A bit like Schwarzenegger & Devito in the film Twins, St. Paul’s Catholic College and St. Mary’s Catholic College may not look like an automatic pairing but Rob Carter (@robcarter2012) and myself were twinned as part of the SSAT (The Schools Network) Vision 2040 Group. Our mission is to establish a clear understanding of the difference between the national curriculum and the framework it provides to the school curriculum, with its unique interpretation in our own setting and context.
Whilst the schools may seem different on first appearances the DNA running through them is pretty much identical. People in faith schools like to talk about journeys, we are a Pilgrim people – this is about journeying to become great schools, a journey and aspiration we all share as schools and teachers across England and beyond.
Having visited St. Paul’s Catholic College, I realise they are further down the road on the journey to being a great school but the vision, values and increasingly the systems at both schools are converging. This was a real comfort to me as it was hugely affirming that we are at least on the right path! There is nothing worse for a leader then to suddenly realise that you have spent the past however long taking people up a cul-de-sac or down a blind alley.
“Everything That’s Worked Well, We’ve Done Together” (Quote from a Middle Leader)
I could have easily used, “We shed blood for each other” as the quote, again from a middle leader, to launch this section as it was rooted in a similar vein of thinking. Amongst the staff I spoke with there was a clear ambition and aspiration to be the absolute best they could be: for the students, for each other and for the school. It was really infectious and the sense of enjoyment in working at and pride in the school was really prevalent, as was the positivity that seemed strong and widespread. Staff had agreed that there were certain things which needed consistency, for the sake of the students, rather than pursuing their individuality.
An example was the adoption of a common teaching protocol based on the Accelerated Learning Cycle with lesson objectives focused on content, process and benefit. I heard this first from senior staff and then an identical response from middle leaders. Students were able to talk to me about the 5Rs, the colour coded badges for top performers in each of the Rs and then there were posters around the school reinforcing the message. The teaching & learning protocols and approaches are all connected up. There is a shared language of learning and a real focus on the core business. Another area of consistency was their collective effort to ensure no-one was left behind. The college has a large number of statemented students and at 7.7% it is well above national average. The systems it has for tracking students’ progress, intervening and supporting students was well known by staff and hugely appreciated by students. There was a sense that even if you wanted to fail at St. Paul’s you wouldn’t be allowed or able to. Impressive!
“Rob’s Relentless, Positive & Proactive”
There isn’t an externally imposed aggressive “doing to/you must do” approach but rather middle leaders leading the accountability agenda and committed to quality assuring the work they and their teams do. They were very conscious of not letting anyone down and making sure they contributed to the team effort – it intrinsically drove them on towards even greater excellence. As one middle leader stated, “It’s a different kind of pressure”. In great schools it seems it is the middle leaders who assure quality and hold themselves and each other to account. I sometimes think we still have a bit of a “wait until your father gets home” (me being father) at St. Mary’s which is why we’re stuck at good. By the time I’ve noticed what’s going on it’s usually miles too late! Taking this idea further, in World Class schools, I wonder whether it is every teacher, in every classroom who holds themselves and their colleagues to account? I’ll develop this theme in a future post on “Journeying to Great”.
“Keep the Principle, Change the Practice”
Over time the school has changed and evolved by challenging themselves to do better whilst also looking outside benchmarking and learning from other great schools. Values run deep, the language is about: care & support, respect & forgiveness, enthusiasm & passion for learning and challenge & choices. With workforce reform a small army of support staff entered schools but at St. Paul’s the boundaries of who does what have merged. This keeps the focus on the students and also means the career development of staff looks more seamless than in many schools. This approach is enhanced by their Teaching School status which has led to a “grow your own” approach to teachers, leaders and future employees in general.
For leaders the principles, vision and values keep the direction secure and empower leaders to do “whatever is needed” in pursuit of their goals. This encompasses many small changes the one percenters, for example:
- The introduction of twenty minute “butterfly INSET” for staff,
- The use of tablet technology for the whole of Years 10-13 with notebooks for Years 7-9 with an impressive use of the technology as you walk the school
- Direct contact with parents via e-mail, no waiting around asking permission or going through pastoral staff
There was a “ruthless simplicity” to the approach, they kept “the main thing the main thing” and didn’t get diverted or waste energy on needless issues or overcomplicated systems. It is a school that has developed an improvement mentality and momentum.
“We Have a Real Knitting Teacher”
Whilst this might not be the rallying cry of many Secretaries of State, HMIs or Ofsted Inspectors, the students who were talking to me about their Wednesday afternoon enrichment options were genuinely excited. Walking around St. Paul’s you can’t fail to be impressed by the Art work, it is simply stunning. At a time when departments whose core business is creativity are being side-lined and downsized the creative curriculum at St. Paul’s is alive and well. The Wednesday enrichment afternoon with its huge variety of options, the vast number of sports (I couldn’t write quick enough to get the full list) and the many extra-curricular opportunities talk of a school that offers its students so much more than a purely functional curriculum.
There is a richness to what is on offer to students that is part of the rounded development of them as people.
The St. Paulsing Way
Chatting with students and the staff a common thread appeared around the “St. Paulsing Way”. I first heard the expression talking to senior staff. When I asked students about it they all started laughing and just said, “yes” and middle leaders nodded earnestly.
Many examples were given including my personal favourite Guardian Angels which just really appealed to me. It involves two or three Year 10 students who support each Year 7 form by just simply going along and playing games and getting to know them. The fruits of this are borne in on-going relationships as these students more into Year 8 and then eventually to them becoming Guardian Angels themselves. The process is generative. This led onto a discussion around student leadership, the importance of the Student Council and Sixth Form Committee and how both the council and committee focused on others not just themselves – a commitment to charity work and organising events for younger students “We’re big on community”. The St. Paulsing Way seems to be focused on the needs of the individual within a community context that is supportive, enriching and aspirational.
Relationships are at the core of everything at St. Paul’s and this chimes with St. Mary’s, it’s the sixth R.
Journeying to Great
I’ll remember not only the warmth and openness shown by all the people I met at St. Paul’s but also their passion for working at and on behalf of St. Paul’s, the cohesive community made up of students, staff and parents. Rob is clearly the Guardian Angel of this spirit and the support given to staff is as generous and fulsome as that provided to students. The visit inspired me to think about “Journeying to Great” and will be at the root of the next series of blogs. Special thanks go to Rob for his hospitality and to Debbie, Darren, Laurie, Matt, Peter and Sue for their time on a mad busy school day … the journey continues.
The next blog post in this series is:
If you would like to read Rob’s post about his visit to St. Mary’s it is here, “The Power of Collaboration”