Lessons Learned from Improving an Inner-City School

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This interminable academic year had many of us thinking back to better, in-person times. In my case, I often find myself looking back on the five years I spent at The Hurlingham Academy, a small inner-city comprehensive school in Fulham, where I first cut my teeth in the teaching profession as a bright-eyed Teach First trainee. On reflection, the trajectory the school took, officially going from ‘inadequate’ to ‘good,’ recovering from a volatile past to achieve consistency and stability, was remarkable. Here’s how it happened.

Behaviour

When I first started at the school in September 2015, the behaviour in classrooms and around the school was poor. Not disastrously so—there were no chairs flung at teachers or mass brawls in the playground—but a culture of apathy, passivity, and mediocrity pervaded the building. The decision to implement a centralised behaviour system, one which the school’s leadership rigorously enforced and the staff understood, dramatically improved the school. Students knew where the line was. Staff knew when that line was crossed and could apply the sanctions easily and swiftly. The rules were clear: if a student disrupted the learning of others once, they received a warning. If it happened again, they were sent to Isolation.

 As with any such zero-tolerance policy, sanctions didn’t suffice and, indeed, on their own would have resulted in the school becoming an oppressive and cheerless regime. The zero-tolerance behaviour system worked because of the concerted efforts to create a welcoming school community and forge strong relationships between staff and students. Neither could exist without the other.

 The behaviour policy created a much happier, more productive and more focused climate for learning. It created the conditions that allowed teachers to teach and students to thrive. Gradually, the culture of the school shifted and tangible improvements emerged, most evident in the improvement of GCSE results. By my final year at the school, you could walk around the building and not come across a single example of poor behaviour or low-level disruption. 

 In essence, a good behaviour system is the key that unlocks students’ potential. There is a tendency in education circles to label such policies as draconian or authoritarian, infringing upon the civil liberties of the students. However, we rarely consider the bigger picture which is that good behaviour creates equality of opportunity. It’s basic common sense to ensure that classrooms are safe, orderly spaces that are conducive to learning.

 Academic Rigour

 In my second year at the school, the leadership appointed a new Head of English with plans for upheaving the department and its curriculum. Gone were nebulous units based on dusty PowerPoints from days of yore. In their place, my HoD selected texts that were literary, challenging, and ambitious: Jane Eyre for Year 8, Greek myths and legends for Year 7, Sherlock Holmes short stories for Year 9. Students read a Shakespearean Comedy, History, and Tragedy all before Key Stage 4. 

We believed in passing on the best of our intellectual and cultural heritage to our students—as Matthew Arnold famously put it, “the best that has been thought and said.” We believed in creating a rigorous curriculum that was knowledge-rich because we believed in “powerful knowledge.” We believed that far from being irrelevant to the lives of our inner-city students, the works of great writers resonated because they wrote about the full spectrum of the human condition, opening up new vistas to unencountered horizons. 

 “So what if they’d never heard of a tetralogy or a Petrarchan sonnet or a bildungsroman?” someone might ask. Simple. Their lives were enriched by having such eclectic and shared knowledge. 

 Leadership

 The headteacher of The Hurlingham Academy, Leon Wilson, is one of the most inspirational individuals that I have met. Three things in particular about Mr. Wilson’s style of leadership stand out. 

 First, he did not put forth empty rhetoric about raising standards across the school but made his presence felt in and around the building, greeting students at the gate, bossing the corridors, taking charge of the lunch queue, and making endless learning walks with visitors or parents. He introduced an open-door policy for all classrooms on his first day in office and came around to drop in on lessons, a Cheshire cat grin stretched across his face. 

 Second, he had a unique ability to balance being a strict, no-nonsense disciplinarian with an ability to exude warmth through his self-deprecating style of humor: in assemblies and staff briefings he was usually the butt of the joke. Like a strict behavior policy balanced with strong relationships, he balanced his forceful leadership with warmth and amiability.

 Most powerfully, he would use his own personal experiences to try to connect with students and raise their own aspirations. Stories about his upbringing in rural Jamaica, his failure to pass the entry exam for secondary school on his first attempt, and eventual graduation at the top of the class before finally being offered a teaching position in a struggling West London comprehensive school became part of the school’s folklore. Representation matters, particularly for the students at THA who come from all over the world. To see a young, successful, intelligent, driven, and articulate black leader on a daily basis undoubtedly inspired both students and staff. 

 Staff Retention

 Remarkably, by the time I left in July 2020, I was one of the longest-serving classroom teachers in the school, a trend all too familiar for those of us who have worked in inner-city schools. Perhaps the retention crisis in such schools is unsurprising. The job is demanding and the level of scrutiny intense; you must always do more with less, invariably for nothing in return. One’s options are seemingly only burn-out or the ladder of career progression. Staff retention is and was one of the single biggest issues the staff face at The Hurlingham Academy. Eventually, I lost count of the number of inspiring teachers who left for pastures new over the course of the five years. 

 Because of retention problems (and other factors) inner-city schools have developed a reputation for volatility, going from beacons of hope one minute to the lawless Wild West the next. In the case of The Hurlingham Academy, the school was judged as ‘Good’ in 2017 having been declared ‘Inadequate’ in 2013 (emblematic of the school’s volatility, it had previously been judged ‘Outstanding’). All of which leads me to contemplate how long the improvements I observed over the five years will last, whether the next generation will receive a similar high-quality, knowledge-rich education or whether things will deteriorate. 

 Conclusion

 All of the factors I mentioned above serve as linchpins holding the institution together. A change in leadership, the loss of more inspirational teachers, easing up on the zero-tolerance behaviour system, or lowering the academic expectations placed upon students—any of these factors could result in the school reverting back to type, back to volatility, back to inconsistency, back to mediocrity or worse, thus irreparably damaging the life chances of generations of disadvantaged students.

  

Shivan Davis
Shivan Davis is an English teacher based in the United Kingdom. He is the founder of the YouTube channel Mr. Davis English Literature Video Tutorials and is one of the “10 clubbers” featured on the Graham Norton Book Club. He has written various articles for TES and Schools Week.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chalkboard Review team.

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