25 Aug '13

News Talking heads: Horniman primary's different approach to outstanding

Julia Clark, head of Horniman Primary school in south London, discusses the power of out-of-hours learning, focusing on children not results and setting priorities for the year ahead

How did you come to be headteacher?

I hadn't originally seen my career path as a headteacher. I became a class-teaching deputy head at Crown Lane primary school – only the second school I'd worked in – when our headteacher was asked to lead another school in crisis. I became acting head almost overnight. My first task was to find another teacher to teach my class, not a simple task as there was a teacher shortage. I carried on teaching my old class every Monday while I was lead the school.

Once I started headship I found I really enjoyed it. I was still able to focus on teaching and learning as a classroom teacher does, just with an even bigger 'classroom'. It was exciting to see how schools operate and being able to work with staff to design the whole curriculum and teaching and learning experience for the children. I was lucky because prior to coming to Crown Lane I'd taught at Rosendale school and had been on courses about school improvement and the management of change. At Rosendale the whole staff were very involved in school improvement planning and were given a lot of responsibility – and that is the model I've brought with me to the Horniman.

How did you find your current school when you took on your headship?

I came to Horniman primary in September 1999 – and a lot of the things we still do really well now were already in place, particularly a commitment to out-of-hours learning and music. We are lucky to be right next door to an amazing museum, the Horniman. We have really strong links with them – we even have a school governor from there.

How important is out-of-hours learning?

We've been doing it for so long I can't imagine it not being part of school. Our school is open from 8am to 6pm every day. I think so much of children's learning and how they see themselves as learners can happen outside the classroom and school hours. You know that when you talk to the children. It doesn't take anything away from the excellent experiences they have in class – it's building on that.

Is it a lot of work to manage all those clubs?

Well, now everything is so established it doesn't take up that much of my time, or at least if it does I don't even think about it as something additional – it's part of what I do. It does mean 50 staff to manage, but some of them only work one hour a week. The before and after school clubs turnover £80,000 a year, so it's a bit like another business running alongside school.

We have one employee in the office whose main role is to manage the clubs. Children who are entitled to pupil premium get free places and we use clubs as part of our gifted and talented provision. We make sure the clubs are really high quality and taught by specialists and staff who want to share their own expertise and interests. We also have a museum club and we bring in a lot of experience from outside.

Is it really worth dedicating so much time and effort to extra-curricular clubs when schools are worried about SATs and Ofsted?

When you're feeling the pressure it's hard to see beyond it. But I'm convinced these extra curricular activities have a huge impact on the children in our school and their education. It's hard to quantify it in terms of results, although our results are excellent.

I suppose it's about having a belief that when children experience success in one area it has a positive effect in another. Recently we had an assembly where a year 5 child showed the whole school how to do a particularly difficult fractions problem. He did it brilliantly. When I asked him what gave him the confidence to do it he said: "It's because we did well in athletics last night". Don't underestimate the power of success in other areas to impact on the academic side.

How much are parents part of how you work as a school?

Working with parents is essential part of my role and it's central to how we work as a school. The idea to enter the Guardian Teacher Network's School We'd like competition came from a parent. Before I even trained as a teacher I did some work in Brixton Family Centre as a volunteer and we were meeting very vulnerable families, who are often invisible in schools. The parents all talked about how they wanted a better life for their children and how they wanted them to do well at school and that's always stayed with me. In typical London primary you'll have a real mix of parents from all backgrounds and it's vital to give all parents a chance to be involved and listened to. A lot of this comes from a respectful approach from all staff who make sure everyone feels welcome and that when there are events even the parents who hang back due to lack of confidence feel involved.

How important is student voice?

If you don't listen to students you end up running two schools, the school you think you're running and the one the children are in. A school has got to make that connection, children need to have opportunities to talk about themselves as learners and this is built into the culture of the school. They have to be active participants in their learning – that's absolutely key and starts when children are in reception.

What's on your to do list?

For next term its about making sure our radio shed is up and running after winning the School We'd like competition. We've had a group of 12 parents working to build the shed – well it's much more than a shed, you could live in it.

We are also looking into raising chickens at school so I need to organise that.

In a climate when many teachers are feeling overwhelmed, what steps do you take to make sure your team doesn't get stressed?

Part of my role is to act as a filter so you make sure teachers and other staff aren't distracted from their important work and bombarded with new initiatives and demands. We have an excellent team of teachers and support staff and they are fully involved in the running of the school – I think that makes a huge difference. Every two years we meet and decide our priorities, that's the whole staff and governors. Last year we held our meeting at the Horniman museum and it took a morning. We are very focused and there is an astonishing amount of agreement between us. We've been working together as a team for a long time now and because we constantly revisit our aims, I think we are reflective and know where we are going.

Because our results are now consistently high it has given us a certain amount security and confidence. It's really tough when you feel pressured to focus on results almost above the children. Our last Ofsted really captured the school, it read like an outstanding report but we were good overall because our attainment profile and attendance weren't quite strong enough at the time. Our school improvement adviser recently said "you do outstanding differently here," and I think that's right.

Julia Clark is headteacher of Horniman primary school, whose eco-bikes idea won them a £5,000 prize in last year's Guardian Teacher Network and Zurich Municipal School We'd Like competition.

Next year's School We'd Like competition opens on 24 September.

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