John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.
To Great Yarmouth Charter Academy to keep a long-standing promise to visit Barry Smith, whose innovative and dynamic approach to a school in deep trouble continues to make headlines. From my observation of Barry’s teaching at Michaela, his forthright talk to the Conservative Education Society, and the school’s Ofsted report on behaviour, I expected to be impressed. I was not prepared to be astonished.
Two beautiful seventeenth-century statues of a poor boy and girl at the entrance set the tone – there is a strong tradition of education in the town, reflected in the adjacent display of the smart school uniform, with its rather strange badge – a combination of a lion and a fish. Reception is bright, immaculate, and decorated with a display of tributes from visitors that continues right along the corridor. Staff are happy and friendly to visiting parents. I meet the caretaker, delighted at no longer fighting a losing battle against vandalism, and a cover supervisor, who can now work without fear of insult and violence. I’ve not met such spontaneous expressions of support and appreciation of a headteacher in my forty-six years in education.
He arrives a few minutes late and we set off at a brisk pace, greeting each pupil and member of staff as we pass – quick eye contact, smile, “Good morning sir,” – Barry calls pupils “sir” or “ladies” as well as staff. No-one is ignored. I compliment him on his suit, and he shows me the label – Gieves and Hawkes. He says “Same as Prince Charles. I tell the pupils that it’s nice to have money and nice things. I want them to have jobs they enjoy and that will give them this. My mother would always say, ‘No good being poor and looking poor’”.
First stop is Fadilla Bettahar’s French class, who are using past, present, and future tenses in answer to her questions after just a term and a half of French. Bettahar has worked with Barry at Michaela, where she had a notice on her door informing pupils that “Vous n’êtes pas ici pour massacrer la langue de Molière”. And indeed they don’t, using simple French sentences with accurate pronunciation and understanding. M. Forgeron (French for Smith) does not have them stand up when he enters the room, but sits quietly at the front, joining in at an appropriate moment in a way that creates common ground with the teacher, without pulling rank.
Unlike Sir Michael Wilshaw, he does not see himself, and is not seen, as a sergeant-major. Discipline – removing eye make-up for girls – has a light touch. “It can look nice, but it’s not for school,” says Smith, mentioning a detention that evening if they don’t accept his offer of immediate help from a female teacher in removing it. He makes jokes against himself in a way that enlists his own personality as a teaching aid. It is raining heavily, and upper and lower schools gather in two halls for wet break, in the same friendly and relaxed atmosphere that I’d seen at Michaela. The pupils are happy to talk to me, and, like the staff, are full of unprompted praise for Smith, who has stopped the bullying that had made their lives a misery. Pupils with special needs, including one who has recently joined the school after being made homeless, are particularly keen on this, and on the opportunities they now have for learning.
I did not hear a raised voice during my visit, except for the loud recitation of poems learned by heart as pupils moved between classes. These include Ozymandias, If, Henry V’s speech before Harfleur and, most enthusiastically of all, William Ernest Henley’s Invictus, which embodies the Charter spirit more than any other. Staff join in with enthusiasm, including a member of the caretaking staff, working hard on the Henry V speech. The point is not to instil imperialism, but to extend language, much as nursery rhymes do with pre-school children. Staff at GYCA understand language as the foundation of literacy, and pupils in all classes learn to speak clearly, confidently, and in complete sentences. Incomplete sentences are rephrased by teachers and practised.
Coastal towns are not easy places in which live and work. Recruitment and retention of skilled staff is difficult, although we can hope that, once word gets around that this is a school with real professional opportunities for teachers who really know, and want to teach, their subject, this will change. Barry is currently looking for a head of maths, and, if I were qualified and forty years younger, I’d be knocking his door down. Metaphorically, of course.
In the afternoon, I visited Great Yarmouth Primary Academy, which had an inadequate rating from Ofsted immediately before Christmas, citing, among other weaknesses, persistent disruption to lessons. Expecting the worst, I was once again astonished. The headteacher, who, with his deputy, had taken up his position in January, had, in eight weeks, established exactly the same atmosphere as at Charter, with the same emphasis on behaviour and politeness – greetings and handshakes – throughout the building. In only one class had the teacher to use agreed procedures to “re-set” it, to establish the behaviour that would enable him to teach and the children to learn. The teaching I saw was focused on clear explanations to pupils, who sat facing the teacher rather than each other, with new vocabulary repeated and practised so that it did not wash over them. Children reading in the library were calm and focused. Happy teachers, happy pupils, learning restored. William Ernest Henley would have understood.