clarity. They are hence clear that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” (Peter Drucker) and do not over-rely on ‘strategic thinking’ at the expense of getting the culture right.
They also focus on having a healthy and smart organisation, with high morale, productivity, an absence of politics (gossip) and low staff turnover to go with great strategy, finance, HR and marketing.
There was an aura of humility around the school. But the school is not humble about its aims – for all pupils to attend a university of their choice or a meaningful alternative. This was clearly a shared ambition by leaders, staff, pupils and parents.
You can’t run a school in the building DTA is in without having very clear enforced rules on behaviour. The pupils are given one warning about their behaviour. This is from the Principal on their first day. Then there is the certainty of action if they break one of the rules. Like most other things at DTA, the combination of simplicity, clarity and rigour of implementation makes this work.
“We don’t have many rules, but they are clear and we stick to them” – Luke Sparkes
Pupils who are in detention are sent on tours of the school with visitors the following day or week. It is hard to miss “home of the hardest working pupils in Bradford” plastered on the wall of the ‘heartspace’ – the large area at the centre of the school widely used including for family lunch.
I walked into a Year 11 English cover lesson. I only knew it was a cover lesson because the teacher approached me and whispered to me above the silence that the pupils were completing their 100% sheets (all the knowledge the pupils need for that unit) in silence, painstakingly memorising them word by word.
The clear routines are modelled and practised, but they are also scripted. Jenny Thompson talked about ‘micro-scripts’, which are a powerful way of ensuring that staff are on the same page and dealing with things consistently. There was also a sense in which this consistency set firm boundaries for the institution to allow and be clear where there is real autonomy. There is no doubt as to where leaders and teachers at all levels make decisions. They hence have a manual that acts as a reference guide. “It says ‘if you don’t know what to do, do this’” said Jenny.
“Our behaviour system could be very draconian, if we weren’t led by values” – Luke Sparkes
This is what made the school a happy school, in my view.
“When we were considering our ambition for our pupils, the only thing we could consider was university” – Luke Sparkes
At DTA, children from Year 1 (in the on-site primary feeder, Dixons Music Primary) are visiting university. DTA carry out their secondary transition day at a university.
At the end of each year, every child at DTA writes their own report, which they present to their tutors, their parents and their learning partner. The aspiration pupils have to ensure they have plenty to say about the steps they have taken to meet the highest aspirations is stark as they talk proudly of their school and their progress. Staff told me this was the most amazing day as the whole community ended with (positive) tears in their eyes.
Small, micro scripted (at least, in terms of a menu e.g. ‘1 improvement point’ and timing) coaching sessions with teachers ensure very specific single improvement points are identified and practised. As a result, the pedagogy across the school is of a very high standard, and this is reinforced by the modelling and practice in the coaching which all teachers are entitled to.
“There is an absolute focus on ‘what needs to improve’” – Natalie Brown, Vice Principal
I was taken by the way in which this is unapologetic. “We don’t spend 20 minutes getting to the point”, said Natalie. This is a very strong model of CPD that eschews a focus on multiple ideas and focuses on real practice. It had me returning to school and picking up my copy of Leverage Leadership again.
There are two statements that are prevalent with teachers at DTA:
“We will not let pupils leave our lessons with misconceptions”,
and on culture the staff say to pupils:
“Please don’t ever ask me to lower my expectations of you”
Again, these aren’t remarkable, except the focus is on implementation, and hence in this school, these statements put into action make it remarkable.
“We find it very hard to recruit. We have PE teachers teaching English” – Luke Sparkes
“You can have whatever you want. We’ll share everything and anything” – Jenny Thompson, Head of School
Luke is clear that establishing and running DTA is labour intensive. He and the school are very clear on workload and work-life balance and their policies and school calendar reflect this. I could see how they have inspired other free schools in London, Bedford and elsewhere with their pioneering approaches. The candour with which Luke expressed his concerns over excessive workload made it very clear that he takes it seriously and neither hides from difficult decisions, nor pretends that hard work isn’t necessary.
Moreover, we came away thinking about areas at CVC where we could improve significantly. Whilst thinking about the priorities and implementation necessary for us to become an even better school is challenging, the openness and humility allowed me to see that this was far from impossible. We came away feeling that I’d had excellent leadership modelled to us.
So, for Cottenham Village College:
I returned with a renewed sense that the details of implementation are important. For example, as we move towards centralising detentions and improving further our own excellent culture, we are thoroughly exploring the new system and to ensure implementation is thorough and robust, to see where it might creak.
As we launch a strategy to get our pupils to read more, we will focus on the implementation, properly. Planning is under way.
In implementing our new reporting system, we have already been inspired by DTA. Last Friday we had four Senior Teachers lead the whole school in very large assemblies to carve out time during the school day to ensure the implementation is modelled and is hence right. Not only is the renewed focus on implementation partly from our visit, but the practicalities of carving out time in the morning is a direct result of our visit.
Most of all, I came away with a feeling of reasonable aspiration for my school. CVC is a very good school indeed. Behaviour is excellent. Results are excellent. Pupils are happy. But I felt that I’d been challenged to be even better. My resolve to continue to say ‘no’ to most initiatives was strengthened, and while I saw a brilliant school, I could also see how they modelled how some of that further improvement that is possible at CVC might be implemented.
On Dixons Trinity Academy
Perhaps because it is in Bradford, or perhaps because of their humility, DTA doesn’t get the attention I feel it deserves. However, if I was going to recommend a school to start a career in, or one to further a career in – or indeed, if one wants to experience the modelling of truly great leadership in schools in the UK, I can’t think of a much better place to do so that DTA.
The openness with which they admit to challenges, such as Year 11 has been our hardest year makes me convinced they have the leadership and ethos to get it right for a large cohort of pupils whom one can’t help wonder what their futures might have held without this wonderful school.