If I were a wizard at Hogwarts tasked with finding the magic formula for what makes a brilliant school, the last few weeks of the autumn term would have helped me greatly. I visited three schools, taking with me a different researcher from The Key each time.
Smita Bora is the principal of Westminster Academy, which previously had one of the worst reputations in the country. She and her team have worked obsessively over the past few years to find what works. Half the children she takes into the school come as 'rejects' (that’s how they think of themselves, she says, so I won’t modify the term) from other schools. Despite this, results soared in 2013, Ofsted recognised the school as 'outstanding' last year, and science results are now among the best in the country. Smita is completely driven and relentless in her refusal to let kids give up or think they are not good enough. Her governing board is right behind her, despite the terrible time she has been through dealing with criticism from elsewhere, and her staff are also completely signed up to the same agenda: no excuses, no excuses, nada. She has that combination of the passion you see in pioneers and the ruthlessly compassionate heart of those social entrepreneurs who are in the business of rescuing and re-directing children.
L-R: Kaley Foran (Curriculum and learning researcher at The Key) and Smita Bora (Principal, Westminster Academy)
Richard Booth worked out that there were not enough secondary places in the area around Rickmansworth, where he is from. So, he and his small team rented the large office space on the business park opposite Camelot’s headquarters and opened the Reach Free School, which sets out to provide a first-class education for (in many cases, quite vulnerable) children who are not headed to local grammar schools and who would find the large high schools in the area intimidating. He realised how many of them were being held back by inadequate reading skills from getting the most out of the curriculum, so the whole school (and I mean absolutely everyone) stops to read for half an hour each day. They even have a cockapoo called Scout, who is a ‘reading dog’. I asked one child if Scout could speak as well and she looked at me calmly and said, ‘Of course’. Richard has done a deal with the very smart independent school down the road to use its sports facilities. ‘How much do you pay?’ I asked. He just smiled at me. The economics are clearly favourable, and the children look fit and healthy.
Mark Kingswood and Jim Eddie are head and deputy respectively at The Vyne School in Basingstoke, which was in special measures until a couple of years ago when it moved to ‘requires improvement’. Last year, GCSE results at the school went up from 34% to 53% 5A*-C including English and maths. Will (senior researcher) and I grilled them for two hours on how they had done this. The mix of passion, focus and realism that they displayed in their answers was inspiring, not at all dissimilar to that shown by Smita and Richard. They went several extra miles to ensure they had the right head of maths, with a strong team behind him. ‘I literally went and got him,’ said Mark, ‘and told him he needed to help us’. Determination and a refusal to be defeated in equal mix. They know they're focusing on English and maths to the potential detriment of some other subjects, but also know they have to sort this out before they move on, and remedy that imbalance as soon as possible. We couldn’t argue with them, as it was clearly working.
So, from a leadership point of view, these elements need to go into my cauldron:
- Complete realism as to the task in hand
- Determination to solve the issues
- Resilience so if one thing doesn’t work, you try the next. Test every assumption, but keep going. You’ll get there in the end
- That cockapoo was absolutely gorgeous, but it doesn’t sound right to put her in a cauldron. I’m sure, though, that you know what I mean. By the way, they’ve tested her for allergens and she’s safe