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Primary Education News
News A school with a culture of success – there's nothing for West Sussex to fear | Greg Martin
The ignorant remarks about Durand academy's planned boarding wing show how the pupils at our school deserve better
When the quote from former Conservative councillor John Cherry was read out to me over the phone – about my school opening a boarding wing for 13-18-year-olds in West Sussex in the South Downs national park – saying that, among other things, "there are certain nationalities where they are uncertain what this hard work is all about", my first reaction was anger, and then I just felt incredibly disappointed. Not just because of the offensive nature of the words, words that have no place in modern society, but because it also confirmed to me that we still have a huge way to go in education. And when I say education, I mean the education of adults, not children.
(Cherry, a Conservative councillor, has since resigned over his remarks.)
A deep misconception still exists in many parts of the country that some children should just not expect to succeed, some children just can't do it or some children are just "bad kids". Whether because of the children's race, socio-economic background or poor behaviour, people are writing many of the next generation off before they have even picked up a pencil. We must tackle this head on. It is a simple fact that, through great teaching, we can ensure school is a powerful vehicle for anyone, whoever they are and wherever they come from. I would know.
Like many of the children at Durand academy, I grew up in social housing and in a working class family. My grandmother was in the poorhouse and my parents earned just enough for us all to get by. But one thing they did have, and something that I see in nearly every parent who steps through our school gates, was a real desire for my siblings and I to have the best possible start in life. My parents understood that a good education was the way to achieve that.
With the support of my family, and through the power of great teaching, I was given the vital tools that I needed to get on in life. I couldn't be more proud of where I have ended up – as executive head of Durand academy in Stockwell, south London, a school that is supporting children and families every day to break the link between income and attainment.
When I took over at Durand in 1986, it was a failing school of 147 pupils, with a staff team that blamed that failure on the children. They were letting children leave primary school, unable to read and write, with the usual excuses and fingerpointing as to why that was the case. When I contested that – and told them that as professional teachers, the power to change lives was in their hands – many of them ducked the responsibility and left. But a few of them got it, a few of them understood, and a few of them, like me, had seen the power of education first hand and knew that with great teaching anything could happen. That's when things started to change at Durand.
Year on year we instilled a culture of high expectations, aspiration for all, and a sense of discipline and purpose that, one inspector noted, is now embedded in "the very DNA" of the school. Pupils, who had previously been written off as problem children, were given the structure and support they needed to succeed. Teachers were given smaller classes, and we organised core subjects by ability, enabling each child to be nurtured to reach their full potential.
Now the results speak for themselves. Yes, more than half our pupils receive free school meals, and yes, the overwhelming majority are from black or ethnic minority backgrounds, and, yes, many have chaotic home lives. But nearly every single child performs on or above national average, with over half of those achieving levels of numeracy and literacy expected for a 13-year-old, by the time they are 11, and some even going beyond that.
Take just one example of a pair of brothers who came to our school. They joined Durand at nursery age, having just moved to London from Africa. Their mother was not around and their father had to make return trips home for many years, so the boys were largely raised by their grandmother. English was not their first language and, because of their unconventional home life, many would have written them off, in the way councillor Cherry did. But their father chose to send them to Durand because he had heard about the culture of the school and the commitment given to every child.
The progress these two boys made speaks for itself. With the help of great teachers, both brothers excelled and went on to win academic scholarships at a prestigious private boarding school in Surrey, where they will no doubt flourish. Their grandmother broke down in tears when she found out they had secured their school places, and their father could not be more grateful for what Durand has done for his family. Our boarding school, when it opens, will allow us to deliver this type of secondary experience for so many more children, without cost to parents.
We will offer consistency in education, in our approach, expectations and importantly, in our aspirations for every child all the way through from nursery age to adulthood.
Like the two brothers who have done so well, just imagine what all our pupils will be able to go on to achieve. We are confident that with an all-through Durand education, our intake will go on to attend the best universities, secure themselves highly skilled employment and be fully equipped to give back to society.
There is nothing for the people of Stedham in West Sussex, a village nearly two miles away from the proposed school site, to be afraid of, except maybe some competition for their children and grandchildren for Russell Group university places.
We have worked hard with the local community and planning authority to develop our plans to be as sympathetic to the landscape as possible. We have broken up the layout and sunk some of the buildings to reduce the visual impact. We have committed to phased vehicle movements to reduce the impact on the roads. And we have changed the design of the buildings to match the local vernacular. There are already school buildings on this site, and we are seeking to bring them back to life in a meaningful way.
Isn't this what our national parks should be for? A place for powerful experiences, great education and life-changing opportunities.