Dutch Newspaper Article

Thursday 21 April 2016

Educational Revolution

The Conservative government wants to do something about the appalling educational results in English schools. At Ark Conway in London, they’ve seen a change.

Five years ago, when Ark Conway was about to open, a Dutch Journalist from a well-known newspaper in the Netherlands, NRC Handelsblad, interviewed Damian McBeath who was the founding Headteacher.  At the end of the initial interview Mr McBeath said ‘Come back in five years’ time, you’ll see how well we are doing.”   Just before Easter the same Journalist, Titia Ketelaar returned to Ark Conway, as promised and an article was published. 

The following is a translation of the main points of the article.

Joseph and Scarlett politely shake hands with the visitor in their classroom. They talk about what they have learnt today.  Year 4 started with Maths ‘In how many different ways can you divide £5?’ says Scarlett. Year 2 are doing sums such as ‘which is greater: ¼ of £16 or ½ of £8?’ and Mr Welsh shows the moving hands of a clock on his interactive whiteboard.  Year 3 are holding a discussion and then dance wildly to music.  Half of Mrs Goodfellow’s class has to explain ‘in whole sentences’ what they will do for Easter, the other half are in the library, practicing phonics.

Five years ago this paper visited Ark Conway, days before the school opened.  It smelled of paint and newness.  Headteacher, Damian McBeath was filled with ideas that still needed to be tested.

Ark Cownay was a new type of school, which broke away from the council.  Headteachers could decide on their own curriculum and hire their own teachers.  The financing came directly from the Department of Education.  It was meant to improve English schools.  Compared to international standards English scores were mediocre.  One in five British children leave school without basic skills.

Ark Conway is not only flourishing but the best of all 15,000 primary schools in English.  Two years ago every pupil achieved the expected standard or higher in Mathematics and language skills.  One independent school matched the result in England.  Ofsted calls the school ‘Outstanding’.  Not bad for a school in one of the poorest boroughs in the country. Not surprising either that Ark Conway has become the symbol for the Government’s ‘Educational Revolution’.  In 6 year’s time all English state schools have to become Academies, both primary and secondary. 

Mr McBeath is aware of the criticisms.  He is now the Regional Director of Primary which includes Ark Conway and two former state schools that have become academies.  The schools were doing so poorly that the council asked Ark for help.  The teachers at Bentworth did not agree. They protested and went to the local paper.  They feared their school would become cold and corporate.

That is the last thing you think at Ark Conway.  The receptionist greets everyone, parents and children by their name.  Every classroom is different.  The tables in Year 4 are shaped like pizza slices, easily attached and detached according to work.  In Reception there is a colourful rug.  And there is laughter everywhere.

Mr McBeath’s philosophy is that school is not an institution.  There is no canteen where food is served from big tubs, on plates divided into sections for meat, veg and potatoes. Instead there are normal plates, and serving dishes. But there are rules.  Uniforms need to be tidy, parents are involved, letters to them are not typed in comic sans, and teachers are called by their last name. When he enters a room, a chorus says “good morning, Mr McBeath.”

The days are long, 8.30am to 4.00pm.  Mr McBeath says   “People who complain have missed the point. Our days are long so we can teach.  Art or IT is not an extra, it is part of the curriculum.” Afterwards there is afterschool care, with games until the parents arrive, or ‘enrichment clubs’, like football or film club. The teachers run those as well. 

Teachers are enthusiastic about their work. Rebecca Carver explains about the maths programme, which is based on a method from Singapore.  “Instead of the abstract 2+3=5, we teach counting with blocks to the youngest ones. Maths becomes visual.”  Similarly enthusiasticly, she tells how the teachers keep learning.  The school has a career path.  Trainees and class assistants are trained in house.  Mr McBeath said “We know their quality, because we trained them.”

At the other schools Mr McBeath of course couldn’t start from scratch. First of all because pupils, parents and teachers had a certain mind-set.  “I held a poll at Bentworth. What did they expect? The answer was better results. But certain teachers said that ‘given the background’ of the children not a lot could be expected. They were happy when they arrived at school. I had to challenge that.”

Still with surprise he says “The Bentworth logo was a willow tree, with those hanging branches. Not that there was a willow in the school yard, it had died. So the logo was a dead tree.” It is now a ‘proud’ sunflower, symbol of achievement.

Some teachers couldn’t change. Most parents came round when they saw the first results. Their children were able to read in Year one, instead of Year three.” He proudly says “Bentworth is now in the top of London schools that has improved the most.”