Posted by: mrlock | November 14, 2021

Job opportunity: make a great school world-class

There is still a significant volume of nonsense in the school system that is accepted as ‘normal’. But over the last decade plus, it has got better.

In 2003, Michael Wilshaw was appointed the head of Mossbourne Community Academy. Over the next eight years, Mossbourne impacted on my school leadership. This was because Mossbourne became an example of a school that served a deprived community that expected pupils to behave well, 100% of the time. Learning was prized, and a large number of disadvantaged pupils achieved very good results.

Since then, a number of schools have shown that kids from deprived backgrounds can behave, and a phrase that I found common in 2003 – “what can you expect from kids like this?” was cast aside in the minds of many educators. It is a phrase that many people I know now baulk at.

Now knighted as Sir Michael, I’d argue that the ripples beyond Mossbourne around pupil behaviour were at least as impactful as his leadership of Ofsted after 2011.

I learnt that kids from disadvantaged backgrounds can behave as well as their better off peers, and we don’t need excuses.

In 2007, King Solomon Academy in Westminster was established, with the secondary opening in 2009, led by Max Haimendorf and colleagues. KSA focussed on culture, and influenced some other schools I write about later in this blog. Alongside the focus on culture, I learnt from talking to colleagues who worked at KSA that considering the sequencing of curriculum, ensuring that all pupils learn the components, is more crucial to final performance than practising that final performance.

KSA achieved the very best results in the country in 2015 and 2016.

KSA taught us that pupils from deprived backgrounds could behave, and that they could learn an academic curriculum just as well as their peers, and that schools shouldn’t metaphorically shrug if a pupil is underachieving.

I learnt from KSA and others that careful curricular thought raises achievement much more than other ‘bets’, that have more peripheral benefits.

Alongside Reach Feltham (established 2012) under Ed Vainker and colleagues, KSA (now Ark King Solomon Academy) also taught us that schools can work much, much closer with families for the benefit of pupils.

Ed, Max and colleagues are completely committed to ensuring that all pupils, including the most complex and difficult cases, are able to achieve and live happy, healthy lives. This isn’t abstract – the influence is tangible.

I learnt from both of these schools that we really are the centre of the community, but we aren’t automatically. We are responsible for our pupils’ life chances, and this doesn’t end at the end of the school day.

In September 2012, Luke Sparkes and colleagues started Dixons Trinity Academy. Their wider approach to culture is something that opened my eyes when I visited. We can give pupils responsibility, and have much higher expectations of them remembering what they learn, including pupils with SEND.

Dixons Trinity Academy is amongst the top schools in the country for achievement every single year, really transforming education in the north. It is probably the best secondary school that I have visited.

Luke is fond of the Peter Drucker phrase “culture eats strategy for breakfast” and when I visited I really took this away. But the key aspect I really learnt from Dixons Trinity was the humility to listen and consider whether we, as leaders, may have things wrong. In particular, the focus on implementation ahead of new ideas.

I learnt that leaders can be too prideful of their leadership, and need to consider implementation consistently over time, intentionally avoiding being driven by their ego.

In 2014, Katharine Birbalsingh and colleagues founded Michaela Community School. Amongst many other strengths, Michaela most intentionally illustrated to hundreds of visitors that traditional pedagogy makes learning accessible to all pupils. As colleagues at Michaela have illustrated, all pupils can pay attention and remember what is being taught by subject experts. And those pupils are also happy and thriving in an environment where adults control lots of the variables (eg noise in the corridors, impact of technology, other external distractions).

I learnt from Michaela that traditional pedagogy and time-saving routines can be implemented to huge impact on pupil learning.

I have no doubt that the above schools all learnt from each other, and are better for each others’ existence. Their approaches differ in some respects – particularly their combination of ‘bets’ and the things that they don’t do.

In 2012, Mark Lehain and colleagues established Bedford Free School (BFS). With current Principal Tim Blake and Deputy Principal Jane Herron, they have always tried to learn from the best institutions in the country to offer the families of Bedford a choice – striving very hard to make that choice something better.

I was privileged to become the Principal in 2017. I was convinced that Mark and colleagues had a really strong combination of approaches alongside being really clear on the things we don’t do to make sure implementation is possible. So we focussed on implementation.

BFS is now a school where aspects include that we:

  • focus on the curriculum
  • respect subject-specialism
  • expect excellent academic outcomes, without hot-housing or impoverishing the curriculum
  • have very high leadership presence, expecting 100% of learning time to be spent on learning
  • have a feedback rather than a marking policy
  • have purposeful, supervised corridors and lesson changeover ensuring efficiency
  • put ‘extra-curricular’ activities in the school day for 100% participation
  • parent involvement without time-consuming parent report writing
  • supportive lesson visits rather than graded lesson observations (in fact no high-stakes observations at all)
  • expect 100% of pupils to play for a school team (the opportunity to compete together as a team and to develop healthy, social, life-long habits is the aim over winning)

But we know that we can be better still. Perhaps some of the things we do can be implemented better, or maybe there are things we do that aren’t the very ‘best bets’ and there are better ones. As Dylan Wiliam is fond of saying, ‘schools should stop doing some good things to do some even better ones’.

We are looking for the next Principal at Bedford Free School. 

It’s really important to note that this is a Principal, rather than a ‘Head of School’. If you apply and are successful, then this will be your school!

This school is one of only 12 that have been graded Outstanding by OFSTED in a section 5 inspection under the new EIF, and has a great reputation. This has been the platform for a small, but growing trust.

It is stable, has a stable staff, and a great SLT. But there is a lot to do – we’re ambitious to be the very best in the country (while continuing to learn from the best), and we know that our new Principal will take some different approaches, or will implement some of the approaches we already have better.

It’s an ideal first headship for someone smart, and could be career-defining for the right person. It could also be a great move for someone who thinks that the system could be a lot better and rather than moaning about it, wants the support to show how it can be.

I’m very proud of Bedford Free School. It is a school good enough for my own children (my daughter is a pupil) but there is a lot we can improve on and the staff know that we can be so much better still. In order to ensure that this school takes its place amongst the very best, we are looking for someone who can work closely with the Director of Education, Sallie Stanton, myself, the Senior Leadership Team and governors and the rest of our colleagues.

There is still a significant amount of nonsense in the school system. We need to eliminate that, and focus on the most important stuff. Come and lead us and let’s do just that.

Contact me for a discussion – we do not have a fixed mindset in who we are looking for, so if you think you could do this job but your experience, background or circumstances mean you are doubting it, let’s talk – and if you’re confident you are ready, let’s talk! 

Deadline 22nd November 2021.


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