Rigour Not Revolution

Dixons Trinity Academy opened with 112 Year 7 students on 4th September 2012 and will rise to its full capacity of 720 students by September 2018. As a start-up, we had to do everything from scratch. Every staff member, system and policy had to be recruited or written. But it was also a chance to craft a school culture that has the highest standards.

Our core values of hard work, trust and fairness permeate all that we do. From the moment a student arrives at Dixons Trinity, we ask them to live these values. We also focus on three key drivers: Mastery, which is the drive to get better at things that matter; Autonomy, or the drive to direct our own lives; and Purpose, which is the drive to connect to a cause larger than ourselves (Dan Pink, ‘Drive‘).

I welcome the emerging cross-party consensus on a school-led system. It is our greater Autonomy as teachers and leaders which has allowed me and my staff to establish our own unique school. But as professionals we probably have only a five- to ten-year time frame in which to prove that a school-led system results in a better education for more students, and in closing the gap for the disadvantaged. Without Mastery and Purpose, our Autonomy will mean nothing, and our school-led system will not be secure.

Our proportion of disadvantaged students is above average, and over 50% of students live in the five most deprived wards in Bradford, one of the UK’s most significant areas of socio-economic challenge. Our priority is to raise aspirations, encourage young people to have a growth mindset, and to progress onto higher education. The message at Trinity is that ALL students are going to university. Teachers talk to students about ‘climbing the mountain to university’ by working hard and taking steps towards the goal each day. We continuously expose students to university. Before they join, Year 6 students visit the University of Leeds so their first experience with Dixons Trinity is at a Russell Group university. In Year 8, every student visits Oxford University. All students need a tangible goal to motivate them to do well and I couldn’t think of a better goal than higher education – it certainly motivated me at school. We won’t force our students to go to university, but we do want them to be able to make an informed decision at the end of Year 13 rather than having no decision to make because they haven’t got the required exam results. If students decide not to go to university, we will expect them to follow a ‘real alternative’ such as a higher-level apprenticeship.

Our academy is already heavily oversubscribed with over 9 applications for every place and 100% of our parents would recommend the school to another parent. Last year, students made an average of 19 months of reading progress in a 9 month period and almost all students made expected progress across the curriculum with the majority making more than expected progress. In January 2014, we became the first secondary free school to be judged Outstanding by Ofsted. Indeed, my key motivation in writing this blog, or in encouraging visitors into our academy, is to honour our will to provide aspiration for our students – and to ensure they are given the credit they deserve for building a community in which they take such pride. Anyone who has come to spend time with us cannot fail to enjoy the company of our students who buzz with energy and enthusiasm for a school they love.

Starting a school is hard work and there are many unique challenges; however, growing a school is not as demanding as trying to turn a school around. For example, it is much easier to establish a strong school culture with just one year group and a small, newly appointed staff. We have made a strong start, but fully acknowledge that we are a young school with a lot to learn and that our first set of exam results will be the real measure of our success.

At Trinity, we have tried to take the best ideas from academies, schools, the independent sector and abroad. No individual element of our practice is revolutionary. Others have said that it is the way in which those ideas have been combined and embedded with rigour and simplicity that has allowed us to make such a strong start. We don’t believe in off-the-shelf strategies or practices; there is no silver bullet. It is really about being values driven, having clear vision, focusing relentlessly on results, operating strict routines, doing the simple things well every day, and building strong relationships at all levels.

Like many independent schools, we have a longer teaching week. In addition to our 27 55-minute lessons, we run five half hour Morning Meetings, five half hour reading sessions mid-morning, and four hours of electives in sport and the arts over the course of the week. A significant number of students are also expected to attend morning intervention from 7.30am. With an extended academy day, students have more time in the classroom to acquire knowledge, skills and understanding, as well as more opportunities to broaden their education. At Trinity, we believe that there are no shortcuts to success and our students would not make the progress they do without more time in school.

Much of this incurs additional cost. Staff do not teach any more than they would in another school because we believe they need time to mark and time to plan. We double-staff one class-set in each of the EBacc subjects in each year group throughout the week: the second teacher usually works with the lower sets, but can also be deployed to support students (who are not on track) in higher sets. We also spend around £250 per student on bought-in curriculum.

We save money by cutting out approaches that are not value for money, taking our cue from the Sutton Trust and the EEF. We do not employ classroom assistants, cover or lunchtime supervisors. Inspired by SE Asia and higher education, 20% of our weekly provision is in larger groups, including almost 10% of our teaching. Our staff work more flexibly and do have more directed time than is usual. Our EBacc-focused curriculum also saves money.

All our students study a fairly traditional curriculum with those needing additional support spending more time in English and mathematics. A strong core for students needing the most support ensures that basic skills are embedded so that everyone is able to access high-value qualifications by the end of Key Stage 4. As a result, they do less humanities and technology than the rest of the school and no computing or art. However, all students have at least four hours of co-curricular electives in a wide variety of sports and arts. Stretch projects also allow students to explore an area of interest within a given theme. We aim to foster students’ autonomy and grow their love of learning.

All students present their stretch exhibition to their advisory group three times a year and the best from each advisory presents to the whole year group and an invited audience. Every day we engineer opportunities for students to address the whole school or their year group: in large group lessons, Morning Meetings and appreciations of staff (or other students) at the end of lunch. We insist that students use full sentences and speak in Standard English at all times. It is particularly important for our students to develop strong and confident oracy if they are to fulfil our ambition for them of succeeding at university and thriving in the workplace. Again, our success is not derived from anything particularly innovative, it is rooted in constant reinforcement and a variety of daily opportunities to develop the skills and attitudes we (and many before us) have identified as crucial to success.

The biggest advantage of starting a new school is the opportunity to establish, and absolutely insist on, good learning habits with the highest of expectations and no excuses. We have very clear rules about homework and equipment because students have to be ready to learn. Our uniform is very practical and offers students elements of choice, but students are expected to wear it with pride and there is a strong attention to detail. During lessons, students are expected to track the speaker, teacher or student, and remain focused at all times. If a teacher raises their hand, students fall silent whether in a classroom or a whole-school context. In a tall building originally designed for educating adults rather than children, students line-up at the end of every break and walk in silence to every lesson. Some people have labelled our same-day detentions as draconian and the fact we ‘sweat the small stuff’ as petty; however, those who have visited the school have quickly recognised that our structures liberate teachers to teach and students to learn – because students know why we do things this way, they buy into it.

Following Achievement First in the US, Dixons Trinity has adopted sociologist James Q. Wilson’s ‘broken windows’ theory that even the small details can have a significant effect on overall culture. We believe that students will rise to the level of expectations placed upon them. We have worked hard to establish a school culture that is both disciplined and joyful. Daily school-wide celebrations are opportunities to strengthen school culture, ensure consistency of message and reset expectations. Family dining is another example of this: students and staff share a meal; everyone has a role in helping; everyone has a place to sit.

I have no doubt that our achievement-orientated culture is the main driver of our success. Of course, no school is better than the quality of its teachers. However, there is only so much that even the best teacher can do with students who have low aspirations and poor learning habits. Conversely, create a truly aspirational school culture with extremely high expectations and all teachers can secure strong outcomes for every student. What I have learnt more than anything else from the best schools is the power of school culture, and that a strong school culture is not a means to an end, but an end in itself.

Although creating a disciplined and joyful school culture has been a top priority at Trinity, learning always comes first. As one of our key drivers is Autonomy, teachers are free to teach as they want as long as students learn and make progress. However, we do expect a few core strategies to be embraced by every teacher in every lesson; for example, a No Hands Up rule to ensure all questions are targeted and all students are engaged. We have also adapted ‘the cycle of highly effective teaching’ developed by Achievement First and introduced Data Days to ensure that evidence about learning is used to adjust instruction to better meet student needs. We have taken ideas from Uncommon Schools and Doug Lemov’s work, particularly around questioning, which was identified as a major strength by Ofsted. We have developed teacher talent through disciplined, deliberate and intelligent practice and coaching. For example, we practise key techniques collectively as a staff twice every week during Morning Meetings and engineer more tailored practice during one-to-one coaching sessions.

In the words of Stephen Covey, the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing – and the main thing at Dixons Trinity is progress. The best way to ensure students make progress is to provide effective feedback. On top of establishing a common approach and minimum requirements, staff work hard to harness the power of feedback. For example, there are student appraisals every 13 weeks after school and every half term parents receive either a highly personalised written report, a face to face meeting or a telephone call home. Students are actively encouraged to contact their teachers for support and feedback in the evenings and at weekends via the academy email system or through twitter.

Moreover, our whole culture is built on feedback. At every Morning Meeting, after every lunch and at every line-up we reflect back on how the day has gone and the key highlights in learning. Everything we do is rooted in our three core values. Our teachers are fair and have real respect for their learners as people with ideas of their own. Their expertise earns the trust of learners and allows them to read their classroom and to be more responsive to needs. They are extremely hard-working, flexible and take every opportunity to maximise learning.

Starting a brand new school has taught me about the importance of keeping things simple. We established the school around a few concrete ideas that were not that radical and everything we have done since has built on those first principles. It’s not the strategies that matter, but the way they fit together and the fact that everybody does them. We all share a common drive to make our school the best that it can be. We keep things simple, we do what we say we do, and, as a result, staff and students are happy, successful and determined to get even better: ‘In this academy, only excellence will do’. (Ofsted, 2014)

Over the coming year, we would like to share our ongoing work through this blog – whether talking through our systems, our mission or our growth.  Although we hope to select things to talk about that might prove useful to others, we would be very happy to take direction on this.  Please feel free to leave comments below to which we can respond if there is a specific area we could address.

Luke Sparkes

2 Responses to Rigour Not Revolution

  • Debra Kidd says:

    I wonder if university is the best route for all children? Are you selling a myth? Given that 59% of graduates are employed in jobs that didn’t need degrees, is it right for you to lead children into debt with the promise of a better job? What about high quality apprenticeships? Competition for the best apprenticeships is in many cases tougher than entrance to university – this is not a route for those with low aspirations. But we genuinely have to ask, especially as bursaries are removed from children from low income families, is a University degree worth the debt and will it guarantee a better income. At the moment, the answer seems to be no.

    • Luke Sparkes says:

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment on our first blog post. At Trinity, all our systems are based around feedback; we really value it. You are absolutely right that university may not be the best route for all children; we talk to our students about the full range of options – that we call the ‘real alternative’ (as outlined in the post), including the higher-level apprenticeships you mention. We want to ensure that all our students have the skills and capacity to be able to make an informed decision about whether to go to university or pursue a real alternative. Too many children have no decision to make because they haven’t been supported to get the required exam results.

      We are conscious of the cost implications for families and work with them (and will do this increasingly as our students become older) to support with understanding how the system works.

      We do anticipate that the majority of our students will go to university; supporting them to get the qualifications to be able to make this choice is our responsibility (which we take very seriously – it’s very real work – no myths at all!). Every child is an individual and we need to support each student.

      Our belief is that what is good enough for the independent sector is good enough for our students, at the very least.

      I would never look to belittle someone whose decisions were different to my own, but I am so grateful for the experience and opportunities university gave me and want to make sure our students can access that too. The data you mention is indeed a question worth asking, what is more concerning is that it shows just how competitive the job market is that our students will be entering which is why our mission doesn’t stop at university.

      Our next post will continue to explain our mission and how we use it to create clarity and build alignment.

      We would never suggest that our mission is the solution to education in its totality but I truly believe we are serving our students in maximising their future opportunities.

      Thank you again for taking the time to respond,

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