On Friday, my colleague and I had the pleasure and privilege of visiting Britain’s most exciting school. To say it was one of the happiest school environments we have ever seen would not be an exaggeration. It is rare and incredibly special to set foot in a school where teachers are so proud of what they are achieving and pupils so pleased to be learning in a safe and joyful environment. The most overwhelming takeaway? The team spirit that pervades every school corridor.
Below is our summary of notes from the day. We hope you’ll find it useful and inspirational.
Stories from the old days:
- Teachers were sworn at (c*** included) on a daily basis, with real venom. Pupils spat at teachers.
- Pupils were trampled down in corridors. Large groups of year 11 boys would push into the crowd, forcing younger children at the front to fall down whilst the older ones kept pushing.
- Teachers had to drag children into their classrooms off the corridor floor.
- One teacher told us how she got in between one boy chasing a younger boy and threatening to kill him. She let the younger boy go through a door then closed it, holding it shut whilst the older boy was kicking the other side down. There was nothing else they could do to prevent the violence. Two years later, the older boy was convicted of murder.
- One pupil’s older brother came to the gates at the end of the school day and held a female teacher up against the wall by the scruff of her neck.
- Pupils walked through corridors smoking; there was a known ‘smoking area’ behind the bike sheds (or equivalent) where there would be a carpet of cigarette butts.
- We asked about the highest achieving kids. There were some that achieved top grades in English – Mrs Weber described them as a ‘pocket of excellence’ – but to achieve that they had interventions before school starting at 7am and after school until 6pm. That was the only way that pupils who wanted to achieve could learn without disruption.
Stories from our visit:
- Mrs Weber has worked at the school for at least five years, and two of her sons both work at the school too. She lost her voice in January but since then has just taught lessons (and given an assembly!) in a whisper. Certainly there is no shouting or raised voices in her classroom, but there isn’t any need.
- Mrs Weber remembered a KS3 boy, possibly on the spectrum, who used to sit in the corners of rooms and read in all social times around school. He had no friends. Now, he puts his hand up and contributes in lessons and, she tearfully tells us, sits and eats his lunch happily surrounded by friends.
- Before we left her classroom, she wanted to show us a piece of work from her year 9 class, telling us how proud she is of what they can now achieve. This book was pulled off the top of a pile; it is clear that Mrs Weber would have been proud of any of her pupils’ work. It was an essay comparing Ozymandias and London, and it was undoubtedly impressive. A photo of the essay is at the end of this post. She told us that previously, this kind of pupil would make no improvements throughout KS3 and start year 11 on a grade 2. She estimated that they are now working at a 4 and would undoubtedly make improvements on their way to GCSEs. She said that her teaching hasn’t changed. Instead, the consistency of systems and behaviour and support from SLT for the way she teaches (desks in rows facing the front) is the reason for the change in quality of work.
- The corridors were delightful. They are orderly, speedy, and incredibly happy. Barry describes transitions as “35 minutes each day to build relationships with pupils”, and that is indeed what happens. Teachers told us that there is no need to put staff on duty because staff want to be out there anyway. Teachers are checking in with pupils (“did you get a golden ticket? How are your merits?”) and joking with them (“here comes the man with the dance moves!”). Pupils stop and let others pass them, managing junctions themselves. Pupils say genuine “good afternoons” to us as they walk past, despite not knowing us.
- The lunch hall was relaxed and happy. Pupils queued for their food without needing supervision. Teachers chose to sit with random groups of pupils and there was no pupil resentment about this at all. There was a lovely family atmosphere in the room. There was no misbehaviour, but it didn’t seem that this was because the hall was heavily policed. I didn’t see any tellings off, I didn’t see any demerits. Instead, teachers told us that kids have just learned to appreciate manners, and the buy in is so high that they behave nicely in there because they want to.
- Joe Gabr, a science teacher of ten years, was considering leaving the profession before Charter was turned around. He was gutted to leave teaching, as it was the only thing that he had wanted to do since his early childhood. Unfortunately Joe felt that he had no other option. Despite over 60% of pupils in his classes passing their science GCSEs, compared to the old school average of around 30%, Joe felt as though he was killing himself in an unhappy, out-of-control school environment. To tide him over and support his newborn baby whilst training for another career, Joe considered applying for jobs at Morrisons and B&Q! But within 30 minutes of meeting Barry Smith, Joe knew that if anyone could turn around Great Yarmouth High School it would be him. We sat in his lesson for 50 minutes and loved every minute! Here’s what we learned from him:
- Planning lessons is no longer about planning for behaviour but planning for learning. There is no room for complacency, however. Joe Gabr mentions how he is worried that he isn’t making the most of every minute in the classroom. Staff are very self-reflective and welcome feedback from colleagues.
- Joe smiled constantly throughout his lesson and there was a genuine feeling of warmth. He encourages the pupils non-stop: “that’s ok, we’ll get there”; “don’t worry if you don’t know!”; “That’s a really common mistake so nothing to be embarrassed about”; “if you didn’t get that then don’t worry because we’re going to do loads of practice”.
- Joe described how his values have changed away from science teaching being about ‘making mini scientists’ and constantly inspiring pupils, to a realisation that he is trying to get the kids some good GCSEs so that, if they want to become real scientists, then they can go on to do that. If it means that if a topic is a bit boring, that’s ok, and he can still expect pupils to work hard and learn it. He isn’t planning lessons to keep them interested and inspired, but to prepare them for GCSEs.
- Joe says that he has progressed more in the past year than he had in his whole career. He gets feedback daily and is incredibly grateful for it.
- Ms Brewin is a non-teaching Head of Year 8 who has been at the school for 14 years. She started as a teaching assistant, became a Head of Year with an assistant Head of Year and recently took over the entire role.
- She described how she can now get on with her pastoral role instead of merely fighting fires. She has the time to make absence phone-calls, run merit challenges, and check in with the most difficult pupils in the year.
- She is encouraged to be herself. She had in-jokes with staff and pupils alike, was full of energy and enthusiasm and seemed so comfortable taking us around the school.
- We spoke to the receptionist – I’m sorry but I don’t know her name! She told us that she has worked at the school for five years, but attended it when she was a child, and all of her three kids also attended the school. She has seen how the school has changed over many years.
- She described how teachers were now happy and excited to come to work, whereas before they would dread coming to work. She said it was a pleasure to come in every day, and recognises how special that is.
How it’s achieved:
- Barry is in lessons all the time. He gets involved in lessons, gets pupils shouting out and chanting things that are written on the wall or things they’ve just been learning. It was a joke amongst staff that Barry will never be easy to find, because he’ll never be in his office! One of the reasons that Barry does this is to immediately model to staff how to improve their presence and instruction.
- Teachers are encouraged to have fun, be themselves and build happy relationships. Jokes with pupils are so much more common than admonishments. One teacher had bought herself an “employee of the year” badge, and was positively encouraged by SLT to wear it, purely for fun!
- Pupils are given golden tickets, merits, a “100% attendance party” and an awful lot of love and warmth.
- Numerous teachers spoke about consistency being the biggest change – where expectations are the same across the school and consistently upheld. Boundaries were set at the start of the year, and stuck to without faltering.
- One teacher said that the introduction of SLANT was the number one change, meaning that teachers could instantly get control of their classrooms.
- Teachers across the school spoke very highly of the whole SLT team (four in total) and are happy to be led by them. It is simply not a one-man show.
Why exactly was it such a heart-warming and positive experience? Because it shows what is possible for schools around the country. This school was not just like any other school – it was worse. Now, it is a place where teachers teach, kids learn and everybody laughs. And that’s not because the entire staff have changed, or because they are now all working 12-hour days. They aren’t. The people we spoke to and saw were teachers that have been there for years, plugging away in the hope that one day it can be better. The kids we saw smiling at us in the corridors, asking thoughtful questions, offering up their answer to read out next because they were so proud of it – they were the kids who before were swearing and spitting at teachers, or getting trampled down in corridors. Turnarounds are possible. As Margaret Mead articulately put it, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world”. At Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, they have.
Big thanks to all staff at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy. In particular: Ms Brewin, who so generously gave us lots of her time.
Read more about the school in these blog posts: