When I was a parliamentary candidate I used to enjoy visiting local schools. I always learned something. Of course academies that time were a mere glint in Andrew Adonis’s eye. On Wednesday I visited an academy for the first time. It came about following an invitation from one of my LBC listeners who calls in regularly and takes me to task for some of my views on education policy. It turned out that Alison in Sydenham was also head of the Ebbsfleet Academy, which is just off the M25 near Gravesend. Four years ago it was a failing school. Those parents who cared about their children’s education didn’t want to send their kids there and the schools exam results were a joke. Seventeen per cent would get 5 GCSEs or more. The school then became an academy, changed its name, brought in a new head, and the rest, as they say was history. Last summer 54% of their pupils got 5 GCSEs or more including Maths and English. This year they expect to get more than 60%. It’s a remarkable turnaround. It’s been done through inspirational leadership, an almost total replacement of the teaching staff, and imposing rules and discipline. I have never seen such a clean and tidy school. Even all the classrooms were tidy.
All the classes I visited were full of eager to learn kids with seemingly few discipline problems. Many of the yeargroup classes were split into two – boys in one classroom, girls in another. I was quite surprised to see this, but it’s something that both girls and boys seem to like and think is a good idea. Virtually all the teachers were under 30 and many recruited from the TeachFirst programme. Going round the school, the head knew the name of every single pupil she encountered, and had words of encouragement for all of them. In one of the breaks I sat down with six or seven pupils who told me about their experiences of how their school had been transformed. It was truly inspirational. The school is in an area where 42% of the pupils qualify for the pupil premium. Some of them come from very challenging backgrounds. One of the great things Alison Colwell has brought to the school is a real sense of encouraging her pupils to aspire to be better. I asked the seven kids what they wanted to do when they left school. They all gave aspirational answers – law, accountancy, computer technology. Alison later told me that she asked that question to a group of girls when she first arrived at the school. They all wanted to work in nail bars. Nothing wrong with nailbars, but the point was that they had never really considered anything else.
The school is now attracting more and more kids from the local area and is about to start a sixth form. The local community can now be justly proud of it. It just shows how important leadership is for a school. They’ve got the right head teacher at the right time. If this academy is a representative example of the genre, then those schools who are about to convert have nothing to fear. In fact, they should embrace their future. Change is never easy, but it can be very rewarding, as the Ebbsfleet Academy has discovered.