My first teaching post was in 2000, when I joined an inner-city comprehensive in London as a newly qualified teacher of English. It was an extremely challenging school for a range of reasons: weak leadership, large class sizes, and the behaviour of the pupils was at times appalling.
There was a core of talented and committed teachers, but it was very unusual for anyone to stay in post for more than a few years. I was there for four years and was one of the longer serving members of staff when I left.
The main reason for staff leaving was the failure of the senior leadership team to get a grip on the behaviour of the pupils. This meant that teachers could not teach, and they quickly became exhausted and demotivated.
I have since been fortunate to teach at four outstanding independent schools, each with its own distinct and strong ethos. One thing they have all had in common, however, has been high expectations – of both pupils and staff.
I did not have to join the independent sector to experience this. There are many examples of high standards and expectations in the maintained sector.
One such example is Broadway Academy, which is a non-selective, mixed, 11-18 academy with 1,240 pupils in Birmingham. Ron Skelton, who has been the school’s headteacher for 15 years, is now the longest serving Head in the region. When he arrived at Broadway in 2008, the school was in the bottom 3% for academic progress, and pupil attendance was very low. Both have improved dramatically under his leadership and Broadway is now a leading school on both measures.
“Since I arrived, we have worked hard on establishing a culture and ethos in the school that is based on generosity, appreciation and integrity,” says Ron. “As staff, we all have to work together to get the best outcome for our pupils.”
Ron has developed a framework with his staff to ensure that the school’s values are recognised, modelled, and promoted by managers, leaders, and staff. It has helped to embed a culture that enables students and staff to excel and to commit to setting high expectations.
As Ofsted noted when they visited the school recently: “Leaders have high expectations of pupils’ behaviour… Pupils appreciate the support they receive from leaders. They say that they are taught how to manage their behaviour, and this helps them to achieve more in lessons.”
One of the most distinctive features of Ron’s tenure as Headteacher has been his partnership with Radley College, the leading HMC boys’ boarding school in Oxfordshire.
Ron says: “Our focus has been on developing strong relationships between staff and students across both schools while exploring a range of different partnership activities: academic, sport, music, and cultural.
“At each stage the feedback from students at both schools has been positive, with an emphasis on learning about one another’s culture, aspirations, and interests. Overwhelmingly, it has been reported by the students that there is more that they have which is similar than different.
The partnership has involved Radley boys coaching Broadway boys with maths; both schools participating in the Gabrielli Roar concert at Coventry Cathedral in December 2022; Radley and Broadway students working together to create art, experiencing residential trips, activities, team building and an academic enrichment programme.
Ron will be joined by the Warden of Radley College, John Moule, as they co-chair a breakout session at an Academic Conference hosted by Downe House this June. They will be exploring how the partnership between their two schools has enhanced their respective cultures and values and how it now underpins their pupils’ progress.
The keynote speaker at the same conference will be Katharine Birbalsingh, who is often referred to as ‘Britain’s strictest Headmistress.’ She is the founding Head of Michaela Community School in Wembley. Many of its pupils come from challenging backgrounds and enter the school from underperforming primaries.
Astonishingly, this year Michaela’s Progress 8 score for Maths placed the school at the very top of the UK; furthermore, their overall Progress 8 score placed them fifth in the whole country. Last summer, 82% of the school’s leavers secured places at a Russell Group University, including Oxbridge, LSE and Imperial.
The school has little difficulty retaining its staff. Birbalsingh says her teachers are so committed because they feel valued, empowered, and motivated by the school’s strong set of values and its strict behaviour policy. The latter is upheld and enforced consistently and rigorously by all levels of management in the school.
If I had started my teaching career at a maintained school with an ethos and culture similar to those found at Broadway and Michaela, my career may well have taken a different path.
I find it inspiring that neither Ron Skelton nor Katharine Birbalsingh are driven by ideology. They are pragmatists in the sense that they want to do whatever works best for their pupils and staff. Part of this is being open to working with independent schools.
As Katharine says: “I am delighted to be supporting Downe House’s Conference because it’s all about how, as teachers, we should be ambitious and bold with our pupils so that they reach their potential. It’s also wonderful that the event will bring together professionals from both the state and independent sectors; rather than focusing on our differences, this Conference will show that by working together and sharing our best ideas, it’s all pupils who benefit.”
Ron Skelton will be speaking alongside John Moule (Warden, Radley College) at our Academic Conference. Their talk is titled ‘Building the culture and values of a school’.
The Conference will bring together teachers and leaders from both the state and independent sectors who will share and discuss the ways in which we can maximise our pupils’ progress. The keynote speakers will be Katharine Birbalsingh (founding Headmistress of Michaela Community School) and The Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP (Minister of State for Schools). They will be followed by breakout discussion groups, each co-chaired by leading figures from the state and independent sectors:
Helping our pupils to find their voices | Clare Wagner (Head, The Henrietta Barnett School, London) and Jane Lunnon (Head, Alleyn’s, London)
Building the culture and values of a school | Ron Skelton (Headteacher & CEO, Broadway Academy, Birmingham) and John Moule (Warden, Radley College, Oxford)
Putting effective principles of learning into practice | Gemma Piper (CEO, Kennet School Academies Trust, Berkshire) and Andrew Atherton (Director of Learning & Research, Downe House, Berkshire)
Governance: Learning across sectors | Andrea Arlidge (Chief Executive of Futura Learning Partnership, South West England) and Jaideep Barot (HMC Chair Elect & Headmaster, Bristol Grammar School, Bristol)
Developing character through pupil leadership | Mariella Ardron (Principal, Chelsea Academy, London) and Charlotte Harmer (Head of Schools, Oppidan Education)
Maximising Pupil Progress: Academic Conference – Tuesday 13 June, 9.45am-5.00pm, at Downe House (near Newbury). Tickets £75. See here for full details: www.downehouse.net/conference/
Mr Matthew Godfrey