Park View, a secondary school in a deprived inner-city area of Birmingham, had only 4% of pupils achieving five A* to C grades when Lindsey Clark took over ten years ago. Now the figure is 76%, including maths and English. What’s more, the improvements have been achieved with largely the same staff. In this article Lindsey Clark describes how a culture of aspiration and achievement has been created at the school and how they continue to look for more improvements. This is from the Independent…
The warning signs could not have been clearer when Lindsey Clark decided to apply for the headship she has now had for just over a decade. As she flipped through the magazine of ASCL (the Association of School and College Leaders), it said bluntly: “If you are going to apply for a job at Park View, ring us.” The school, in a deprived inner-city area of Birmingham, was bottom of the performance league tables. Only 4 per cent of pupils were obtaining five top A* to C grade passes at GCSE.
She duly rang her union and was told: “Don’t apply because they’re looking for a male Muslim head.”
Clark was the acting head of an all-girls’ school in a wealthier suburb of Birmingham, but she decided she would give it a go.
The rest, as they say, is history. The school was the first in the country to be rated “outstanding” under the new tougher inspection regime introduced by education-standards watchdog Ofsted last year and now has 76 per cent of its pupils gaining five A* to C grades, including maths and English – the tougher yardstick by which schools are now measured.
It is turning applicants away – only one in five are successful and the school is so flooded with applicants that its catchment area ends just 400 yards from the school. As a result of its improvement, it has put in an application to run a new free school in the neighbourhood – Alum Rock – based on the principles that have turned Park View, now an academy, around. It was one of the success stories when the Department for Education published this year’s secondary-school performance tables last Thursday.
Clark is anxious to further improve the school’s performance and – to that end – has turned the school into an academy and formed a partnership with the feeder primary school, Nansen, just across the road. She is now the executive head of both of them.
“Our intake is still below the expected level for its age (Park View takes pupils from four or five nearby primary schools) and that is something that could be improved if we are going to improve,” she says.
It is quite a miracle, she reflects, that Park View survived in its original format. Other schools in a similar position were going through a variety of initiatives to improve – which included closure, merger with another school or indeed being subsumed by another school.
“There were all sorts of ideas,” she says. “The school was becoming an all-girls school – and closed or was becoming part of another school – but we managed to sustain.”
The school, which has 690 pupils, has just three from a non-Muslim background. One of its strengths is the partnership between Clark and her chairman of governors, Tahir Alam.
“Tahir is Muslim and I’ve worked very closely with him through all these years,” Clark says.
“He has been a critical friend when necessary and – over the years – he has trained as a teacher and become an Ofsted inspector to broaden his experience. He’s an ex-pupil of Park View.”
At first there were tensions between the large majority of pupils who came from a Pakistani background and those of a Somali origin.
The school took as its philosophy: We will do whatever it takes to get the levels of achievement up. A new motto of “respect, opportunities and achievement” emerged. “It was respect in terms of behaviour from the pupils but also the teacher respecting the individual as a human being,” Clark says.
“It was also a question of respecting the parents in terms of their view about where they were coming from. On achievement, we set up Sunday classes, holiday classes, out-of-school classes – six or seven years ago or maybe even longer we decided we would do whatever it took to get the achievement levels up. That has never let up.
“Also, children here would never even have taken a bus into the city centre [Alum Rock is about two miles at most from Birmingham’s city centre]. So we arranged things for them – taking them to the theatre and things like that. It was broadening their horizons and building their confidence.”
The school also became a specialist business and enterprise, which led to pupils setting up their own businesses (it had a Dragon’s Den approach to approving new businesses by getting students to pitch what they wanted to do for approval). They would then sell their wares during break times and lunchtimes, with any resulting profit going to charities. “It helped them become both leaders and team players,” Clark says. “We created a sort of enterprise village.” Since she has become executive head, the school has appointed a new principal for Park View – Hardeep Saini, formerly a maths teacher, who has been on the staff since 1988.
One of the interesting points to emerge from Park View’s journey is that its success was achieved with largely the same staff – there were no wholesale sackings or teachers being encouraged to leave, as has happened in the case of many of the schools that have undergone a more violent transition, such as through Labour’s “fresh start” programme, where schools were closed, given a new name and reopened with an entirely new staff.