On the afternoon of 22 March, James Eldon was in the Houses of Parliament.
He was waiting to begin a meeting with the schools’ minister, Nick Gibb, to discuss Manchester Enterprise Academy, the school in Wythenshawe where Eldon is principal. Gibb was running late, so the appointment had been pushed back by 20 minutes and Eldon was left kicking his heels.
He couldn’t have guessed what was about to happen next.
“I went out into Westminster Hall and heard some awful noises – and then the gunfire,” he recalls.
At 2.40pm a 4x4 mounted the pavement on Westminster Bridge, injuring at least 50 pedestrians and killing four people, before crashing into railings outside the Palace of Westminster. The driver left the vehicle and fatally stabbed PC Keith Palmer before he was shot dead by armed police.
Eldon describes the immediate aftermath of the Westminster terror attack as “horrendous”. “There were people in the room who had seen the terrible murder – it was awful,” he says. But as Westminster went into a lengthy security lockdown, the initial horror gave way to a “long period of stagnation”. Above all, the school principal remembers the “complete surrealism” of the day.
At 9pm, Eldon was finally released from the security cordon and was able to travel home. “I came back to Manchester and to home, and it felt quite distant, really,” he ruminates.
Tragically, Eldon, his school and the city would have to cope with a different devastating terrorist attack just two months later.
Eldon’s leadership of the academy – particularly in the wake of the Manchester Arena attack – exemplifies the extraordinarily complex challenges that school leaders have to contend with today. Before Eldon arrived at MEA, it had the unenviable reputation of being one of the most troubled schools in the country.
The academy serves one of the most deprived communities in England – in one of the current year groups, 90 per cent of students are eligible for free school meals. There’s no escaping the fact that the school has a notorious history; it was originally founded as Poundswick Grammar School, which essentially shut down for a large part of 1985 when teachers walked out over poor behaviour.
In 2010, just 27 per cent of MEA’s pupils gained five A*-C GCSEs including English and maths. But the most eye-popping statistic is that prior to Eldon’s arrival, the school got through 14 heads in just eight years.
Lean and chatty, Eldon exudes a youthful energy that belies his 46 years. He grew up in Bristol, attending a “bog standard comp”, and “always wanted to be a teacher”. He trained in his home city, taught English in a number of schools and then settled in a “lovely” school in the suburbs of Warrington, but he thought that if he didn’t go back to teaching in a city quickly, he’d “lose my bottle on it”. So he took a job as vice-principal of Chorlton High School in Manchester before moving to MEA for his first headship.
By anyone’s standards, Eldon had a baptism of fire when he arrived. After just one term MEA was slapped with a “notice to improve” by Ofsted. It avoided special measures, but only just. “If they had put us into special measures, we would have shut,” he says bluntly.
Eldon suspects that being a “green and naive” head was “probably a blessing” because it stopped him from being overawed by the magnitude of the task he faced. Instead, he rolled up his sleeves and got to work.
The first problem he had to solve was the physical environment. Walking around MEA’s cavernous atrium, Eldon ruefully comments: “The architects had a ball with this place.”
Like a number of early academies, the school was built in a Scandinavian-inspired open-plan style, practically devoid of individual classrooms. “It was a disaster,” says Eldon. Children suffered because of the lack of structure. “You had a school with no boundaries with some children with no boundaries,” he says. The absence of classrooms also meant it was “very difficult” to achieve “the craft of teaching, the intimacy of that environment”.
Eldon inverts the standard clichés of inspirational school leadership. Heads serving disadvantaged neighbourhoods often talk about “breaking down walls” for their students; Eldon did the opposite. “We started on a journey of building walls,” he says. It took three years to refit MEA, compartmentalising it into classrooms and distinct departments.
And while most heads might be expected to describe their school as “extraordinary”, Eldon – when busy ameliorating the freakish layout of MEA and trying to reverse a long history of failure – chose a different set of words.
“We just wanted to make everyone believe that this could be a ‘normal school’ – mostly the children,” he says.
As well as redesigning the building, Eldon, like other heads turning around failing schools, introduced a smart, hard-wearing new uniform to instil a sense of pride among pupils.
He says the best summary of MEA’s educational model is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – the pyramid with basic human wants at the bottom and “higher” needs further up. Many of MEA’s families couldn’t afford goodquality shoes, so the school stepped in to provide them. “If you’re sat in a classroom with soaking wet feet, you’re not learning,” Eldon says, pointedly.
At the same time, he focused on “coaching” colleagues to improve their pedagogy. The school did lose some underperforming teachers, but Eldon resisted the temptation to “crank up every aspect of monitoring and scrutiny”, suspecting that such an approach would cause good people to leave.
As a result of Eldon’s changes, MEA went from an “inadequate” rating to “good” within three years. In 2014, 59 per cent of pupils achieved A*-C – more than twice the proportion three years previously.
MEA has experienced a turnaround, but there is still a long way to go, and results have slipped in the past couple of years. Eldon claims the school has been hit hard by changes to the curriculum and accountability. “I don’t think any of the changes were made with us in mind,” he says, smiling grimly. “The government says, ‘We’ve made GCSEs harder’ – they were quite hard for us originally.” Likewise, he feels that Progress 8 disadvantages the school because of his pupils’ complex needs; a student dropping out because of pregnancy or a mental health problem drags down the school’s performance.
MEA’s struggle to keep its head above water has convinced Eldon that there needs to be a “national conversation” about what it means to teach and lead in different types of schools. He believes that such debate has been stifled by a reductive view that any mention of context is evidence of an “excuses culture”. “You can talk about a whole range of complexities, but actually you can’t talk about poverty,” he argues. “Because everybody then says you’re making an excuse.”
On 22 May, Eldon and his school were dealt a terrible blow. He was personally caught up in the Manchester Arena bombing, in which 22 people died and 512 were injured, but he is not yet prepared to discuss his involvement publicly. Like most of the city’s schools, MEA had a number of pupils who were at the arena that night or who had family there.
The “huge amount of support” in Manchester helped MEA to pull through, but for Eldon, the attack raised profound questions. “I think the arena attack is a game-changer,” he says, staring into the middle distance. “To some extent, one has to accept that the House of Commons will be a target … but attacking a concert of kids?” He trails off.
After the Westminster attack, Eldon had delivered a lesson to his sixth form outlining the infinitesimal probability of being caught up in a terrorist attack. It’s not so easy to do that after you’ve experienced your second such incident.
“Is this part of something that our children have to deal with? Do we have to teach in the curriculum an awareness of how you might deal with a major incident?” he asks.
But Eldon is equally conscious of the need to avoid “scaremongering” and to “stand back” from his own experience. MEA, like all schools, also has to strike a balance between ensuring that it is secure and not turning itself into a fortress cut off from the community.
MEA isn’t the perfect turnaround success story. It is not one of those very rare schools serving a disadvantaged area that has experienced an uninterrupted arc of progress. But for that reason, MEA and Eldon are more representative of the overwhelming majority of schools and teachers serving deprived communities in this country – constantly scrapping to do the best for their pupils and sometimes enduring reversals in a bewilderingly complex and fast-changing world.
He may have set MEA the target of being a “normal” school, but Eldon and all teachers of his ilk are doing something extraordinary.