19 May '13

News Becoming an academy gave our school the freedom to innovate

Special school head Trystan Williams is passionate about learning outside classroom and has taken his pupils to the ends of the Earth to prove it

Tell us about your career and how you became head at The Springfields Academy.

I had no interest in becoming a teacher, my dad was a headteacher and my mum was involved in special needs education and I didn't want to follow their lead. I did a master's in sports science research at University of Wales and at the end of my master's, two of my senior lecturers came and told me they had a place for me on a PGCE course. They persuaded me to take it and they were absolutely right. I loved it.

I did the majority of my teaching practice in a really tough Welsh-speaking secondary school and discovered that what I really enjoyed was working with the most challenging kids. I was motivated by wanting to help transform lives of children. But I must admit in the first six months of my first job at Mounton House, a special school in Chepstow I did think: "What the bloody hell am I doing?" It was so challenging. I was PE teacher there for two years and then promoted to head of PE. After five years I got a job as deputy head of The Springfields Academy in Wiltshire.

What was the situation when you started at The Springfields Academy?

We are the school that children who have been excluded from mainstream schools are sent to but when I started our school had the highest exclusion rate in the whole area. The school wasn't meeting the needs of all of our pupils. The first three years as a deputy were a massive learning curve. It was a tough school and there were some outstanding professionals here but there were also some that weren't so good. There were questions being asked regarding the future of the school and it was not far off closing.

Everything started to change when we became the first special school to be made a specialist sports college in 2005, which enabled us to be much more flexible in our curriculum and I was appointed head in the same year. The specialist sports college status meant we were able to be much more flexible in our curriculum. I was able to increase the amount of PE staff and fully restructure. The Youth Sport Trust has been instrumental in supporting me and my school, as well as helping us embed sports and PE in every aspect of what we do. In 2007 we got an outstanding Ofsted. Now 88% of our pupils are making more than two levels of progress in every subject at every key stage.

How have you and your team turned the school around?

Our school has to meet the needs to society's most vulnerable and disaffected students. The students coming to our school have complex educational, social and emotional needs – including foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), severe mental health issues, complex communication and emotional difficulties, autistic spectrum disorders (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Asperger's – and these have resulted in multiple permanent exclusions from schools across six local authorities.

For us, everything comes down to aspiration. You have to unpick the root causes of problems and find creative ways of working with young people to achieve their potential. So that's what we do. We have 11 therapists employed by the school who work hand in hand with teachers. Three years ago 0% of our pupils got five A-Cs at GCSEs, now we have a rate of 30-40% A-Cs – including maths and English. It's incredible because 50% of our students come to the school in the bottom 2% nationally in literacy and numeracy – these were children who have been labelled as 'unteachable'. Now young people are leaving prepared for their next step, whether that's in mainstream colleges, apprenticeships or continuing specialist education.

How do you teach children other schools have excluded?

The greatest hurdle so many of our students face is that of self-belief. If you can give them a challenging and stimulating environment, they truly begin to believe in themselves and the contribution they can make. You've got to be really creative. We don't even use the word 'behaviour' any more – it's about engaging learners and if they are disengaged they won't learn. With our pupils successful engagement is more likely to take place outside the classroom. We've opened a 100-acre farm. Pupils can learn as much about literacy and numeracy on the farm as in the classroom. It frustrates me that so often in education we stick to doing the same things we've always done. If you look at an operating theatre 100 years ago it's completely different, but look at a school 100 years ago and what have we really changed apart from swapping a blackboard for a whiteboard?

We have pioneered the concept of Extreme Classrooms at The Springfields Academy. Learning outside the classroom, whether collecting mini bugs on site or trekking to Everest Base Camp, is an intrinsic element of our work. The idea was started over a few beers with polar explorer Alan Chambers who suggested taking a group of our pupils on an expedition to the North Pole. At first I thought he was crazy but we ended up co-founding Extreme Classrooms, and six weeks later a group of our staff took a group of children to 'the coldest classroom', 78 degrees north.

Then through Engage in their Future, a network of 200 special schools, we took a group of children to spend 10 days to the 'hottest classroom', living with Maasai Warriors in Tanzania. We will literally go to the ends of the Earth to give our pupils an education.

How has becoming an academy impacted on your school?

In September 2011 we became an academy. We were the first residential school to become one and so have helped shape the process. There are real challenges in becoming an academy, including the huge differences around financial reporting and levels of accountability, but I now have much more freedom to innovate. Our relationship with the local authority has never been stronger and I have found being an academy has improved our outcomes because the money we get is used as we want it used – there is no spillage, that has been the biggest difference.

Is it possible to be innovative in a results-driven climate?

Yes. The new Ofsted framework is brutal but school leaders have to have the courage to see Ofsted and exams as processes we have to go through. In 2005 our school had a point score of 32 at key stage 4, that's barely the equivalent of one c grade at GCSE. Now we have a target point score of 260. So our pupils are making outstanding progress by doing things that are not traditional, by being creative and quirky, and we have the evidence to prove it.

We used to do things traditionally and that resulted in the worst rates of exclusion and not in education or training (Neet) figures in the local authority. In our school, staff members constantly think and rethink solutions to help their pupils learn. Let's face it, Ofsted is outcomes driven, it's all about results. I think teachers can overplan and should save their energy for teaching and being creative. I have enough faith and trust in my staff that I don't need to check their planning. I'm interested in outcomes and doing the best for our pupils.

What's been the proudest moment of your headship?

A young man called Scott Prince came to our school at the age of 13 after being permanently excluded from another special school. I was asked by the local authority to buy him a three-wheeled bike. I refused and said we would instead teach him to ride a two-wheeled bike. After several weeks of hard work we saw him whizzing past the window on his bike. When he saw me, he threw the bike on the floor and shouted:"You're my dad!" I knew that meant he was really pleased with himself and really pleased with me. That will stay with me forever. Against the odds, instead of riding a three-wheeled bike with everyone staring at him, he could be as independent as any other 13 year-old because of the aspiration that he could ride a two-wheeled bike. We've won national awards, but that is a career highlight. I get my energy from spending time with my pupils, that's the reason I'm in this job.

Trystan Williams is principal of The Springfields Academy in Wiltshire. Find out more about Extreme Classrooms – including information on the Highest Classroom on Earth challenge to Everest in October 2013.

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