In Simon Sinek’s book, Start With Why, he states that all organisations should start with answering why they exist before they decide what they do and how they do it. Torquay Academy (TA) is a school that is passionate about its raison d’etre; we have two answers for Sinek:
These are mantras that I repeated throughout my interview and you will see these words throughout the school.
Torquay Academy needed to improve rapidly. When I joined TA in January 2014 I wanted to create a vision that was owned by the school and its community. We used part of our first day back to ask our staff to outline the school we aspire to have as a beacon in the heart of our community. Everyone contributed under twelve headings that I felt reflected the key areas of the school (these are shown on the image below). To ensure the document was fully representative of everyone who has an interest in the success of the school we invited other stakeholders’ views as well. These thoughts were then assembled and drafted as version one of our vision. Staff groups re-assembled to finalise our vision over a number of meetings. The completed version was sixteen pages of quite detailed text.
We shared it with students, parents, staff and the local community, but I wanted a rather more digestible Vision 2020.
I contacted the brilliant Joel Cooper, an artist who I had met at a SSAT conference, in the hope he could bring our vision to life. He produced this graphic of the key points:
Joel then made some adjustments so it would fit on to an 8 x 2m wall in the heart of the school. We are delighted with the results; I will often talk to students during the day in front of the wall and discuss various aspects of our vision. It is also a talking point for all of our visitors, including our Regional Schools Commissioner, Sir David Carter.
The vision is the platform for the changes that we have implemented over the past year. Tasks were aligned to the twelve areas of the vision; we all knew what we were trying to achieve. The other case studies you will read are a result of a school aligning itself behind a vision; I will not repeat those messages here.
There was a culture that I wanted to establish in the school community; this would impact upon both staff and students.
I equated our approach to that of Dave Brailsford and how he transformed British Cycling into world beaters. We would use the principles of marginal gains to make small improvements to every area of the school; the result of this would be a transformational change.
A sense of urgency needed to be introduced to all aspects of the school, from students’ arrival in the morning and transitions to teaching lessons. We also needed to ensure that more lessons were taught by the timetabled teacher; the mantra “teachers in front of classes” was born. Trips were cancelled and CPD was assessed against the impact it would have in the classroom. This not only had a very positive impact upon the % of lessons taught by the class teacher, but on behaviour as well.
To ensure our curriculum retained its breadth of opportunities a ‘Curriculum Enrichment Week’ and ‘Activities Week’ were introduced in November and July respectively.
When I arrived, teachers didn’t have their own teaching room and staff workrooms were based upon Year groups rather than academic departments (there is no central staffroom). This was the number one complaint of teaching staff. Staff would move up to six times a day as the timetable was constructed to reduce student movement and keep them in their Year group zones.
We agreed to move to department spaces. Curriculum Team Leaders became HOLAs (Heads of Learning Areas) with responsibility for everything within their learning areas: the classrooms, corridors, work room and the behaviour. This sense of ownership for the HOLAs and the teaching staff was very empowering. It also allowed department teams to be established; colleagues were together to not only share best practice and resources, but to build relationships.
It was also important for me to build my team. Our Senior Leadership Team has grown as specialists have been brought into the team to meet the needs of the school. We have been able to do this as Assistant Principals have increased their teaching load – we benefit from outstanding leaders and classroom practitioners. The Chair of our weekly SLT meeting is rotated and I have bi-weekly 121s with the entire team; outcomes and dates, not minutes, are recorded.
We talk a lot about controllables and uncontrollables; a great deal of time is spent ensuring everything that can be controlled is done so. Meticulous planning helps to ensure this. Whilst we acknowledge not everything can be controlled, we aim to reduce the uncertainty of these uncontrollables.
I view our Senior and Middle Leadership Team (SMLT) as the key drivers to change. There is a definite blurring of the two teams; we are all individuals with different responsibilities working towards the same goal. There has been a lot of investment in our SMLT, both in terms of meeting time and CPD. It was vital to “get the right people on the bus” in every position in the school, not just leadership positions. Since I joined we have recruited over 30 new teachers to the Academy. This has obviously taken a considerable amount of time, but it could not have been more important.
Building a sense of community was also important for me. We meet as a whole-school in the Sports Hall for an assembly that I lead. I write a weekly blog that is published on our website. Both of these are opportunities to celebrate success – we want the school to be a place where students are proud of their achievements.
Honours boards have been placed at the entrance to the school where we celebrate students who have gone to university, 100% attendance, outstanding effort, sports and performing arts colours and Head Boy and Head Girl.
We celebrate stars in each subject every half term and certificates are awarded for accumulating commendations. Students are proud to wear badges that are awarded for many of these achievements.
We are an outward looking school and we seek out the best practice in the world. Strong relationships have been forged that benefit the students and staff of TA with outstanding schools across the UK and USA. We have joined Challenge Partners and the South West Teaching School Alliance. Our Regional Schools Commissioner, Sir David Carter, brokered outstanding support from the Priory Community School and its Head, Neville Coles. Andy Buck has supported leaders through bespoke CPD for our Senior and Middle leaders as well as coaching me.
There has been a great deal of change and it has happened quickly. I am aware of the extent this can be unsettling, but I make no apologies as the school needed to make rapid improvement. The perceptions of our local community have shifted dramatically. In a time of falling roles our applications have more than doubled and the school is heavily oversubscribed; we had over 536 applications for our 240 places.
We will continue to align with many outstanding schools both in the UK and abroad. The goal is simple: to become the best school in the world.