What happens when a sink school
becomes an academy?

Providing good quality education for the most deprived communities in our country is not easy. For children living in poverty or broken homes, or perhaps with drug or alcohol abuse at home or a parent in prison, education is very hard indeed.

I should know, because this is the kind of community I was brought up in and went to school in. My family ticked two of the above boxes (poverty, single parent family), and almost all of the kids I went to school with ticked at least one of them – and a good proportion ticked them all.

It’s sad, isn’t it?

Our teachers thought so too. They were very compassionate. Only their compassion translated into thinking like this:

“Oh poor little Johnny, his home life is very messy: we can’t expect too much from him.”

Or, as she was kicking off:

“I do feel sorry for Rachael, and we know she’ll never amount to anything.”

This is what Michael Gove called the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’. It’s a real thing.

The three comprehensive schools in the town where I lived were run by the local authority. One was a bit better because its headteacher was half decent. Another was a bit better because it served a lot of the surrounding villages and had a smaller (though still significant) proportion of pupils from sink estates.

I went to the other one. The slightly scary, ‘students often armed with knives’, ‘police often on site’, other one.

Classrooms were usually a circus – only a few older, experienced teachers were capable of keeping order. I always found it fascinating how the same group of 13 year olds could go from running riot in one classroom to sitting silently and working hard in another classroom, purely based on the ‘don’t mess with me’ look a few of the teachers had perfected.

In this scheme of things I, a hard working kid with a mum who valued education, was paid a lot of attention by teachers. Others were not so lucky. Kids I knew from primary school as being bright were dismissed, ignored and humiliated for taking a little longer to pick things up. So they stopped trying and started misbehaving.

The headteacher – who I won’t name him here – oversaw a steady decline over 15 years. A similar decline hit the other two schools in the town at only a slightly slower rate. Why did the Local Authority (Labour, obviously – I’m from an ex-mining town in the North) allow it to happen?

My assessment is not complicated – it was just pure incompetence. They didn’t know what they were doing. They were too scared of admitting they might not have got things right to draw attention to the decline.

It all came to a head when I was in Year 10 – half way through my GCSEs. The Local Authority announced the closure of my school following a series of OFSTED inspection failures. The building and pupils of my school were to be absorbed by the neighbouring school.

The kids and the community were not happy. It was a terrible school, but it felt like ours. While I wrote letters to the MP (which were ignored), others tooled up with files and other equipment from the design tech department and a marauding group of angry kids attempted to overturn a school bus. Police and private security were stationed at the school every day until it closed. Mini riots broke out a few times as poorly educated kids expressed their frustrations in the only way they knew.

The plan proceeded. My school was closed, and we all went to the neighbouring, previously marginally better, school. The teachers at my school were able to apply for jobs in the new, merged school. But through time delays and uncertainty the best of them took up posts at other schools. For the final term before closure we were left with the dross and a large number of supply teachers.

The headteacher who oversaw the decline left to become an education consultant and OFSTED inspector. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about that.

Around the same time, the Labour government announced a solution to the education problems in my town: ‘Building Schools for the Future’. This was a PFI scheme which would provide new school buildings. The management and teaching of the larger merged school would stay the same.

My school year and the next one finished their GCSEs with only 22% achieving the ‘five good GCSEs’ education benchmark. The schools moved into new buildings, and the decline continued. Soon after OFSTED inspectors judged it as ‘inadequate’ and placed it in special measures.

The school was closed, and an academy opened in the buildings in 2011 as part of Gove’s move to expand the academy programme. This new academy was part of a chain spun out from a high achieving school in another town.

I don’t know an awful lot about what happened next – I was away at university, one of the few people from my school who went. What I do know is that in the intervening few years it has improved from 22% of pupils achieving the benchmark of five good GCSEs to a massive 79%.

It is worth repeating that – from 22% to 79%.

A recent OFSTED inspection also judged the academy ‘Outstanding’, and scores placed it in the top 1% of schools in the country. Almost 20 years of decline turned around in less than five years.

The leadership structure and the whole approach to learning is radically different. There is particular focus on children with special educational needs. There are a wider range of sports and enrichment activities on offer. Kids at the school are able to choose a variety of routes (beyond the basics of English, maths and science) including qualifications that will lead to university and more vocational courses that will help them straight into jobs.

Across these routes everyone is expected to work hard and reach their potential – and the high quality teaching, support and discipline necessary to get them there surrounds them.

The community has not changed. The demographics have not changed. The difficult home lives of the kids have not changed. But with this huge progress I reckon my home town will see some significant changes through the next generation.

I believe that the freedom the academy model gives to school leaders to innovate and meet particular needs of the community they serve is a wonderful and fabulous thing. I’m pleased to see the government expanding it to include all schools, and I’m excited to see the innovation and progress it will bring as school leaders up their game.