‘Opening a values driven school’ by Luke Sparkes
Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford 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 academy is heavily oversubscribed. By the end of last year, students from the Class of 2020 (now Year 8) had made over 17 months’ progress in reading in a 9 month period, and the Class of 2019 (now Year 9) had made 31 months’ progress in a 21 month period. In January 2014, we became the first secondary free school to be judged outstanding in every category by Ofsted: ‘In this academy, only excellence will do’.
Starting a school is hard work and there are many 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. 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, Autonomy and Purpose (Dan Pink, ‘Drive’).
Mastery is the urge to get better at things that matter made manifest through our commitment to Practice (Doug Lemov, ‘Teach Like a Champion’). 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. 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.
For our students, mastery means trying to get better at every little thing every day. 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. Our proportion of Pupil Premium students is high, 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. We continuously expose students to university.
Autonomy is the drive to direct our own lives; at Trinity 100% of students present an exhibition of their Stretch Project at the end of each assessment cycle. In addition to their more traditional curriculum, Stretch Projects allow students to explore an area of interest within a given theme. We aim to develop students’ autonomy and grow their love of learning. 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.
Purpose is the drive to connect to a cause larger than ourselves. Those who have visited the school have recognised that our structures liberate teachers to teach and students to learn – because students know why we do things, they buy into them. To keep motivation that lasts, we focus on two important questions. First, we ask a big question to orient our life toward greater purpose – what’s my sentence? In one sentence we state what lasting impression we want to leave on the world. Then we keep asking a small question for day-to-day motivation – was I better today than yesterday?
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 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; if we say it, we mean it and it happens.
Luke Sparkes is Principal, Dixons Trinity Academy, Bradford