Start at Happy

Very recently, I was lucky enough to have the chance to visit Great Yarmouth Charter Academy.  I visited alongside other Secondary Principals in the David Ross Education Trust.  Our visit was organised by our Regional Director, Helena Brothwell, because we are keen to learn from other schools and find ways of improving our provision.

I’ve followed the story of Barry Smith and GYCA over the past two years, from a safe Twitter distance, as many of us have.  I have read the criticisms, and the accusations, and viewed with disdain the school shaming that has occured not just in a gutter and local press, but amongst education professionals.  I’ve always – always – believed that whatever your views are on headteacher’s approach, or a Trust’s strategies, or a school’s transformation, you should air them in private, not public.  Why? Because no matter how much we think we know, we never – never – know the full story, so we should hold our views lightly, knowing they are like downy feathers… likely to be blown away with a changing wind, leaving us potentially looking quite foolish for trying to catch them in such tight fists.

Personally, I had no preconceived opinion of  GYCA.  I’m a bit of fence-sitter, I admit it.  Maybe that makes me weak, but I don’t care. The only opinion I have cautiously formed was one of respect.  This came following listening to this podcast, where I was struck by Barry’s unwavering sense of purpose and single-minded determination to pursue what he feels is right.  So, it was with some excitement and a sense of adventure, that I pulled up outside GYCA one rainy Thursday morning in October.

There is one thing on which Barry and I unequivocally differ.  Barry has no emotional connection to his school’s community beyond his dedication to GYCA students.  He’s glad about this.  He doesn’t want a connection.  He was asked; no, persuaded, to take on the role, and is happy to admit he never ever wanted to be a headteacher.  I am deeply connected to my school’s community and it is that connection that motivates me most of all. I am headteacher of a school in my hometown and my sense of moral obligation means I am fully wedded to my role in a way that Barry is not. Interestingly, whilst different, both of us use this as a strength. Him – because he says, ‘if you don’t like what I do, sack me, I don’t care!’  Me – because I say, ‘this role means the world to me and I am here to stay.’

Other than that difference, there is much that makes me think our approach is similar.  I believe in protecting teachers from abuse. I believe in routines and clarity.  I believe in having high expectations of what students can achieve and do.  Actually, I’m not sure there are many who wouldn’t believe in such things.  Surely even those who vociferously object to Barry Smith, believe the same? Why wouldn’t you?

Throughout my visit, there were a number of experiences that struck me. I will do my best to describe them here, although my thinking and reflecting are far from done.

There is a constant narrative being told, over and over again, by multiple voices. The ‘story’ of GYCA is told, consistently and persistently, by everyone.  By the cleaners, the caretaker, the office staff, the teachers, the senior team, the students – basically every person that passes Barry in the corridor is asked to tell us what they think of GYCA.  There is nothing inauthentic about this.  Everyone is telling the truth.  What is most powerful about it though, is that everyone’s truth is being retold, reinforced, reimagined in brighter colours every single time.  I loved this.  This is about buy-in, about culture change, about giving every person’s voice high value.  The sense of pride with which everyone spoke was humbling.  The caretaker, who apologised for not being good at speaking, who smiled shyly and blushed when asked a question, spoke from his heart when he said that the kids were terrible before but are great now.

There are routines everywhere. There’s a routine for everything.  I worry a bit about too many routines.  I worry that it will become confusing, or too many will mean some get diluted.  And maybe that’s true at GYCA, but what you see is the routines that have landed – and have lasted – and therefore there is no need to worry at all.  The secret is commitment.  If everyone commits to a routine, it becomes normal.  The amount of commitment you see at GYCA is staggering.  The commitment to the routines creates a climate where there is no tension, there is only calm. Everyone knows, with absolute clarity, what everybody should be doing, in every minute of the day and in every inch of the school.  I can’t think of a more safe environment than that.

Barry is open about the need to be larger-than-life, to be a heightened version of oneself. He embodies this and he demands it from others.  There is a sense of performance, of grandeur. There is flourish and there is humour. Every single interaction is seen as an opportunity, a chance to build a relationship, to create a culture.  No interaction is wasted, no opportunity is passed by.  All adults greet children warmly, openly, with confidence, by their name, with eye contact and heads held high.  The amount of hand shaking that goes on is hilarious. It’s constant! Children who pass you thrust out their hands to greet you and say ‘good morning’.  No-one is telling them to do this; but everyone is doing it.  It is normal.  It made me feel emotional.

This is one of the things I loved the most.  It gave me the confidence to go back to my school and to be a heightened version of myself. That’s the version of myself I want to be in school, but if I’m honest, over the years, that version has been packed away in case it’s seen as too in-your-face, too overwhelming, too manic.  It’s actually the most authentic version of myself, the one I feel most comfortable with, the one I know can influence, inspire and motivate.  But, you know, these days you feel a bit arrogant if you put yourself out there as someone who leads by personality, by charisma. The narrative on leadership is shifting towards domain-specific expertise and away from anything that even hints at the ‘hero’ headteacher paradigm.

I don’t know if Barry sees himself as a hero Head, but I doubt it.  What he does see is himself as the one who sets the tone, who holds up the bar, who models the behaviours and who raises the expectations. Does he have masses of domain-specific expertise? Probably, although I doubt he’d admit it.  He happily rejects all that ‘nonsense’ that the Trust make him do, he enthusiastically allows his senior team to do all the ‘boring’ stuff like tracking and analysis. He wants to be in and around his school, in amongst his staff and students, every single day.  I remember hearing Rachel De Souza talk about the power of personality in a leader at an Ambition event earlier this year. As usual, Rachel was challenging the dominant view in the room and making a case for charismatic, influential leaders who operate with energy, passion and relentless optimism.  I was sceptical that day, but after seeing Barry in action – I get it.  And it has released me; allowed me to embrace this version of myself as a leader that I know I have always been, and not to apologise for it.

There were numerous routines, processes and strategies that I loved about GYCA.  The poetry recitation was staggering – I was searching for a child not prepared to do it, but I didn’t find one.  The call and response in lessons was exhilarating – the sheer amount of structured, ambitious talk that students engaged in was amazing.  The school was the opposite to quiet. Corridors were full of ‘good morning’ and ‘Sir, look, I got a golden ticket.’  The talk is constant.  The shared language is completely embedded and used, with ease, by students and staff.

At lunchtime I sat with Year 11.  One of the girls I spoke to told me with a wry smile that she doesn’t put make-up on any more because she just can’t be bothered getting into trouble for it. She says this has made her life so much easier – including at home – because there are no more battles.  She added with a giggle, ‘and my eyebrows did look like slugs, Mr Smith was right.’

Then I then found a girl who didn’t like school.  I asked her to tell me about it. I asked, ‘why don’t you like GYCA?’ She looked surprised at my question.  She explained, ‘GYCA is, like, the best school around here and it’s way better than before, but I still hate it.’  I won’t describe the girl, but she was one of those young people who you know, just from looking, that they are a child of neglect. We spent the remainder of lunch talking about the course in childcare that she’s doing at GYCA and how much the teacher is like a second mum to her.  But, you know, she hates school.  The anti-school narrative that has been this child’s diet is so embedded that it’s believed even when she is speaking evidence to the contrary out loud.  It demonstrated to me, in one conversation, both the extent of the challenge in this community, and the incredible progress that has already been made.

There is so much more I want to know about GYCA.  I will have to go back.  There are so many more things that I loved but can’t now recall properly.  I will definitely have to go back.  What I do know, and what I do remember, is that is was, by far, the happiest school I have ever been to.  The happiness is part of the storytelling, but it’s also part of the furniture. It’s not staged, but it is the backdrop. It is both the narrative being crafted and the reality of day to day experience.  It’s all about the people and the relationships at GYCA.  They start at happy at GYCA, you can see that here.  And when you start at happy, everything else that comes afterwards is that much easier.