Last Friday, I was lucky enough to visit Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, perhaps the most controversial and most-talked about school in the country this year. What I observed was so astonishing that I’ve finally given in and made a blog to share my thoughts.
A series of hysterical BBC articles can tell the story far better than I. Like so many of our comprehensives, the old Great Yarmouth High School completely failed the community it served. It’s a school I’ve been watching with extreme interest. The typical rebuttal to the successes of schools such as Michaela, Reach Academy Feltham and Kensington Aldridge Academy is that they were able to set up from scratch (staff and students), and benefit from the recruitment advantages that London provides. Charter does not have such luxuries. The staff is already in place and experienced teachers are not throwing themselves at the chance to work in a remote, deprived coastal town over three hours by train from London.
I’ve seen plenty of tweets, blogs and articles from people I admire and respect lavishly praising Charter following their own visits but couldn’t help but feel as though it’s all a little too good to be true. These people are exaggerating; it’s not possible to turn around a failing school so quickly.
Unsurprisingly, such thoughts were quickly put to rest. The school is magnificent, and the pupils are happy and safe. By reclaiming the school for its staff, headmaster Barry Smith has provided a model which can be followed in any context. The story so far is an overwhelming success, and I can’t wait to watch it continue to flourish in subsequent years.
A few take-aways from my visit:
Warm-strict is still strict
Expectations of uniform, behaviour and effort are sky-high at Charter. Teachers exemplify the warm-strict approach to students. This is not in any way a case of lowering expectations, avoiding any implication that ‘warm’ and ‘strict’ are mutually exclusive. In the lessons I observed, students were unapologetically reprimanded for sloppy presentation or unclear handwriting. The ‘warm’ aspect comes with the explanation – “Sir can’t give you any marks if he can’t read your handwriting”, “If we are drawing in in our books then we aren’t giving our full attention to Miss, and we will miss out on her knowledge which is absolute gold dust”. Such expectations are fair, clear, and well-communicated, and are entirely focussed on improving the learning environment at the school. It is no surprise that students feel safe and confident as a result.
Twice Smith pointed at the floors, beaming with pride. “Look how clean they are”. Sure enough, they were utterly spotless. This is a school students are proud of, and rightly so.
Charter is not Michaela
Unsurprisingly, given Barry Smith’s status as a founder teacher at Michaela Community School, the two schools have striking similarities. Both use the SLANT acronym. Both have impeccable behaviour, with silent classrooms the overwhelming norm. Both place a huge emphasis on knowing every student by name, and both model polite adult conversation and expect the same from their students. Both even finish lunchtime with a dramatic rendition of a poem – coincidentally Ozymandias during both of my visits. One might argue they are the two most exciting schools in the country.
However, Smith made it clear that Charter is not just Michaela-on-sea. The incredible success that Michaela is seeing is deeply founded on the dedication of its young, hyper-motivated staff. It is not possible to implant that same staff culture. Why doesn’t Charter implement the ‘family lunch’ system, one of Michaela’s most noteworthy features?
“1,265.” replied Smith repeatedly, referring to the number of hours teachers are expected to work a year. Many staff at Charter often arrive after 8am, and do not spend breaktimes monitoring toilets. As Smith was proud to state, this is an “ordinary school doing extraordinary things”.
Charter is not the finished product, and that is very exciting
Transforming the behaviour and culture of a school is an incredible, laudable achievement. Students feel safe at and proud of their school. Teachers can focus on their students and their practice. Ofsted has already praised the turnaround. But Smith is not complacent. He is constantly roaming the corridors and classes, addressing uniform, providing instant and welcome feedback to teachers, examining students’ work.
Curriculum is a work in progress. Attracting top staff is more difficult than at Michaela. Attendance is still an issue and is being addressed as a top priority. The room for growth is tremendous and is only possible due to the issues of culture and behaviour being addressed first.
As Kris Boulton argues, “if they can turn this school around and turn it into the next great success story, then it can be done anywhere”.
There is absolutely no excuse for complacency or low expectations. Charter is an ordinary, extraordinary school, and is a model which can be replicated anywhere with strong leadership and a dedicated staff which is willing to learn. To put it simply, my visit to Great Yarmouth Charter Academy was worth every second of the tedious seven-hour round trip from Folkestone.