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'Our free school has shown that the US charter model can flourish in the UK'

Luke Sparkes, principal of Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford, writes: 

Whether it is mathematics teaching in Shanghai, curriculum design in Massachusetts or free schools in Sweden, education policy makers and school leaders are increasingly turning to other countries for inspiration and ideas.

The best performing education systems internationally provide the benchmark for success, and best practices that have been proven to work abroad should inform practice at home if we want to remain globally competitive.

I really enjoy discovering different ways of doing things both within and outside of education in the UK and abroad.

In 2008 I was fortunate enough to visit charter schools in New York during my first year on Future Leaders, a leadership development programme that prepares aspiring heads for challenging English schools.

At the renowned Uncommon Schools, KIPP and Achievement First charter schools I saw first-hand how far students had moved on from their different starting points, and it was clear why New York was the epicentre of the school reform agenda in the US. These schools were not only closing the achievement gap, but also reversing it. I left the US feeling truly inspired by what could be achieved at home.

Three years after that study tour I was appointed as principal of Dixons Trinity Academy, a start-up free school serving some of Bradford’s most deprived communities. 

After opening in September 2012 with Year 7, the academy will rise to its full capacity of 720 students by 2018. Starting a new school under a trusted local sponsor was a unique opportunity to re-examine what makes a truly outstanding education and to replicate some of the best practice I’d seen in the US. 

At Dixons Trinity, our core values of hard work, trust and fairness, permeate all that we do. They are inspired by the high expectations and no excuses culture I witnessed at the charter schools, which insist on good learning habits day in, day out. 

In some urban schools, teachers and leaders “pick their battles”. Following Achievement First, Dixons Trinity has adopted sociologist James Q. Wilson’s “broken windows” theory that even the small details can have a significant effect on overall culture. 

We believe that students will rise to the level of expectations placed on them. Also following the charter school model, we have worked hard to establish what they define as a “disciplined” and “joyful” school culture. School-wide celebrations, such as morning meetings and family dining, are daily opportunities to strengthen school culture, ensure consistency of message and reset expectations. 

Some people have labelled our same day detentions as draconian and the fact we “sweat the small stuff” as petty; however, those that have visited the school have quickly recognised that our structures liberate teachers to teach and students to learn.

Our proportion of pupil premium students is above average, and over 50 per cent of students live in the five most deprived wards in Bradford, one of the most deprived cities in the UK. Our priority is to raise aspirations and encourage young people to have a growth mindset and to progress onto higher education. 

Like Achievement First, KIPP and Uncommon Schools the message at Trinity is that all students are going to university. We continuously expose students to university. Before they join, Year 6 students visit the University of Leeds so their first experience with Dixons Trinity is at a Russell Group university. In Year 8 every student visits Oxford University.

We won’t force our students to go to university, but we do want them to be able to make an informed decision at the end of Year 13 rather than having no decision to make because they haven’t got the required exam results. If students decide not to go to university, we will expect them to follow a “real alternative” like a higher-level apprenticeship.

Although creating a disciplined and joyful school culture has been a top priority at Trinity, learning always comes first. As one of our key drivers is autonomy, teachers are free to teach as they want, as long as students learn and make progress. 

However, our practice has been influenced by the US. We have adapted “the cycle of highly effective teaching” developed by Achievement First and introduced “data days” to ensure that evidence about learning is used to adjust instruction to better meet student needs. We have also taken ideas from Uncommon Schools and Doug Lemov’s work, particularly around questioning, which was identified as a major strength by Ofsted, and using deliberate practice to help our teachers get even better.

There is no doubt our approach at Trinity has been strongly influenced by the charter school movement in the US. However, we don’t believe in off-the-shelf strategies or practices, and there is no silver bullet or ultimate remedy as recent studies of charter schools have shown. It is really about having a clear vision, focusing relentlessly on results, operating strict routines, doing the simple things well every day, and building strong relationships at all levels.

In our first two years I believe we have shown that the charter school model can work in the UK. Practices we have adopted are creating a school where students learn, behave and are well mannered. Teachers teach with skill and rigour, showing great courtesy. Staff and students enjoy what they do together. As Ofsted recently stated: “In this academy, only excellence will do.”

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