Why Can’t All Schools Be Like This?

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 Daily Express, 12 June, 2012

We are at a girls’ secondary school in South London. The 6th formers on the health and social care course are practising their first-aid techniques. They have the use of a real ambulance, plus all the kit that comes with it, and they’re focused on resuscitating a rubbery-looking dummy. In a few weeks’ time a group of them will be going to the Kibuku district of Uganda to work with a charity which trains locals to provide paramedical services.

In another classroom down the hall the smartly-uniformed girls in ‘triple sciences’ are engrossed in their experiments, huddled over bubbling flasks and fizzing test tubes. Two of them, Danielle and Hang, stand beside a Bunsen burner in their goggles, investigating the reactions of various metals and their compounds. The flame is turning bright green and orange, and when a sudden burst of sparks shoots into the air they giggle with delight.

Nearby there is hi-tech woodworking equipment rarely to be found in a classroom. Here pupils can create professional-standard products instead of the usual wobbly pair of bookends. As the design and technology teacher, Oliver Pennington, points out: ‘This is about real-world learning, acquiring skills that can be transferred outside the school gates.’

You might well think we are at a private school, an establishment for the privileged few whose wealthy parents can stump up the huge sums required for such a top-notch education. But this is a state school and there are no fees. As for privilege, over a third of this school’s 700 pupils are on free school meals and 45% don’t speak English as their first language. It is one of the most ethnically diverse schools in the country, with some children from challenging immigrant backgrounds and others dealing with social and emotional issues.

That it has been rated by Ofsted as ‘outstanding’ in all four categories under its strict new inspection regime and that its pupils are well-behaved and eager to learn, is all due to the fact that it was taken under the umbrella of the Harris Federation and converted into one of its academy schools: the Harris Girls’ Academy East Dulwich.

The Federation, a charity set up by the Tory businessman and philanthropist Lord Harris of Peckham, has an astonishing record of taking over failing or bog standard schools in South London and transforming them into first-class academies. There are now 14 of them. The Harris Girls’ Academy East Dulwich replaced the former Waverley Girls’ School in 2006. As the Waverley, only 33% of students achieved five good GCSE passes; as a Harris the figure is now 95%. In the country as a whole, some 17% of schools are rated as outstanding,  but within the Harris group it is 80% – a particularly impressive achievement considering the low starting point of most Harris academies.

So how do they do it? The huge advantage of the academy schools programme – started a decade ago under New Labour but vastly expanded by the Coalition’s Academies Act 2010 – is that schools can opt out of stultifying local authority control. Directly funded by central government and run in conjunction with sponsors such as businesses or educational charities, academies are free to set their own agenda – including setting their own pay and conditions for staff. While they must follow the national curriculum, they can escape the politically correct dogma imposed under Labour and the entrenched resistance to change of the teachers’ trade unions.  In short, academies can return to the core values of good old-fashioned schooling: discipline, good manners and dedication to learning.

The model clearly works. Two years ago there were 203 academies in England; there are now about 1,640 and they are the fastest improving schools in the country. More than half of England’s secondary schools have become academies or are due to convert. It seems that our failing educational system – long accused of churning out unemployable young people with poor literacy and numeracy skills – is, like the proverbial oil tanker, slowly being turned around.

The Harris Federation academies benefit from a major bonus unavailable to other schools: the personal involvement of Lord Harris himself. The 69-year-old Chairman of Carpetright has a passionate belief in the power of a good (free) education to transform the lives of children from all backgrounds. As well as giving generously of his time, he pays out of his own pocket for a variety of educational extras – including adventurous foreign school trips such as the working visit to Uganda – normally available only to the cosseted pupils at exclusive fee-paying schools. 

Jane Fletcher, Principal of the Harris Girls’ Academy East Dulwich, is a businesslike woman in a neat suit, with no-nonsense, scraped-back hair. ‘Lord Harris doesn’t just care about the general principles of education, he’s interested in the individual kids and how they are doing. His personality is his brand. Besides being our sponsor, he is a symbol to the school of traditional values such as respect and courtesy. We call them “Harris manners”. And his own success and entrepreneurialism are an inspiration to the whole school community.’

One of the pupils, Fatmata, comes from a more troubled background than most. Her family sought asylum here from war-ravaged Sierra Leone and the cultural adjustments have been traumatic. What’s more, the 14-year-old is visually impaired. But she has an exceptional gift for painting and sculpting, which is encouraged by the school. As Fletcher explains: ‘Her art has been therapeutic, it’s helped build up her confidence. Now she knows she’s really good at something.’ Lord Harris has taken an interest in her welfare and met her several times. Having his personal attention and approbation has given Fatmata an even greater boost.

Afia Shafique is one of the school’s science teachers. Previously she worked at a local authority-run school in Manchester. ‘The brilliant thing here,’ she says, ‘is that the pupils want to learn. So different to my earlier teaching experience. And here the parents, as well as the teachers, are supportive. It makes my job a lot easier.’

Holly, 17, is planning to go to university to study either science or geography. She has been at the school ever since its conversion to a Harris academy and praises its ‘positive atmosphere’. She says her friends at non-academy schools don’t get the same degree of support from teachers. ‘Here we can always go to our teachers; they have more time for us.’

Comfort, another 17-year-old, is a recent arrival from a non-academy school with which she was dissatisfied. She says she made the switch because ‘enough was enough – I needed to be challenged and pushed’. She hopes one day to be a lawyer or psychologist. 

As sixth-formers, the girls are permitted to replace the school’s blue-and-black uniform with ‘business dress’ of their own choosing – smart skirts, neat shirts and jackets. These older girls are expected be good role models for the younger pupils. They seem unfazed by the responsibility. As Holly puts it: ‘I don’t mind having to conform to demands regarding my behaviour and appearance, because it prepares me for real life. Friends at other schools think it odd that I can’t do what I want. But life isn’t about doing what you want.’

She describes the system of penalty points for those who break the dress code or otherwise fail to meet expectations. ‘If you get 15 points you’re sent to the academic board for an assessment.’ And then what? I ask. ‘I’m not sure. I don’t actually know of anyone who’s been sent there.’ And with a laugh she adds, ‘It would be too scary!’

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