‘Mastery, autonomy and purpose are part of everything we do.’
Blaine, Guide, Year 8
‘I’d like my legacy to be: she was a world-leading anthropologist’
Saleka, Guide, Year 9
‘It’s not revolutionary; the difference is, if we say it, we mean it and it happens’
Luke Sparkes, Headteacher
‘We [teachers] don’t want to go home at half-term. And we’re so excited to see our pupils again at the end of the holidays- I love them!’
Dani Quinn, Head of Maths
‘Would it affect my 100% attendance, if I left for a doctor’s appointment and then came back, Miss?’
Kamile, Year 8
“We’re running a poetry slam? Who wants to go to the hall?”
Year 9 pupil, followed by a hundred Year 9s to watch the poetry slam they’d organised.
‘The pupils and teachers are so happy here!’
Katie Ashford, visitor
In a city known as a tinderbox after riots in 2001, you don’t necessarily expect to find an inspiring school. But that is what inspectors found in 2014, and what I found when I visited this week for the first day of their third year.
Dixons Trinity Academy were the first secondary free school to be rated outstanding by Ofsted. Students make 19 months reading progress in 9 months. 100% of staff and students strongly agree that behaviour is good. 100% of students agree that adults in the school care about them. 100% of parents agree that the school is well-led and managed. The inspection report says: “The academy’s core values of hard work, trust and fairness are fundamental in securing students’ outstanding achievement and behaviour”.
How have they done it? How have they made being smart and hard work cool? How come their pupils, parents and teachers are so happy? How does the school create so much buy-in?
The strong culture and powerful intrinsic motivation works wonders. Strong, caring, trusting relationships at all levels are invest the pupils in their school. Pupils internalise the culture because they know staff genuinely care. Pupils are explicitly taught good habits, with constant modelling, daily reminders and continual reinforcement of the benefits, rationale and purpose of these, until they can articulate it themselves.
Thanks to the initiative of Dani Quinn and Bodil Isaksen, I visited with Katie Ashford, and here are just some of the lessons I learned:
For Dixons Trinity, what motivates them is Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose. What they value is Trust, Hard Work and Fairness. These are reinforced all the time, and explicitly twice every day in assemblies and advisories (tutor time) and. Because these are the same for both pupils and staff, it makes it very genuine and heart-felt when communicating the value of them to pupils. All the teachers and pupils I spoke to say these drivers permeate everything. They reinforce the vital importance of them continually. Everything is explained and purposely ‘over-rationalised’: four or five reasons are given for every decision, to show it’s about purpose not power. They also teach their pupils explicitly about how their minds work: for instance, system 1 and system 2. You hear snippets of conversation in advisory where pupils are saying things like: ‘that’s system 2, right, miss?’ Pupils visit Universities and climb ‘mountains’ like Helvellyn in induction, to help them see that the ‘hard work’ of climbing the (real) mountain can be an joyful and happy process, albeit a challenging one, where they learn about themselves and the world. Once back in school, teachers can link this back to seeing climbing metaphorical mountains as hard work, but also enjoyable.
Family dining is where pupils and teachers sit together to serve each other a nutritious meal, and parents are invited too. Every pupil takes a responsible role. *Appreciations* are volunteered from pupils afterwards to show gratitude to others. All their pupils have adult interactions every lunchtime, so that when they go out into the world they are used to having professional conversations. Instead of a slop-service canteen, where pushing and excluding might affect vulnerable pupils, this creates a lovely family atmosphere.
These capture the story of the school in 1 sentence:
‘The academy ensured that all students succeeded at University or a real alternative, thrived in a top job, and great life.’
Pupils in the pioneer year groups are reminded regularly that the school is what they make it:
“You’re creating our school. You are creating a legacy. You set the example for future years.”
Pupils draft their aspirational life legacy in the past tense. They consider what they want to have achieved by the end of their lives, and write it in a single sentence to make it memorable:
“He was a world-leading doctor”
“She was a inspirational teacher”
This can evolve over the years or stay constant.
These are not necessarily reward trips, and are privileges rather than entitlements. Only those with 100% attendance and 0 detentions go; around 50% of pupils make the four reward events a year. This makes all of them very, very motivated to always, always attend school. Examples are going to the Magna Science Adventure Centre, a cinema film with popcorn, or a graffiti artist in for the day.
Before parents sign to confirm their child’s place, they all come in to school for an assembly and a smaller meeting with a member of SLT in groups of ten. During this meeting, the expectations of the school are clarified and the home-academy agreement is signed.
Teachers visit all 40 of the feeder primary schools between May and July to understand more about the new intake. They clear the timetables of certain teachers for six weeks to make this happen.
Here are some snippets of senior leader conversations with parents:
“We know you want the same things as we do.
We have a no grudges culture.
We are unhappy if you are unhappy.
This is unacceptable and we know you will think this is unacceptable too.
I’ll be hardline, and you support me.”
They build trust by getting parents in as soon as there’s a confrontation, and by returning phone calls as soon as possible.
The school has academy reps who design and deliver their own tours around the school and write their own scripts. These are often the most highly motivated and articulate pupils. However, the headteacher Luke Sparkes has asked the two most challenging pupils in year 7 to conduct the tour, and the feedback from visitors was just as positive as for other reps. Other teachers said that any pupil could lead this.
Neither observations nor teacher are graded – instead, teachers are trusted to be autonomous. Effective formative assessment is expected to be seen in all lessons, but beyond this priority there is no enforced rubric and no numerical judgements. Instead, there’s a coaching culture of CPD based on personalised, twice-weekly practice.
The lasting impression that I left with is that this is a school with a lot of love. You come away feeling inspired, buzzing with the positivity that everyone there inspires you with. Dixons Trinity is changing the life chances of their children, and transforming their Bradford community.