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The Conversation: School ethos

Colin Hall, head of Holland Park School, west London, tells Geoff Barton how getting the school environment right can have an impact on raising standards.Q: So how would you characterise the ethos at Holland Park: what do you want it to feel like for students?

A: We want them to feel they are experimenting with being an adult; in charge of their destiny; valued, cherished, free but safe, within very clear boundaries; able to be themselves without intruding on others; ambitious; determined; equipped to compete with those more privileged; that school is their alma mater, their safety net in a fragile and demanding central London, that it is both a changing place and simultaneously that there are unchanging, high and demanding expectations - social and academic.

Q: What does that mean in practice?

A: An environment redolent with aspiration and students' faces on the walls; appropriate formality and manners; A-Z class seating plans; suits (not blazers); thought-provoking multi-media assemblies; olive trees and fountains; free breakfast; residential study weekends; open house 7.30am-6pm; Saturday English delivered by the indomitable Miss Jennings, whose value-added results soar each year; life-changing visits to Africa. Above all, a community of staff who embrace ambition for all, whose ethos of learning permeates the building and whose endeavour stretches well beyond their new suits. In short, selfless staff delivering a rigorous corporate message of achievement.

Q: Could we talk first about the school's environment? I've seen it for myself - its appearance, in all aspects, is remarkable. How do you respond to critics who might claim that this is cosmetic and not genuinely relevant to learning? Couldn't the money be spent on books?

A: Well, aspects of the school's environment are free! Our policy of tidiness and order has no cost. We are a well-funded school, but objects of style and beauty come after books, computers and learning resources. That said, we believe the environment is part of an attitude, a frame of mind, a cultural backdrop, a landscape for learning. It transmits that we care about young people and as a result we hope students want to work hard, feel that we care and that they belong.

We believe the environment is part of winning over hearts and minds, part of students' aesthetic education. It is intrinsically linked to our desire to make the school unique for our unique students. For standards to rise in this complex urban school, students need to feel warmth towards their school. By resourcing their learning environment, we've found they repay that with care, value and commitment.

Q: And all of those other things you mention - the immaculate dress of your teachers, the open house and Saturday classes - how have they been bedded into the school's culture or are they essentially reliant on the goodwill of your team?

A: There is profound goodwill; there is no doubt that, as school leaders, we are humbled by colleagues' utter commitment. It goes beyond goodwill, however: it's about a deep connectivity and a sense of reward. Our Investers in People (IiP) assessor spoke of our teachers' desire to contribute and their sense of validation having done so. Our annual confidential staff interviews with a consultant suggest the same thing: a thirst for engagement. Of course we aim to remunerate generously, of course we limit meetings, cover and all those burdensome elements of teaching. These things are so embedded that they're part of the core professional activity. People want to feel successful and they have made a judgment about what will make them feel valued, validated and successful. Career development is here for the taking and these elements are part of the framework.

Q: And finally, what has been the impact of all of this? How do you know you're achieving success within the classroom and beyond?

A: Exam results; headline figures in 2007, surpassing national averages; contextualised value added in the top 25 per cent; ranking among the top 100 most improved schools in 2006; IiP, Artsmark and Sportsmark awards; Healthy Schools, Financial Management Standard in Schools and Specialist School status; 800 applications for 240 places; 400-plus parents at our parent teacher groups. And on the softer side, spontaneous applause in assemblies; the warmth of students and teachers at informal gatherings and events; people's desire to exceed what has been achieved.

GB: There's an extraordinary sense of commitment here - an almost evangelical feeling that a combination of high expectations, a sense of belonging to a community, and an outstanding environment for learning can change pupils' lives. Thanks for an illuminating discussion.

Geoff Barton is head of King Edward VI school, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

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