During half-term, I took a trip to the coast to visit Great Yarmouth Charter Academy. Here’s what I saw…
When I arrive at GY Charter, Barry Smith is in full flow. The pupils in his class are highly attentive — which is good because the level of rigour is high. Pupils’ pronunciation is constantly corrected and ‘checking for understanding’ is weaved so thoroughly into the lesson — and at such pace — that it would be entirely possible to observe for an hour and miss it.
The very best teachers have an x-factor that gives their classroom a certain joie de vivre, but watching Barry teach, what I find more interesting is seeing the extent to which he relies on technique and curriculum knowledge. With automatised routines and rote knowledge of what he wants the pupils to master, he can manoeuvre back and forth through content at dizzying speed – faster than I’ve witnessed by any other teacher.
The pupils in Barry’s class are getting a great deal. They’re learning heaps of French, and they’re learning it fast. But the key to that is, I think, something even more important than joie de vivre or technique or curriculum knowledge. The key is the standards that Barry has. They inform everything he does in the classroom: his blinding pace, his meticulous attention to pronunciation, his repetition and retrieval of prior learning.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and talking about values, mindset, and standards over the past few weeks. In my estimation, these are the most important elements to get right when looking to improve a school or simply run an effective one. As a profession, we talk regularly about high expectations, but rarely do we stop to think about where these expectations come from. Too often we think simply in terms of placing challenging material at the heart of our lessons, and although this is of undoubted importance, it is not sufficient.
Ultimately, high-expectations come from our values. Do we believe, deep in our souls, that all pupils have the potential to succeed? Do we also accept that pupils are children who will make mistakes, forget things, and make bad decisions, and that it is our responsibility, as adults, to continue to hold them to high standards during these moments. Do we expect children to sit up straight and listen attentively? Do we expect them to remember everything? Do we expect them to dress with pride, walk with sure feet, and face up to a challenge with backbone when times get tough. If we do, if we hold these values, then our mindset will ensure that the standards we have for the children in our care will remain high, even when things get difficult. It’s Barry’s values that mean the kids in his classes get a great deal, and it’s Barry’s values that mean mean he is on the way to creating a truly great school.
But Charter is not simply The Barry Smith Show. As we walk around the school, he is at pains to explain how grateful he is for the support he gets from his SLT, as well as how lucky he is to have staff that have bought into his vision and joined him for the journey. And it’s clear that all the staff are playing their part. Teachers are visible in the corridors and dining halls, and they constantly chat with the pupils during break times.
It is plain that this collective effort has paid dividends for Charter. Throughout the school, pupils exhibit excellent behaviour, and when I pass a youngster in the corridor, I find I am greeted with a ‘Good morning, sir.’ And this isn’t some surly teenage greeting. The pupils look up, maintain a moment’s eye-contact, and then deliver the greeting confidently and clearly. These things are about standards. This happens because Barry and his staff believe, really believe, that all kids can be polite, well-mannered, successful members of the community, and that manners and confidence are not the preserve of the top public schools.
It’s also interesting to note that Barry often addresses the pupils as ‘Sir’ when he comes across them in the corridor. The more I think about this, the more I love it. It’s a real mark of respect to the children and it delivers that respect in a way that reinforces superior rituals of social conduct. Again, it’s about standards.
During lesson transitions, uniform is excellent and pupils move swiftly and quietly through the corridors. Teachers are on-hand to ensure things remain orderly and they quiz their charges on knowledge while classes pass. Yet again, these things are about standards — the mindset of the staff in Barry’s school means they really do believe that the pupils can dress smartly and retain academic knowledge and it is this mindset that is driving up the standards.
But for all of this talk of standards and values, what I find most striking about Charter is it’s heart. This is a cheerful school. Kids are happy and have obviously warm relationships with the staff. Having worked in an all-boys, inner-city school in special measures, I know just how bad bad-behaviour can get, and I can imagine what behaviour would have been like before the turnaround began. Looking at the school now, it is remarkable to imagine. It feels like a school where the culture dictates that poor behaviour just wouldn’t happen.
Despite this, Barry is clear that this is only the beginning of the school’s journey, reminding me a number of times that the school still has a long way to go. During my time in education, I have worked in over 200 schools. I can honestly say Charter is one of the best. And if this is only the start of Barry’s journey, one wonders just where it will be at the end. Wherever it is, times are exciting for staff at GY Charter, I’d say.