So… I was asked to write a blog for the New Schools Network about setting up Trafalgar College and wrote what follows. It was meant as a personal reflection on how I ended up in the position to do so and, aside from my tendency to have overlong sentences, I thought it did a decent job of that. It was put up on the trust’s website and then someone told me that it had received a reply on someone else’s blog who took comments in it as throwing punches and there were also comments that I’d been coerced in some way to write it. I can assure you that it was off my own back and any punches were in the mirror as I looked back on what I considered to be an unhelpful stance I’d taken and am glad to have moved on from. As I have said before on ‘debates’ about progressives and traditionalists, skills vs knowledge, etc I find polarisation and generalisation to be a barrier to moving on and think we need real communication which is about contributing a range of ideas and views to a more powerful and well developed way forward rather then just shouting till one voice is the loudest.
Anyway here it is and volume two will be along soon for your delight!
I’m not even sure if I was of school age when my mum, a determined Londoner dragged my poor old dad into the Norwich School tent at the Norfolk Show. Dad, a bricklayer from the gorgeous but pretty isolated village of Winterton on Sea told me recently he had no idea what she was up to. He knew it was best just to go along with her as having a headstrong Irish temperament (something I have to confess I have a little bit of myself) she wasn’t one for backing down.
Mum – and dad without knowing it yet – had decided that if I was going to get on in life I’d need the highest quality education. To be fair, she already gave me a pretty good start before I even set foot in a school by reading to me and encouraging me to get to grips with the letters, words and stories that would eventually lead me to a degree in English and to teach the subject. But now it was time for me to get a formal education that would mean I had an open door to success.
I had to work hard at that school. Even though I was on a scholarship mum and dad still had to give up a lot and I remember the night shifts at Accident and Emergency in Gorleston, near Great Yarmouth that mum did, putting up with all manner of things just to make sure that I, and later, my younger brother could access a high quality education. That scholarship wasn’t easy to come by and neither was maintaining it but I thrived in the focused, dedicated community supported by excellent teachers and equally committed and hard working peers.
Throughout my career I’ve always wanted to take what I had at Norwich School and give it to others. Not necessarily the subjects, or the model, or the games lessons in freezing cold rugby pitches (although maybe this is what’s meant by character education…) but the aspiration and self- confidence along with the qualifications and the experiences that make school the holistic, supportive and developing experience that it should be – maybe I’m back on those playing fields again!
I’m also someone committed to my local area. My tutor at Norwich, a wonderful man called Craig Hooper, once told me that when he was growing up he drew a circle of fifty miles around his home and pledged that his university would have to be well outside of this radius. I’ve never felt that need to escape, to leave almost for the sake of it and while I love exploring, seeing places and meeting people I’ve been lucky to have opportunities nearby. You’ll have gathered by now I was pretty blessed by the school I was fortunate enough to go to, and when it came to my degree where better to read English than the UEA where writers I’d devoured like Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro had studied and written?
And so it was with my teaching career. While I’ve worked across the country delivering TEEP and NPQML/SL as well as having the great opportunities and experiences that the FastTrack programme offered up in my earlier years, until recently I’ve worked in the same school where I was an NQT. In the time I spent there I’d gone through just about every role on the way to the leadership team and while I had drifted into the wilds of Suffolk from Norfolk I was always pleased that I was working in what was (near enough) my community and also working with students that hadn’t always had the greatest opportunities so could really use an education that opened up things to them and broadened horizons. I’ve been reading Biesta lately so am conscious of the view of education as emancipation that can look like some sort of master going in to release these young people by bestowing education upon them but I’ve never viewed what we do as a power based relationship. We definitely do give something to our students as we work with them but the greatest part of that for me is working to see what they have within them already and how we can help to develop that to give them a sense of their equal position and rights in a challenging society.
And so to where I am now. My local roots (and maybe that Irish ancestry I mentioned earlier) meant I was a little miffed to hear how education in Norfolk and other coastal areas needed to be sorted out and how various organisations were going to flood in and save us. Hang on I thought, what about those of us working here already? Can’t we be involved in this?
And it turns out we can.
Rather than sitting on the sidelines shouting and moaning (although maybe I did a bit of that in the early days) I decided to go and speak to one of the organisations working in the area and get a sense of what they were about based on more than the lazy twitter comments and newspaper articles. “Let’s go and see what these people are about,” I thought. So I arranged a meeting with the CEO of The Inspiration Trust, Dame Rachel de Souza to get a sense of the work that the trust were doing and who they really were.
This was the first of a few meetings and exchanges with Dame Rachel and others from the trust including Ian Burchett – now my boss – that included looking at some of the schools and at one point inviting Inspiration in as one of a number of trusts that we met at my previous school while we were seeing what sponsors were out there. In all of those meetings, visits and twitter exchanges what was evident was that here were people who were absolutely committed to doing the very best for the young people of the county (and even creeping into North Lowestoft with one school) and had a fantastic range of skills and experiences all of which were channelled into delivering an excellent education and start in life for all of the children in their care – children from my home county and, in the case of three of the primaries, my home town.
And that’s where my real excitement and eventual involvement stemmed from. In early conversations with Ian he’d said that he was writing a bid for a free school to be based in Great Yarmouth. Trafalgar College would be a secondary free school with a STEM focus and a commitment to ensuring that the young people of Great Yarmouth were prepared with the qualifications, skills and attributes that would mean they could secure some of the high paid jobs that companies in the town were currently looking elsewhere to recruit. This was a massively exciting message for me and I wanted in.
It took a while. Eight or nine months passed between those initial conversations and a post arising at the trust to work as Executive Vice Principal working across schools and then, all being well, forming part of the Trafalgar team if the bid was approved. The interview was a tough one and Ian and some of the other Principals and leaders from the Great Yarmouth Federation really put me through my paces; financial interviews, PESTLE analysis, on the spot presentations to people in role as parents at an open evening, and in depth leadership discussions. The last featured a question on resilience which, coming from a school that had recently dropped below floor and then been put into Special Measures by an Ofsted team inspecting a school with a large percentage of staff on strike for the duration of their visit, I had plenty to talk about.
So I left the school that had seen me arrive as a trainee, given me my first teaching position and then move from head of subject, to head of faculty and where I’d been part of a brilliantly supportive and collaborative leadership team to move to a job where not only did I not know who was who, what systems and structures to expect I didn’t even have anywhere to put all of the stuff I cleared out of my old office. A vision for a new school is an exciting thing but you can’t put your books on the shelves of a vision or put your certificates and well loved drawings from previous students on the walls.
But what a vision it is. And it continues to grow. I’ve been in post now for about two and a half weeks and boy have I made the right decision. If you haven’t seen our CEO at work then you’re missing out. She has such commitment and passion for what she does and for making sure that there’s not a single person in that room who doesn’t share it and push on and on to get the very best for the students in our schools and their communities. And that commitment is shared by each and every person that I’ve met. I consider myself genuinely fortunate to work alongside Ian who currently has a dual role as Executive Principal for Great Yarmouth and Commercial Director for the trust. We have already had fantastic discussions about what we are going to do with our school and the work we are going to do with the parents, students and wider town; we share an interest in developing pedagogy and the teachers and leaders in the group of school we work with; and I’ve also begun to get a sense of the workings of a multi academy trust and the ways in which it facilitates a collaborative approach to taking education forward which has sadly been lacking in some areas lately.
So that’s where we are and where I am. Like I say I am two weeks into the role and have so far presented to the CEOs of other trusts, met with people from the EFA and provided some leadership cover for a primary school to free up their leaders for some intervention work with year 6 hosted at a fellow federation school. Add into that meetings with The Regional Schools Commissioner and Roy Blatchford, planned trips to Michaela to look at curriculum and a visit to some place called ‘The Big Apple’ to see how things work stateside and I’m sure you’d agree it’s a time of great opportunities coupled with hard work. But all with the mindset of providing the very best.
All I need now is for this election to get itself sorted so we can end purdah and get on with finding a site and building Great Yarmouth a fantastic new school.
Lots of Love