Yesterday I wangled a visit to the latest ministerial touchstone for excellence in English education, King Solomon Academy just off the Edgware Road in Westminster. The Ark sponsored academy has the dubious privilege of being situated in the most deprived, socially disadvantaged ward in London. 12% are on the SEN register; 51% are in receipt of free school meals and 65% speak English as a second language. They can hardly be accused as cherry picking the most able. And yet it achieves some of most astonishing GCSE results recorded this summer with 93% of pupils getting 5 good grades including English and Maths and 75% obtaining the eBacc suite of subjects. So, clearly they’re doing something right.
Here’s what they say about themselves:
Climbing the mountain to University
Our mission is to ensure that every pupil achieves academic success and has the real option of going to university. We believe our pupils work hard towards this goal because we make it real for them. We name our classes after well-known university cities and we name each year group by the year in which they will graduate from sixth form. We have high expectations for all of our pupils, and believe that with great teaching and a lot of love and care, every child here can fulfil their potential.
Respect, Excellence, Achievement, Collaboration and Hard work are at the core of everything children, staff and parents do. We believe that these values will be the keys that unlock the door to academic and lifelong success.
And the view from reception certainly supports that vision:
But when I arrived there was a child having a meltdown in reception. This is a scene I’ve seen played out in dozens of different schools; the child had a coat over her head and was crying. Out of my eye-line, a teacher calmly said, “Go back to your lesson and then I’ll call your mum.” At this the pitch and volume of the wailing increased. But the teacher was adamant that she needed to return to lessons before any other action was taken. I reflected that kids are kids; they get upset and act out all the time. But in the overwhelming majority of schools I’ve worked in, teachers wouldn’t have insisted the pupil return to lessons first. They’d have left them in reception (or wherever) and then attempted to resolve the issue.
At the end of reception, just outside the dining hall, another teacher was remonstrating with a girl for refusing to eat the salad on her plate. “We care about what you eat,” he told her. And they also care deeply about seemingly trivial things like good manners. The dining hall was crammed with 120 Year 8 and 9 pupils and the air thrummed with the hubbub you’d expect. The children eat six to a table and each of them have clear roles; the lay the table, serve the food, clear away dirty plates, serve dessert, and clear it away again like a well-oiled machine. Chagrined, Deputy Head, Beth Humphreys told me that this was only the second day the two year groups had eaten together and apologised for the chaos. This ‘chaos’ was the most well-ordered school dining experienced I’ve ever witnessed. Form teachers eat with the tutees and share the same roles and responsibilities as well as supervising dinner table conversation across two tables.
I was a little late to eat and Year 9 pupil Urza whisked me to Miss Humphreys’ office to dump my bag, she chatted politely and articulately about the school – in assembly that morning pupils had been asked to start thinking about the legacy they wanted to leave – and she talked owlishly about some of the university choices she was considering. When we got back to the dining hall, most of the tables had been cleared away and pupils were being addressed by a head of year. She pointed out that 2020 9 (Year 8) had done a better job of clearing that 2019 (Year 9) and that… She stopped, a look of surprised outrage on her face and clapped out a quick rhythm which the pupils and other staff completed. Silence fell like a stone. What had happened? Well apparently someone had been talking when a teacher was talking! This does not happen at KSA. Pupils were reminded of this natural law before she calmly went on with her address. There were no further interruptions.
We then had shout-outs with each teacher describing who and what they had been impressed with over lunch and each piece of praise was followed by appreciative clicking. This is the ‘culty’ stuff that some visitors to the school get a bit upset about. I have to confess that my English reserve and rugged individualism bristled a bit at this; I certainly didn’t want to join in! I first encountered clicking like this many years ago when I was a jobbing performance poet on the slam circuit – clapping, cheering and whooping are distracting and disrespectful. Appreciation for an impressive piece of word-play is shown through clicking. Beth described this as ‘audible nodding’ – the idea being that an action or contribution is being quietly but publicly affirmed.
Beth then accompanied me on a tour of the school chatting about the ethos and vision of KSA and discussing what we saw as we made our way around the school. Behaviour in lessons is impeccable. I visited 6 or 7 different classrooms and in each pupils were uniformly attentive, respectful, considerate and quiet. There was a complete absence of off-task chatting. It just doesn’t happen. This was as much the case for the classes of 2 participants on the 3rd day of teaching as it was for Heads of Year and established teachers. I observed that anyone could teach here. You don’t need years hard-won wisdom on how to manage difficult behaviour because, as far as I could see, there wasn’t any. Teachers can just teach.
So, how does this happen? Does the school have a terrifyingly draconian exclusion system? Are children ruled with a rod of iron? Well, it doesn’t seem so. They use a payslip system where every pupil gets £15 a pay just for turning up. If they still have £75 at the end of the week they can take part in Friday afternoon enrichment, if not they’re in detention all afternoon. A merit is worth £2 and if pupils get a demerit, £2 is deducted from their account. An average balance of £100 or more entitles pupils to attend a week-long residential at the end of the year. (NB – this is not real money.) This is something school invests in heavily which parents asked only to make a nominal £50 contribution. But what, I persisted, happens to those students who don’t want to behave? Three demerits in a week results in a detention. This then escalates to ‘prep’ which involves internal isolation within the classroom. Persistent or serious misdemeanours mean pupils are withdrawn from the classroom and taught in isolation. But the real key is that there is an established culture in which children behave. This is the norm and going against this norm means letting down your ‘family’.
Family is very important at KSA. In part the school sees itself as compensating for the disadvantages of many of its pupils. They seek to culturally enrich and give pupils access to experiences they might not otherwise enjoy. And it’s a small school with just 60 pupils per year group. In the Middle School (Years 7-9) pupils are taught in mixed ability form groups and are encouraged to think of their peers as an extended family. So there’s nowhere to hide. And those who might otherwise want to misbehave to get their validation through support and collaboration rather than through slacking off and being rude.
In middle school, lessons are incredibly structured. The school has embraced the theory of cognitive load and every effort is made to ensure that no one becomes overloaded with too much information needing to be held at once in working memory. As a result, the curriculum is necessarily narrower than that taught in other schools. And the teaching is definitely traditional – lessons are introduced with learning objectives which are written down, teachers direct lessons and pupils spend a lot of time working individually in silence. But having said that, in a Year 8 English lesson pupils were having in-depth conversations about modality and tentativity that would have beyond many A level students I’ve encountered.
Towards the end of my visit I caught the end of Year 9 orchestra practice. The school provides either a cello, a violin or a viola for very child in the school. Orchestra is currently compulsory only in middle school, although the current Year 7 (most of whom have graduated from the KSA primary school) will continue right the way through sixth form. The dining hall had been transformed and it was quite something to see 60 pupils competently sawing away at their stringed instruments. This commitment to music was one of the most impressive things about the school; everyone is taught to read music and the school is very clear about the cognitive benefits of playing as well as the fact that it looks god on a UCAS form.
Is KSA perfect? Of course not but they’re surprisingly open to this and give staff incredible opportunities to improve their practice. Teachers are observed once a week followed by ah hour’s reflection and consideration on how the lesson might have been improved. Teachers also have an hour timetabled for co-planning. This, I was told, is sacrosanct. Their interview process ask potential teachers reflect on the lesson they teach and then reteach it to another group. Getting it right first time isn’t what matters, it’s the belief that you can be better and the willingness to improve that matters.
Clearly, this was a flying visit and these observations are a mixture of what I saw, what I was told and what I’ve inferred. If you’re interested in seeing ‘the magic’ for yourself I can whole heartedly recommend the experience.
But what about that question we should ask of every school: Would I want my own children to go there? I’ve been thinking about this a lot and the answer is, yes. The results at KSA are astonishing and significantly better than many schools in leafy, affluent suburbs. (My local school for instance only achieved 55% A*-C including English and maths this year, but I know – or at least believe – that my children would be well within that 55%.) My children would love it. They often complain about lessons being disrupted by silly behaviour and my youngest daughter particularly is angered by other children chatting when teachers are talking. There’s no doubt that pupils at KSA are safe, happy and secure.
What is being achieved at KSA is extraordinary and they massively out-perform any of the schools I would like my daughters to attend! The question then becomes, what can other schools learn from KSA? How much are their remarkable results due to single-minded leadership and great teaching, and how much is due to their unique structure and idiosyncratic peculiarities? And crucially, can their success be scaled and replicated? Beth attributed much of what they’re able to do down to their size; in a larger school they wouldn’t be able to have the same kinds of relationships with children. Uncomfortable as the culture might make some observers, it’s incumbent on all school leaders to consider how their preferences can be said to serve their children better.
This year is the first year of their new 6th Form and the first year that Year 7 have been through KSA primary. Beth said that they’re just at the beginning of the journey and recognise that there’s still that mountain to climb. Only when the current Year 7 graduate from 6th Form will the story be complete. I’ve promised to return to visit them at that point.
In Part 2 I’ll report on Doug Lemov’s lecture at KSA and consider how some of what he had to say casts light on what I saw.