Following the first national lockdown and national closure of schools in March to July, in September 2020, I took up my position as new Principal at Ormiston Park Academy (OPA). This is my first blog and would like to share my first 100 days in the new role and how I have navigated both the challenge of taking up the role of principalship and also the challenges that Covid-19 has brought to OPA.
It’s interesting looking back over the formative years of my life. I am a child from a relatively poor, split family that attended a school with very little educational aspiration. My brother and I were brought up by a loving mother who tried her very best to support both of us on limited means with our interests. It was only when I got to sixth form college studying A-Levels that I found that I needed to focus more than I had ever done before and work hard to pass the courses I was taking. It was an important learning curve for me, having cruised through much of my school life, looking back I had never really been pushed or supported to reach my educational potential.
I slowly began to grow in my own academic confidence, and a comment by one of my sixth form teachers opened up the possibility of me going to university and completing a degree, which was rare within my peer group. I think in all it took me about four years to catch up to where I should have been academically, with learning, knowing how to study and how to revise and how to approach exams. The final year of my sports science degree was great as I felt I that I could now access the full course content and I did well. I then completed a PGCE in Physical Education and took up PE roles in a variety of schools, steadily moving up to middle leadership positions as I enjoyed the leadership and management aspect of the roles and was always looking for additional responsibilities.
Another very important conversation I had was with a senior leader who I worked with. It proved to be pivotal in opening up for me in my mind the possibility that I too could become a deputy head and eventually lead my own school. These momentary insights in passing are so crucial in both the direction of your life and the direction of your career and you need to grab them when they come. I became assistant principal, then deputy head and moved to a head of school position running my own school and these experiences proved to be a fantastic developmental journey for me. This, alongside the experience I gained from being an Ofsted Inspector, which was also inspired by another conversation I had with my then principal when talking about career progression, have helped me enormously to become a better leader. So, through having these experiences, I was very excited when I saw this position and visited Ormiston Park Academy, and I was immediately excited and engaged with the students and staff. I could clearly see that this academy was “a sleeping giant” in the community which I could add value to.
My vision for Ormiston Park Academy
The vision I have for the academy is very clear. I am highly aspirational both personally and professionally and what I am driven by is for every single student that attends the academy to achieve their very best potential in order to secure the life chances that they will need to look after both themselves and their families in the future. Fundamentally, this can only be achieved if every student is exposed to quality teaching and learning in the five years they are with us at Ormiston Park Academy. We also need to cultivate an inner self-confidence in every student, so that they see the value of education and want to achieve (which was so very lacking when I attended school, myself). Our academy mission for all students is to “believe and achieve”, and this really strikes a chord with me and the experiences that I have had as a student. I want the academy to instill a sense of belief in students so that they can achieve their very best. I do also need every student to enjoy their time at school and have opportunities to excel in whatever their natural talents are. It is very important for every adult in the academy to provide and serve the fullest extracurricular experience possible, so when students look back at their time as young adults, they remember Ormiston Park Academy with both great enjoyment and pride for the experiences that they had with us.
My first 100 days
The global pandemic has been challenging and it has been an unprecedented time for everyone over the last year. The world is no longer the same place and we have all had to adapt to Covid-19 whether it be on a personal or professional level. The education world, like so many other institutions across the globe, has had to journey through the pandemic with innovation and with strong teamworking, so that the very highest of ambitions for all children remain intact. In hindsight, looking back to the summer I had a vision that we would be back to ‘near normal’ by the time we got to September, however, I did have a dual plan for both a near normal return and a Covid-19 return.
I had enjoyed meeting my new senior leadership team and working with them for a number of months over the summer term into the summer holidays and we were more than ready for the Covid-19 September return. Many of the operational procedures for the academy were adapted alongside the expectations of both students and staff. It probably felt like a new academy in its operation and its feel for the students and staff, some of whom had not been on site for over five months. I think perhaps this helped me to establish myself as the Principal, by having to be so integral to so many things all in one go. I also focused attention on engaging the community from the off, through visiting local primary schools, inviting current and prospective parents into the academy and improving academy communication via developing a new website and social media interaction; with key focus on showcasing all the good things that occur in the academy on a daily basis.
The first autumn half term was tremendous; it was really tight. Teaching quality was good, students were both on point and appeared to be enjoying the forward momentum and positivity that the academy was gaining. We were tightly Covid-19 secure, with very few confirmed positive cases. Then we were struck by the new, more highly contagious variant of Covid-19 at the start and throughout autumn term 2, and our focus had to quickly switch from academy development to academy maintenance. Staff all pulled together admirably, and we successfully navigated positive cases, self-isolation and educational progress though live Teams lessons which set us up in the autumn term, ready for when the national school closure commenced once again in January.
The remote learning provision we have is strong, with good attendance and engagement, working alongside both a full, key-worker provision on site, and our ASCEND provision base with full educational provision. I have to say it has not been easy over the last 100 days, but it has been a very interesting (and you could say exciting) time to lead a school, due to the very nature of the ever-changing landscape you are working in. I am very fortunate that I have an extremely good senior leadership team and dedicated team of teachers and support staff that have adapted so very well to the circumstances. This academy has gone from strength to strength in spite of Covid-19.
Covid-19 aside – my plans for OPA
I absolutely believe that Ormiston Park Academy is a ‘sleeping giant’, and we really want to unlock the potential that is clear to see in our lovely students and with the great staff that we have, so that the community fully see us for the really good school that we are. Winning hearts and minds for what we do on a daily basis is important but the single most important aspect is the continuous and relentless development of the quality of teaching and learning, and this will always be our key driver and focus for the rest of the academic year and onwards. Every academy system and process must support our staff and students to provide and receive the very best education possible, and this is our mission.
Upon reflection, the first term has been a significant evolutionary phase for the academy. We improved operating procedures, adjusted lesson times and the length of the school day, changed staffing structures, embedded behaviour and attendance polices and increased the enrichment offer. All of these were actioned as we felt it the right thing to do to align us to the new direction of travel. The next phase will be to continue to tweak and innovate our practices in order to maximise student progress, of course working alongside the context of Covid-19, which unfortunately we cannot get away from at the moment. But this is ok. We have adapted extremely well and will no doubt continue to do so whilst continuing to make Ormiston Park Academy the school of choice for the community. Of this, I am certain.
We have all been looking for some level of normality and I (we) are very much looking forward to welcoming back all of our students and staff from 8 March.