A building shining with hope. My visit to Nuneaton Academy

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One of the frustrations of not living in London is that it can sometimes feel as if far less in education happens anywhere else. This impression, completely untrue of course, is built by the effective and loud schools and academy chains that operate there, and the large number of education events that take place within the M25.

I don’t begrudge London this. Much. But I do think it important that when something exciting happens elsewhere it is highlighted.

A fortnight or so ago I was invited to look round the Nuneaton Academy and came away inspired. It wasn’t the first time this school appeared on my radar. About five years ago and old friend of mine got a medium term cover position there after finishing up a job abroad. It was, he told me, eye-poppingly awful. Behaviour was out of control with no centralised or even departmental system to deal with it. Teachers were left to control the crowds alone in their classrooms and any teaching and learning seemed almost incidental. A newly appointed Head Teacher told an assembly “I will stay at least a year” as if that was something worth shouting about, then didn’t. “Poor kids,” I remember my friend saying, “there’s a generation of them not learning anything.”

A quick look through the school’s Ofsted history makes for some pretty grim reading. There isn’t even one ‘good’ rating on the website.

While nothing at all can excuse this sort of systematic, long term failure it is important to acknowledge that by any measure Nuneaton is a tough place in which to teach. It is a poor, post-industrial, predominantly white British town. These children, demographically, do not do well and the Nuneaton Academy is full of them. Fruit does not fall easily from the tree in places like this.

I hate that schools like this still exist. I hate driving past them when I can’t help but imagine them as black holes, sucking the life out of all in and around them. I hate visualising the stunted lives and the squandered potential, and the wasting of so much time. I hate that it happens in towns near where I live. I hate that it seems to happen to more children outside London than it does to those in it.

And it was because of all this hatred that I drove out of the Nuneaton Academy smiling so widely that when I caught a glimpse of myself in the overhead mirror I forced myself to stop because I actually looked insane.

This school is not failing its pupils.

As soon as I arrived at reception it was clear a lot had changed since my friend had worked there. It was just after the first bell and the Deputy Head, Ann Donaghy, was dealing with two latecomers. There were clear consequences, calmly explained with humour, and accepted by pupils, who were then sent off to wherever they should be with a smile.

In a short meeting the approachable Head, Simon, and Ann, spoke clearly and convincingly about their vision and its practical application, which was visible everywhere I looked in the school on the tour I took later. Ann, by saying that the school was still at the beginning of its journey and that not all behaviour was as they wanted it to be, led me to expect something very different to what I actually saw in lessons; behaviour was largely perfect. Children were focused and the lessons, taught from the front, were meaningful and productive. In the corridors children greeted, Simon, Ann and myself with ‘good morning’ which was returned every time. As a small experiment when left to my own devices for a minute between lessons I said ‘good morning’ to the children who passed me and found that every one responded politely and confidently. This is truly impressive. I have been teaching and leading in schools long enough to know that this sort of culture does not emerge by accident.

The rules were strict and formal and the pupils happy because of them. Classes stood when Simon and Ann came into the room but did this with wide smiles and were genuinely pleased to see them, and keen to show off what they knew when asked to. There was humour and warmth in every room I went in. In one classroom one pupil did not comply with a polite request form her teacher and this was dealt with by Simon, the Head, unobtrusively, calmly and respectfully. If any other pupil noticed what was going on they didn’t show it. In the same lesson I saw an ICT failure of the sort that’s inevitable and watched the class teacher calmly ask Simon for help resolving it, which he did readily and with no fuss at all. This must be a great place in which to work.

Rules, routines and rituals help create the culture in which learning can happen and so I was not surprised to see really high quality teaching and learning.

In a history lesson I was lucky enough to observe I saw a teacher casually use the phrase ‘perpetual suffering’ when teaching a Year 7 class about heaven, hell and purgatory in the medieval period. When I asked the child closest to me what this meant she answered correctly, proudly and in a full sentence. I saw English literature lessons in which knowledge organisers were being used, which had been carefully curated and skilfully formatted to reduce distraction and get pupils focused on the most important aspects.

After the tour, I returned to Simon’s office and looked at the numbers of pupils in each year. Year 11 has less than Year 10, which has less than Year 9, which has less than Year 8. Year 7 has the highest number of pupils. GCSE outcomes are on the up and last year the a pupil at the school achieved a top (9) grade for the very first time. Those familiar with the way schools work will already have spotted the pattern. Quite rightly, the school is becoming more and more popular because it is getting better and better. It is still undersubscribed but it will not stay that way for long.

This is a proper school that knows what it’s doing, doing it in a place where children need a great education more than almost anywhere else. It was a privilege to see and I’ll be watching and cheering  its journey, and that of the Midland Academies Trust of which it is a part, with very close interest. We all, of course, know great things happen all over the country; the Dixons chain in Bradford, the Inspiration MAT in Norfolk and the Huntington School in York are just three examples of places outside London in which things are going very right. I’d encourage anyone who can to learn about and, better, visit them. But there’s something really exciting about seeing something truly wonderful happening in your own local area and that’s what I saw at the Nuneaton Academy.

I’d encourage anyone who can to visit this school to go and see for yourself what I saw; a building shining with hope.

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