On how one of our local secondary schools is demonstrating what investment and leadership can achieve – for this was an open evening that busted a number of negative local stereotypes
The signs across a number of houses in my neighbourhood stated clearly:
“Coleridge Open Day – all invited”
So I went along – in part because of my role as a governor at one of its feeder primary schools, but also to see the place for myself. With a public administration hat on, I also wanted to talk to the teachers to hear their perspectives on the challenges they face.
You’ve come a long way in a short space of time
The interesting thing compared to when I made the transition from primary to secondary was the lack of open evenings in the autumn with the local secondary schools – something that was to change shortly after. I remember spending a half-day at the school in the early 1990s and not getting the sense that the school completely dispelled the negative things the community of parents in our part of town were saying about the school. As recently as 2003, the school was in special measures – see here.
One former student of that time – UKIP activist Michael Heaver wrote of his time there in this comment piece. I completely understand his anger and frustration – if anything they are some of the same emotions that I felt with the institutional shortcomings I faced at school, college and university. I also completely understand him blaming the political party in power at the time – just as I did with the Thatcher and Major administrations that starved our schools of much-needed investment in infrastructure. The bit where I screwed up was lack of courage – not speaking up when I knew in my heart of hearts I was not comfortable with the situation or original choices I had made.
Although the front of the building remains unchanged, the new structures behind it are unrecognisable from the 1990s. The music and drama facilities in particular were quite breathtaking compared to what I was expecting. Big, spacious, modern, new and well-equipped. The next challenge is matching those facilities with competent and inspirational teaching.
Musical theatre – the first thing you see and hear
The design of the new building helped immensely, as one of the new halls is what you walk straight forwards into. They put it to good use for the open evening, with a series of musical numbers from a joint production of ‘The Wiz’ that will be on at the Mumford Theatre at Anglia Ruskin University. (22-24 Oct – tickets here). Put yourself in the situation of a year six child going into the school possibly for the first time. You walk into the hall and you see several dozen students from years 7-13 dancing and singing a quite-complex choreographed number. Co-ordinating that many people is not easy – let alone performing it. (As someone who has danced, choreographed and sung for public performance in very recent years, I can testify to this!)
The impact? A huge embrace for the year six students. A sense of ‘I want to be doing what they are doing!’. Rather than just having year seven & year eight students, it was across the age range. The impact there? You’ll be able to make friends with people who are older and bigger than you. For anyone worried about bullying – the fear of which cast a dark shadow over my time at school – knowing that you’ll have the support of older and wiser peers can be massively reassuring.
“You don’t have to worry about the bigger students – they are just like you, except taller”
Just after her speech, the principal Bev Jones threw some questions to a handful of year seven students who had come from the main feeder schools plus a few others. In that act alone, seeing students who the year six visitors were familiar with talking about the school must have been reassuring. Bear in mind that twelve months ago, some of the year six students would have been in the same class at primary school as the year seven students on the panel.
Again, the testimony from the year seven students matched that of a couple of year eight students I spoke to with their drama teacher a few minutes earlier. Both the year eight students were part of the production mentioned above, and I asked a series of open-ended questions about the impact being part of such a large musical theatre production had on them. The rehearsal commitment – several evenings per week, was huge. They said this made them much more disciplined with homework. When I asked them what they would say to a small group of shy year six children from my school, they talked passionately about how being part of a large musical chorus brought shy students out of their shells, and increased their confidence. Their drama teacher was delighted – not least as she said she didn’t have to answer any of the questions. The students answered them comprehensively.
It was at the principal’s speech that I found former Labour MP for Cambridge and now chair of governors, Anne Campbell sat next to me. Mrs Jones was appointed fairly recently – in 2012, having worked in schools across the city as well as having been an adviser in regional government across East Anglia. In that regard, she has experience of breadth as well as depth.
In her speech, Mrs Jones didn’t shy away from the school’s historical problems. Instead, she dealt with them head on in particular the Ofsted reports. (See here). If anything, it was a textbook response of how to account for shortcomings raised in an inspection. Accept the report and give a point-by-point response on how you are dealing with each of the main issues, why you’re taking each action, and what impact you expect each action to have. What would have been reassuring to parents is both the focus on progress for all students, along with clear procedures on how to deal with disruptive students in a manner that does not disrupt the education of the rest of the class.
From a public administration perspective, with a respected former MP as your chair of governors and a head who’s prepared to deal with issues head on very publicly, you’re in reasonably safe hands. That’s not to say ‘job done’ – there’s still a huge amount of work to do. But today I got a real sense of momentum that I wasn’t fully aware of until this visit.
In the entrance to the main hall were two stalls. One was from Cambridge University Press – the school’s business and mentoring partner. They provide mentoring and work experience to students at the school. Put yourself in the shoes of the parent of a prospective student. Would one of the biggest publishing brands in the world want to put its brand at risk by associating itself with a failing school that had no hope of turning around?
On the other side was the Mill Road History Project – and one of the most well-known and respected tour guides in the city, Allan Brigham manning it. This says: “Our links with our local community are so strong that we have the local community represented here on our open day”. Now, when you have a community as diverse as Mill Road on your doorstep, a wealth of teaching and community resources are on your doorstep.
The view of the staff?
When you come into an institution with the job of turning it around, there’ll inevitably be some staff turnover. I’ve seen it in the civil service and in other institutions. Mrs Jones mentioned this in her speech, and I spoke to a number of staff who said they had only been in the school for a short amount of time when I started asking more detailed questions. The reason why this was reassuring was this reflected consistency of action. The new senior management ‘manages out’ the staff that don’t share the vision and sense of purpose, and you bring in new staff that do.
With a number of staff, I was pleasantly surprised to find a number of mutual friends and acquaintances from times gone by. This was along with a familiarity of the school I am a governor at and the children that come from it to Coleridge. What was really interesting for me was the insights they were able to give about the students that come from my school to theirs, and thoughts on how we can improve further the transition process.
Time for South Cambridge to open its mind?
Yes – and more. It’s time for the whole community to start throwing its support behind the momentum that the school and its supporters have now generated. Because it’s going to need that support as it deals with the challenges of serving some of the more economically deprived wards in Cambridge.
A city-wide approach to supporting our schools?
I delivered a couple of large careers workshops for Soham Village College for the Cambridge Area Partnership last week. Rather than running a ‘what job do you want to do?’ workshop, I got their year nine students (13-14 year olds) exploring the sort of life challenges they want to take on, and the life experiences they want to have when they are older. I then got them thinking about how they might go about achieving this and what skills they’d need to learn/knowledge they’d need to acquire as a result. So when one of them said:
“I wanna be a space pirate!”
“OK – let’s run with that. What are the skills you are going to need to be a space pirate? How are you going to get from being down here on earth to up there being a space pirate? What are the issues and problems you’re likely to face? Remember there is no repair van in space!”
This was part of a wider ‘careers day’ where the school also invited in the further education colleges and some of their recent past students to talk to college students about what they had gone onto immediately after their GCSEs. Feedback from the teachers was that testimony from recent former students and from people who were practitioners in the fields that students wanted to go into had a big influence.
The big problem? How to co-ordinate all of this.
The goodwill is there from across the city and beyond. What we don’t have – and this was something I discussed with former MP Anne Campbell, was having an overarching structure to oversee and manage that co-ordination – but without it being ‘top down’. This is something the Be the change – Cambridge project is bringing the city together to solve. Have a look at the videos from our first event here. Drop me an email at antonycarpen [at] gmail [dot] com if you’re interested in taking part.