The corridors of the Ark Academy in Wembley fill up as the last bell rings. Its principal, Delia Smith, breezes through the corridor greeting students by name – and reserving a few words for each of them. "Are you being the best version of yourself?" she asks a Year 11 student. And to another: "You don’t have detention, do you?"
The crowd reaches the hall, where banners with the names of the secondary's four houses hang from the ceiling: Socrates, Plato, Newton and Curie. Good models, Smith explains. But it’s another banner that seems to capture her attitude to leadership. "Excellence isn’t a prize you can win once. It is continually earned," it says.
With a track record of "outstanding" Ofsted inspections in both her previous headship and at the Ark Academy – which she joined in 2009 as founding principal – and an OBE for services to education in 2008, Smith has definitely won the excellence prize more than once.
And her secret, beyond resilience and a "blooming good sense of humour", seems to stem from continuity itself – and persistence.
While she confessed that many have asked her whether she plans to move on from her current school, Smith defines herself a stayer. A headteacher for 25 years, she spent 16 at her former institution (St Angela’s Ursuline School, in Forest Gate) and is going on for 10 at the Ark Academy.
"The thing for me is consistency over a period of time. Changing something and improving it is difficult, but it’s much more difficult to improve it and then sustain it," she says.
"I find that I am never happy with the place I get something to and I always think there is more that can be done."
When she was asked to join the Ark Academy as founding principal, she was reluctant at first.
She was happy in her position at St Angela’s in Forest Gate, and she thought she’d stay there until retirement – in fact, she recalls thinking they’d carry her out in her boots.
But it wasn’t a comfort zone, she clarifies: "There’s always more to do."
However, it was the time when Ark Schools was starting up and its newly appointed CEO, Lucy Heller, encouraged her to think about it.
Another influence was Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former Ofsted chief inspector – who previously achieved huge success as the founding head of Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, East London. Smith had worked with him he was head of St Bonaventure’s in Forest Gate and their schools had a shared sixth form.
"I thought, 'If I don’t take this chance I will regret it. How many people get the opportunity to start a school from scratch?’"
There is an obvious challenge as well as an advantage in starting a secondary from nothing. But Smith describes the initial period as “fabulous in many ways”, as she and the initial team of 20 teachers were building up the new school.
They wrote all of their curriculum, she recounts, with the aim of creating their own resources. "We follow the national curriculum, but I just think we thought we could do it better," she says.
In 2011, a year after its launch, the school received an "outstanding" in its first Ofsted inspection.
What Smith plans to do with her future is a question that often pops up. She is adamant she is not thinking of leaving any time soon because as "debilitating" as it is, the job of a headteacher is the best in the world.
Recalling her previous experience as a local authority secondary school, Smith says she didn’t feel part of a community. And although she confesses she knew she had to become a headteacher to keep "pontificating" about education (“you have to do it to talk about it,” she warns), it’s that sense of community that made her stay.
The challenges are plentiful, but the ultimate reward is worth it, she adds.
At the weekend she was reading some of her pupils' Ucas forms, "the ones for Oxford and Cambridge from our kids that come from really tough estates", she says. "Just seeing what’s being said about them and how much they have grown, you think, 'Yes!'"
"We are changing lives, hopefully. Does that sound too cheesy? I feel quite emotional about it,"she says.
Education for all
The Ark Academy is Smith’s return to West London, where she grew up, after a career that took her all around the capital. What she loves the most about it, she says, is the opportunities the school gives to its students.
"I think what has become more and more ingrained as we have grown as a multi academy trust is that the mission of Ark schools is to help primarily those students in areas of deprivation and to do whatever we can to even up the playing field," she says.
Growing up in Ealing, West London, Smith attended a local primary school and then a grammar school near Twickenham. She recalls receiving a "good all-round education", which she says she is very grateful for, but the experience also made her think that she didn't quite like the system.
She describes herself as lucky because she found the 11-plus exam quite easy. But she recounts that she knew people who would have had a different life had they gone to grammar school.
"I am a great advocate of comprehensive education for all," she states. "You can’t write that amount of your population off."
Smith says the current system perpetuates the divide between those who have financial backing and those that don’t, and she praises all her staff who go "above and beyond", for example with plentiful extracurricular activities, to fill the gap.
"It's a big task," she says.
‘Not a saint’
There are plenty of challenges for her as a school leader – Smith talks about the usual suspects: behaviour, funding, staff retention.
Her view on behaviour is that of a "compassionate ruthlessness", whereby rules and boundaries are firmly set with a whole-school approach to keep everyone safe. Although in an ideal world all students would be spontaneously self-regulating, she says, in the real world it’s important that they are aware of consequences if lines are crossed.
"Under Ofsted’s new rules, you can only be exemplary if students are all completely independently self-regulating," Smith says. "And I was thinking to myself: have they met teenagers?"
Another is funding cuts. Smith frequently mention schools as victims of austerity. But the biggest headache for a headteacher – "Ask any head," she says – is staff recruitment and retention.
This is especially true in London, she explains, where the housing market pushes aspiring home owners out of the city.
But although she confesses she has had days when she has encountered problems she initially thought she couldn’t deal with, she has never thought of giving up – and with time, she has developed a cooler, objective response to challenges.
"I always look at it like an intensive care nurse," she says. "If you get too emotionally involved you can’t be detached enough to deal with the problem in front of you."
One of her central leadership beliefs is that a leader never transfers anxiety downwards, to the staff. If you have any angst, she says, you need to transfer it up, mentioning the occasional recipients of her own angst: the chair of the governors or her family.
"I also I have got a lot more experience so I can absorb more," she says. "But you are not doing a good job if you are transferring your anxiety to your team."
Her personal legacy in terms of staffing has to be the number of headteachers that have come out of the school: five, in 10 years. And for the students, she hopes her legacy will be the fact that the school has changed their lives.
But she’s no saint, she laughs. "You don’t survive 25 years in this game by being a saint!"
And while she doesn’t elaborate, she is clear it is not an easy job. Beyond resilience and ability to cope, she mentions another crucial ingredient.
"You need a blooming good sense of humour," she says.
"You need that dark sense of humour, when you can laugh about something that at the end of the day was quite horrific."
Education: Delia Smith read geography at Birmingham University and later completed a master's degree in geography from the University of London.
1993: Appointed principal to St Angela’s Ursuline School in Forest Gate. The school was awarded "outstanding" by Ofsted three times in consecutive inspections.
2008: Receives an OBE for services to education.
2009: Appointed principal to the Ark Academy.
2019: Ark Academy awarded the All Through School of the Year by Ark Schools