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The Conversation: Bristol academies

David Carter has a track record in creating innovative school cultures. He heads a federation of two academies in Bristol, and is about to take on a third. He describes his work to Geoff Barton

David Carter has a track record in creating innovative school cultures. He heads a federation of two academies in Bristol, and is about to take on a third. He describes his work to Geoff Barton

Q: In your previous headship at Deer Park School in Gloucestershire you established a reputation for innovation. What did you achieve there?

A: Cirencester Deer Park School was a fantastic experience. I was fortunate to work with a group of colleagues who were keen to do things differently.

I had been deputy head at the school for less than a year when I was appointed to the headship. The successes were around the structure of the curriculum and the pathways we created at key stage 4 which, in the late 1990s, were relatively new concepts.

We introduced timetabled mentoring, which was a big factor in moving the GCSE results from 60 to 80 per cent with five A*-C grades. We also created a modular structure for teaching and assessment which brought a consistency to the learning that had not been there before.

Q: And now, at John Cabot and Bristol Brunel academies, you have an opportunity to extend these ideas. What are you aiming to achieve?

A: The challenge here is different. First, as executive principal I work in a different way from that of a principal. I am trying to create two outstanding schools that can maintain and sustain their improvement. It is also about building the confidence of the east Bristol community in what the schools stand for. To do this, we have focused completely on teaching and learning, inclusion, leadership development and sharing effective practice across the federation.

The federation will become three schools later this year when Bristol Metropolitan College joins us. This summer, the results at Cabot and Brunel were amazing: 87 per cent of the students at Cabot gained five A*-C grades and 62 per cent did the same at Brunel. At Brunel, however, this was an increase of 32 percentage points, so the journey is under way with a fantastic start. But there is more to do.

Q: How is the role of being executive principal different from being principal? How hands-on are you? What do you do on a day-to-day basis?

A: It is a different role from that of being a principal. My job now is to work more strategically with and alongside the senior leadership teams. We are creating across the Cabot Learning Federation a "training school" ethos where I search for the best practice to share, develop leadership talent, assure the quality of teaching and learning and generate income to reinvest in the school.

But the day-to-day running of John Cabot and Bristol Brunel is the responsibility of Adam Williams and Armando di Finizio, two recently appointed principals. My role is to support and mentor them, and provide the strategic capacity to enable them to be highly effective in their schools.

Q: It sounds creative, but isn't there a risk of creating clone schools rather than places rooted in their local communities?

A: I am not convinced that you can replicate school cultures. You can model curriculum structures and processes and make learning experiences similar, but schools exist in their own space and I do not want to change that. My vision is to create successful and outstanding academies that have their own specialist features and bring their own uniqueness to the federation. In this way, parents and children have real choice.

Q: Bristol is well-known for the flight of many middle-class parents taking their children's schooling from the state to the independent sector. How are they reacting to the academy model?

A: It is early days. At the start of this academic year there will be eight academies opened across the city. This is a great place to live and work, and will soon be one of the most impressive cities in Europe. If the quality of education that all of the schools in Bristol can provide continues to improve - academies or not - then parents who have looked away from the city into the private sector or neighbouring authorities will start to migrate back.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

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