My Visit to Great Yarmouth Charter Academy

Nicholas Marshall, Associate Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, has written this guest blog for us on his visit to Great Yarmouth Charter Academy…

It was because of a conversation and a respectful disagreement with Mark Lehain on Twitter, that I found myself on a dark and cold afternoon in March travelling from my home to Great Yarmouth. Not for a holiday, but to visit a school that had become something of a cause celebre in the press and amongst the twitterati. I had accepted an invitation to visit Great Yarmouth Charter Academy. Hard positions about the approach that the school was adopting as it was striving to improve were taken both in the educational press and on social media. A lot of this controversy seemed to revolve around issues relating to the adoption of a precise and directed pedagogical approach and the appearance policy for students. My task, as I saw it, was to understand the reasoning behind the school’s approach to its purpose, to observe and critique the approach to teaching and to judge the impacts on the school community.

I was interested because of my background in teaching, using a pedagogical approach that was diametrically opposed to the model used in GYCA. It would also mean to observing a school in the throes of change. I decided that instead of applying my usual theoretical lens to the visit that I would go with an open mind and attempt to employ an empirical approach.

So, dispensing with my usual sartorial accoutrements of a T-shirt, jeans and trainers and not wanting to fall foul of the Head, I turned up to the reception to the school suited and booted. The first thing that struck me was the warm greeting that I received from Barry Smith, the Head and Mark Lehain of Parents and Teachers for Excellence, who had organised the visit. At this point I could launch into a chronological account of the visit but I don’t think that would tell the story so far. As an alternative I thought it might be appropriate to deal with themes or issues including; behaviour and appearance policies, the pedagogical approach, and staff and pupil perceptions

The first area that I would like to deal is with the expectations that the school has for its pupils. The clear message here is that the school is trying very hard to raise achievement and attainment for its pupils. They do this, as do most other schools, through a mix of policies, procedures and protocols that apply to all areas of the school’s activity.

One area of policy that appears to have exercised the minds of commentators, most of whom have not visited the school, is in relation to behaviour and appearance. I feel that the time has come to address this canard and inject a dose of reality. This school does nothing in terms of behaviour and appearance that would not be considered anything less than good practice in most other schools. They expect the pupils to always behave well and have implemented structures to enable good behaviour. Staff have high visibility, monitor corridors and recreational areas at lesson changeover and at break times. This results in a calm and orderly atmosphere throughout the day. What’s not to like? Classrooms appeared safe and purposeful with the children clear about the standards of behaviour that are expected, teachers clearly enjoying teaching, and there are smiles and good relationships abound. Pupils are also under no illusion of the consequences that follow if they are unable to operate in line with the expectations. However, it was also apparent that due regard was taken regarding the needs of pupils with individual needs and the poor behaviour was appropriately challenged coupled with the positive reinforcement of good behaviour.

The Academy has an appearance policy that is clear and unequivocal. If pupil’s do not adhere to the standards in the policy, then there are clear consequences. This is no different to most secondary schools in the whole of England. My feeling is that recent controversy around this issue is generated by those who might have wider criticisms of the school, the MAT that it is part of and the leadership of that MAT. I am aware, as are most other observers and commentators of secondary education, that such stories occur in the press when it is a slow news day and are thought to make good news. The generation of false outrage is, as we know, the stock-in-trade of certain sections of the mass media and is probably best ignored. There is a debate to be had here about the impact of uniform and appearance policy and its efficacy in helping to raise standards, but this is a debate that should not be used as a tool to critique individual schools. I suspect that those that engage in this behaviour have a wider agenda.

The pedagogical technique in use appeared to be derived based upon ideas generated by Engelmann, Hirsch and Doug Lemov. I think that Barry Smith referred to it as the “Charter” approach.It requires an emphasis to be placed upon knowledge, the teacher is seen as an expert and pupils are required to engage in learning through a variety of routines. These are common throughout the school and are consistently implemented. The pupils seemed to respond well, and it was clear that at the end of a lesson that knew, understood and could do more than they could at the start of the lesson. Perhaps there was not the variety of techniques and activities involved that I would favour but it seemed to work in the context of the academy and the challenges that it was clearly facing.

The pupils were very clear about the changes that had taken place since the academy had been established and replaced the previous school. They reported that the school was now much improved both in terms of behaviour, pupil attitude and the quality of lessons that they were experiencing. In lessons, they could now work without the constant distraction of off-task behaviour, low and high-level disruption and that they felt that learning was now much more purposeful than previous years. Aware of the some of the criticisms related to academies and the treatment of pupils with SEN, I managed to have a conversation with one student that was very illuminating. They were open and honest about the needs that they had and how the academy had been effective in addressing them.Observing the pupils at break was also enlightening. They were just like normal young people, some behaving well and others being mischievous. What struck me was the way in which the staff dealt with any such issues. They were not over harsh, but just clear and precise about the expected standards and the consequences that would surely follow if the identified behaviour was not modified. The pupils seemed to appreciate the clarity and certainty.

Staff were unanimous in their praises of the changes that taken place in the school since it had become Great Yarmouth Charter Academy. Numerous teachers and support staff alike mentioned that the standards of pupil behaviour in the predecessor school were appalling and dangerous and how they had felt threatened. This was not now the case. Many indicated that if had not been for the academy and the approach of the leadership team that they would have left their posts. Two teachers even indicated that they would have left the profession had it not been for the changes that had taken place in the school. Supply teachers also indicated that prior to the academy that they would not have considered coming to teach at the school. Another teacher, who joined the predecessor school on supply had even decided to stay because of the changes.

People were not just saying how much better the situation was in the school, but they were acting on the fact.Recruitment is clearly still a challenge but one young teacher, who had worked with Barry in a previous post, said that once she knew he was the head, that this was the school in which they wished to continue their career. The support staff, many of whom I spoke to, had insights that supported the comments that the teachers had made. They recounted stories in the predecessor school of large groups of students running around the school and disrupting learning, with adults being treated with gross disrespect and threatened.

This academy is not a finished project, it is still a work that is very much in progress but those in the school community believe, to a person (at least those I met) that this is a school on a trajectory to improvement. That can only be a good thing for the whole community. Which community does not want good educational provision for its children?The important facet of the situation that people who critique the academy, I feel, need to understand, is that this is an attempt to change ingrained poor behaviour and a failure to provide children with a good learning experience. The scale of such a challenge should not be underestimated, especially by those who have never attempted such a project. The project isn’t yet finished but I do feel that Barry and his team have made a great start. This is a school, I am sure, that the community will soon regard with pride and a strength of the town.

I am also aware that recently, that some commentators have indicated that numbers of children have left the school since the Inspiration Trust took over. The narrative, seems to be that this as result of exclusion but I suspect that it is due to parents and children being opposed to the way that the new team are running the school. Let me be clear, in my experience of these types of projects, these numbers are not unusual and would have been regretted but expected. There really is no story here.

Finally, I want to be clear about my own position and background, should anyone wish to impugn my motives. I was and remain critical of both academies and free schools in terms of the way that the system is structured and there is a lack of regulation. My teaching career spans 30 years in all types and contexts of secondary school. I was invited to visit the academy but given no editorial direction as to my report. These are my own words based on my observation and interpreted through my own experience and knowledge. As I always do, I have told my truth and my integrity remains intact. Because of my visit I have been subject to much criticism on social media and fully expect more if this is published. However, that will not put me off. This is what I saw. Barry Smith and his team are working so hard to make this a good school, pupils and staff are buying into the project and I wish them well.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of PTE or its employees.