|4. The edits that the Channel 4 team made had to be selective. Were you happy with the representation of the school?
“As I’ve already mentioned, we do think that the academic achievement of the school wasn’t reflected as much as we had hoped. Obviously, we understand that this is a television series and, as such, life stories need to be shown. High quality teaching on the basics of algebra will not make the best television. However, as professionals, we would have liked a little bit more of a focus on that, alongside the invariably dramatic human-interest stories that make the programme what it is.
“In addition to this, there was a lot of talk about individual kids and their exam results, but they didn’t show the collective exam results as we’d hoped. Of course, we knew that when we signed up for it; we’d seen Educating Yorkshire and we’d met the head teacher Jonny Mitchell from Yorkshire to talk to us about it and tell us what it was going to be like. He confirmed the same, so whilst we went into it with our eyes open, it doesn’t change the fact that we would have really liked the viewers to see some of the real high-quality teaching that we provide.
“Of course, we had to take a real leap of faith in light of the fact that we had no editorial control. We only saw the episodes about three weeks before and that was largely because I needed to look at child protection issues and things like that. We put ourselves firmly in their hands and I think, on balance, we’ve got to be happy about what came out in the end. For those of us who had seen it before, the most interesting thing about Tuesday night was not to watch it again but to follow it on Twitter. We looked at what people were saying on Twitter and the reaction was very positive.”
5. A reader’s question: Does the school have many pupils who qualify for examination concessions and, if so, how do they cope with the separate rooms, extra time, reader’s scribes, etc. during these examinations?
“Yes, we do have a lot of kids in a school like ours with 50% free school meals; 30 to 35% SEN, so we’re always going to qualify for examination concessions. What we do is we look at the needs. This costs us a fortune, but it’s worth it for the outcomes.
“Traditionally, our exams officer would oversee the examinations in the main hall. The role’s changed a bit, so now he oversees the examinations across a whole range of venues. We have rooms that are booked out entirely for the exam students. So, what we’ve done, is allocated kids to rooms so that the kid will always take their exam in the same room. It doesn’t matter if they’re the only young person in there, we will commit to invigilating it and setting it up properly. It doesn’t matter what subject that child’s taking (history, French, English), they will still sit there. We set the room up for the need so it’s there for the kids.”
6. A reader’s question: What are you planning to do about the Welsh reforms, are you planning ahead or does your whole-school approach mean that you are in a good position to adapt to these changes?
“We’re in a good position, in good condition and in a good place. It may be in the consultation phase, but we’re still planning for it – assuming that the final bill will not be too different from the consultation. There’s a lot of concern in Cardiff around SENCOs and the new proposals, so we’re obviously aware of what’s just around the corner.
“As you saw in the programme, a lot of our school has been set up to look at and accommodate those additional needs. We’ve got a strong pastoral team, SEN team, and team of TAs and realise that we’re going to have to be in a position to adapt to these new changes. What we also know, is that one of our key areas is how to make the transition for those children. Because, in essence, it’s about what work you put into your primary schools; what work comes from your primary schools; and what pupils come up with in terms of support in primary schools.
“At the moment, there’s also a general reluctance to go through the statutory assessment process, because people are unsure of what’s going to happen in the future. And I think that that’s hindering – particularly in primary schools – where pupils are coming up without the support that, traditionally, they may have had. The particularly worrying time for us is that limbo time between what it’s going to look like and what it looks like now, how we manage that and how we manage the relationship with our primary schools. So SEN is certainly going to be a key area for us.”
Find out more about the Draft Additional Learning Needs and Education Tribunal (Wales) Bill.
7. I was impressed by your unstinting professionalism, care and commitment to George. Will you be able to continue to give such dedicated pastoral care in the future given the cuts in the Welsh education budget and the pressure on staffing levels?
“We’re facing a huge financial challenge. We have protected our staff and balanced our budget over the course of some lean years but, like a lot of schools, our numbers have been lower for the past three or four years. When you look at our school improvement plan over the next three to five years, we’re focused on ensuring that we maintain our levels of pastoral care. That said, we also know that next year we’ve got a big intake coming – we don’t quite know how big yet – and that’s going to be a challenge for us.
“But I think that it goes back to the earlier question doesn’t it? The system is there and the ethos is there. Joy [the head teacher] may have only been at the school for three to four years, but the people behind her – myself, Chris, Rob Edwards and the senior leadership team (SLT) – have been here for ages. For example, the shortest serving one of us is Chris and he’s been here for a decade. So, taking this on board, the school’s ethos is firmly embedded in all of us.
“We’ve all had opportunities to work in different types of school and we’ve all chosen to work in this school. Why? Because there’s something about this school that grabs you and draws you in. I came here after ten years in the East End of London and thought that I knew it all. I thought that it would be fine to move out to the provinces and that it would all be easy. On reflection, I couldn’t have been more wrong. So, in short, we’ve got the right ethos and our commitment to our pupils and the school is 100 per cent.
“George is a classic example of why we will maintain our pastoral approach at all costs. If we don’t do stuff like that for George, we’ll just lose him, he’ll go and where will he go? He’s a very bright boy with a very big future. So where do we put him? Throughout the show, and across the school, we make it clear to each and every one of our pupils that when they join us they become one of us. We look, all the time, to protect our children and this clear approach and commitment is reflected in our data. For example, we haven’t done a permanent exclusion for years.
“Take Daniel, during the course of the show, voices across social media were saying that his behaviour was so disruptive that he simply had to go. Well, for a 16-year-old boy, there are lots of places to go outside of school and a lot of them aren’t great. And I think that, as a school and a group of individuals, we’re here to care for our pupils. And surely the best care that we can give them is to keep them here and get them the best set of qualifications that they can achieve. So we’re not prepared to let our pupils go until they’re really ready to go out into the big world.
“Simply put, it’s about putting the child at the heart of everything. Because, if it’s not good enough for our own children, then it’s not good enough for the children here. At every lesson observation, we ask our teachers to question whether their lesson would be good enough if their child was actually sitting in the room. Keep that at the heart of everything that you do and you won’t do a huge amount wrong.”
8. In the final episode, Sean (who has cerebral palsy) is encouraged to take part in the school show and performs on stage with aplomb. It’s a fitting finale to a school where individual teachers champion pupils that others have seemingly give up on. How do you do it? What’s the secret?
“You look at the kids as your own kids. You know, Jessica, constantly, whenever she emails me, she calls me her school dad – and that’s the relationship that you’ve got to have. The relationship with Sean is interesting. On a personal level, I have a particular affinity with Sean because I have a daughter with cerebral palsy. She’s a little bit more disabled than Sean, but she’s in a mainstream school and doing very well.
“Sean has not had it easy. We choose to work in this school because we choose to work for the underdog. It would be easy to go somewhere else, but our members of staff are profoundly committed to pupils as individuals – their life stories, their backgrounds and their families. This is part and parcel of our personal philosophy. Yes, this is a hard school to work in, there is really challenging behaviour and we’ve had some dark days in the past in terms of results, but the personal rewards from helping each child to overcome their own challenges and achieve to the best of their ability are great.”