What I learned in my visit to King Solomon Academy Part 1

Yesterday I wangled a visit to the latest ministerial touchstone for excellence in English education, King Solomon Academy just off the Edgware Road in Westminster. The Ark sponsored academy has the dubious privilege of being situated in the most deprived, socially disadvantaged ward in London. 12% are on the SEN register; 51% are in receipt of free school meals and 65% speak English as a second language. They can hardly be accused as cherry picking the most able. And yet it achieves some of most astonishing GCSE results recorded this summer with 93% of pupils getting 5 good grades including English and Maths and 75% obtaining the eBacc suite of subjects. So, clearly they’re doing something right.

Here’s what they say about themselves:

Climbing the mountain to University

Our mission is to ensure that every pupil achieves academic success and has the real option of going to university. We believe our pupils work hard towards this goal because we make it real for them. We name our classes after well-known university cities and we name each year group by the year in which they will graduate from sixth form. We have high expectations for all of our pupils, and believe that with great teaching and a lot of love and care, every child here can fulfil their potential.

REACH

Respect, Excellence, Achievement, Collaboration and Hard work are at the core of everything children, staff and parents do. We believe that these values will be the keys that unlock the door to academic and lifelong success.

And the view from reception certainly supports that vision:

2014-09-10 13.37.23

But when I arrived there was a child having a meltdown in reception. This is a scene I’ve seen played out in dozens of different schools; the child had a coat over her head and was crying. Out of my eye-line, a teacher calmly said, “Go back to your lesson and then I’ll call your mum.” At this the pitch and volume of the wailing increased. But the teacher was adamant that she needed to return to lessons before any other action was taken. I reflected that kids are kids; they get upset and act out all the time. But in the overwhelming majority of schools I’ve worked in, teachers wouldn’t have insisted the pupil return to lessons first. They’d have left them in reception (or wherever) and then attempted to resolve the issue.

At the end of reception, just outside the dining hall, another teacher was remonstrating with a girl for refusing to eat the salad on her plate. “We care about what you eat,” he told her. And they also care deeply about seemingly trivial things like good manners. The dining hall was crammed with 120 Year 8 and 9 pupils and the air thrummed with the hubbub you’d expect. The children eat six to a table and each of them have clear roles; the lay the table, serve the food, clear away dirty plates, serve dessert, and clear it away again like a well-oiled machine. Chagrined, Deputy Head, Beth Humphreys told me that this was only the second day the two year groups had eaten together and apologised for the chaos. This ‘chaos’ was the most well-ordered school dining experienced I’ve ever witnessed. Form teachers eat with the tutees and share the same roles and responsibilities as well as supervising dinner table conversation across two tables.

I was a little late to eat and Year 9 pupil Urza whisked me to Miss Humphreys’ office to dump my bag, she chatted politely and articulately about the school – in assembly that morning pupils had been asked to start thinking about the legacy they wanted to leave – and she talked owlishly about some of the university choices she was considering. When we got back to the dining hall, most of the tables had been cleared away and pupils were being addressed by a head of year. She pointed out that 2020 9 (Year 8) had done a better job of clearing that 2019 (Year 9) and that… She stopped, a look of surprised outrage on her face and clapped out a quick rhythm which the pupils and other staff completed. Silence fell like a stone. What had happened? Well apparently someone had been talking when a teacher was talking! This does not happen at KSA. Pupils were reminded of this natural law before she calmly went on with her address. There were no further interruptions.

We then had shout-outs with each teacher describing who and what they had been impressed with over lunch and each piece of praise was followed by appreciative clicking. This is the ‘culty’ stuff that some visitors to the school get a bit upset about. I have to confess that my English reserve and rugged individualism bristled a bit at this; I certainly didn’t want to join in! I first encountered clicking like this many years ago when I was a jobbing performance poet on the slam circuit – clapping, cheering and whooping are distracting and disrespectful. Appreciation for an impressive piece of word-play is shown through clicking. Beth described this as ‘audible nodding’ – the idea being that an action or contribution is being quietly but publicly affirmed.

Beth then accompanied me on a tour of the school chatting about the ethos and vision of KSA and discussing what we saw as we made our way around the school. Behaviour in lessons is impeccable. I visited 6 or 7 different classrooms and in each pupils were uniformly attentive, respectful, considerate and quiet. There was a complete absence of off-task chatting. It just doesn’t happen. This was as much the case for the classes of 2  participants on the 3rd day of teaching as it was for Heads of Year and established teachers. I observed that anyone could teach here. You don’t need years hard-won wisdom on how to manage difficult behaviour because, as far as I could see, there wasn’t any. Teachers can just teach.

So, how does this happen? Does the school have a terrifyingly draconian exclusion system? Are children ruled with a rod of iron? Well, it doesn’t seem so. They use a payslip system where every pupil gets £15 a pay just for turning up. If they still have £75 at the end of the week they can take part in Friday afternoon enrichment, if not they’re in detention all afternoon. A merit is worth £2 and if pupils get a demerit, £2 is deducted from their account. An average balance of £100 or more entitles pupils to attend a week-long residential at the end of the year. (NB – this is not real money.) This is something school invests in heavily which parents asked only to make a nominal £50 contribution. But what, I persisted, happens to those students who don’t want to behave? Three demerits in a week results in a detention. This then escalates to ‘prep’ which involves internal isolation within the classroom. Persistent or serious misdemeanours mean pupils are withdrawn from the classroom and taught in isolation. But the real key is that there is an established culture in which children behave. This is the norm and going against this norm means letting down your ‘family’.

Family is very important at KSA. In part the school sees itself as compensating for the disadvantages of many of its pupils. They seek to culturally enrich and give pupils access to experiences they might not otherwise enjoy. And it’s a small school with just 60 pupils per year group. In the Middle School (Years 7-9) pupils are taught in mixed ability form groups and are encouraged to think of their peers as an extended family. So there’s nowhere to hide. And those who might otherwise want to misbehave to get their validation through support and collaboration rather than through slacking off and being rude.

In middle school, lessons are incredibly structured. The school has embraced the theory of cognitive load and every effort is made to ensure that no one becomes overloaded with too much information needing to be held at once in working memory. As a result, the curriculum is necessarily narrower than that taught in other schools. And the teaching is definitely traditional – lessons are introduced with learning objectives which are written down, teachers direct lessons and pupils spend a lot of time working individually in silence. But having said that, in a Year 8 English lesson pupils were having in-depth conversations about modality and tentativity that would have beyond many A level students I’ve encountered.

Towards the end of my visit I caught the end of Year 9 orchestra practice. The school provides either a cello, a violin or a viola for very child in the school. Orchestra is currently compulsory only in middle school, although the current Year 7 (most of whom have graduated from the KSA primary school) will continue right the way through sixth form. The dining hall had been transformed and it was quite something to see 60 pupils competently sawing away at their stringed instruments. This commitment to music was one of the most impressive things about the school; everyone is taught to read music and the school is very clear about the cognitive benefits of playing as well as the fact that it looks god on a UCAS form.

Is KSA perfect? Of course not but they’re surprisingly open to this and give staff incredible opportunities to improve their practice. Teachers are observed once a week followed by ah hour’s reflection and consideration on how the lesson might have been improved. Teachers also have an hour timetabled for co-planning. This, I was told, is sacrosanct. Their interview process ask potential teachers reflect on the lesson they teach and then reteach it to another group. Getting it right first time isn’t what matters, it’s the belief that you can be better and the willingness to improve that matters.

Clearly, this was a flying visit and these observations are a mixture of what I saw, what I was told and what I’ve inferred. If you’re interested in seeing ‘the magic’ for yourself I can whole heartedly recommend the experience.

But what about that question we should ask of every school: Would I want my own children to go there? I’ve been thinking about this a lot and the answer is, I’m just not sure. What KSA do is exactly right for the community they serve, but the culture is so very different from what I’ve learned to expect of a school. The results are astonishing and significantly better than many schools in leafy, affluent suburbs. (My local school for instance only achieved 55% A*-C including English and maths this year, but I know – or at least believe – that my children would be well within that 55%.) A lot of what the staff at KSA spend their time doing is what I already do with my children. Having said that, they might well love it. They often complain about lessons being disrupted by silly behaviour and my youngest daughter particularly is angered by other children chatting when teachers are talking. There’s no doubt that pupils at KSA are safe, happy and secure.

What is being achieved at KSA is extraordinary and they massively out-perform any of the schools I would like my daughters to attend! The question then becomes, what can other schools learn from KSA? How much are their remarkable results due to single-minded leadership and great teaching, and how much is due to their unique structure and idiosyncratic peculiarities? And crucially, can their success be scaled and replicated? Beth attributed much of what they’re able to do down to their size; in a larger school they wouldn’t be able to have the same kinds of relationships with children. Uncomfortable as the culture might make some observers, it’s incumbent on all school leaders to consider how their preferences can be said to serve their children better.

This year is the first year of their new 6th Form and the first year that Year 7 have been through KSA primary. Beth said that they’re just at the beginning of the journey and recognise that there’s still that mountain to climb. Only when the current Year 7 graduate from 6th Form will the story be complete. I’ve promised to return to visit them at that point.

In Part 2 I’ll report on Doug Lemov’s lecture at KSA and consider how some of what he had to say casts light on what I saw.

43 Responses to What I learned in my visit to King Solomon Academy Part 1

  1. Mags says:

    Amazing! I cannot imagine teaching in such a school. Payment for pupils- how on earth is that possible?

  2. Ian Lynch says:

    Think the power of motivation is under-estimated. Mostly what you describe is a very well-thought out system of rewards and incentives to motivate the sort of behaviour that is conducive to getting the results.

  3. Rachel Ayres says:

    Fascinating stuff; really it’s about showing the children they’re cared for at all times. Yes it’s hugely systematised but if it works then why not? However I hope they also spend significant time prepping pupils to survive without the school!

    • David Didau says:

      I hope so too. And I think they probably do – the idea is to gradually decrease structure and constraints as children get older. The were very clear that GCSEs alone are irrelevant – a big focus in Yr 11 is preparation for 6th form

  4. This is a very interesting blogpost. Your final point about whether you would want this for your own children was the key to understanding for me. I agree that the KSA approach could not be implemented everywhere. But it would be very interesting to hear the story (as objectively as possible) as to how this approach was arrived at (including any changes that were made over time, and why). This might allow the context specific elements to be identified, and hence the core of the approach to be distilled. This core might then be useful in other contexts.

    • David Didau says:

      I don’t know that it couldn’t be implemented everywhere – it’s more that I don’t think enough people would want to – our biases and prejudices are hard to avoid. The blueprint for KSA comes very clearly and unaplogetically from the US charter movement – particularly KIPP schools.

  5. debrakidd says:

    The structure sounds similar to that of KIPP schools in the US and my concern is that while those schools have had enormous success in securing the exam passes necessary to secure university places, the children taking up those places have a much higher drop out rate. It is quite possible to train children into the levels of compliance that lead to calm classrooms and to the levels of regurgitated knowledge that lead to GCSE passes. But it is quite another to prepare children for the messiness of life. And at the end of the day, that’s what they have to deal with when exams are over.

    I also question the wisdom of channelling all children towards university. As the three Russell group graduates who served me my drinks and food in the pub tonight wrily pointed out, it’s not so much the fact that they’ve ended up in minimum wage jobs that bothers them, but the fact that everyone they know working there is a graduate. “Where do the uneducated work?” they said. We need to take a really careful look at our job markets, our skills deficits and needs and think about whether or not academic routes are really the most aspirational roads for our children to be taking, whatever their class.

    • David Didau says:

      Yes, the KIPP schools were a blueprint for KSA. You’re certainly not alone in having these concerns but if it’s so easy to “train children into the levels of compliance that lead to calm classrooms and to the levels of regurgitated knowledge that lead to GCSE passes” why do so many other schools fail to do it? I think the leadership of KSA are aware of this and want to be judged on their A level success in 2 years time. And the A level psychology lesson I saw was a very different kettle of fish: serious, academic and much less structured. Also I’m prepared to bet those graduates won’t still be working in that cafe 10 years from now 😉

      I asked about the channelling all students into university thing and they say that’s not what they do. Their view is that they allow children from backgrounds who would otherwise be excluded to entertain the possibilities of a university degree. But if students decide they’d rather do something else them they will be better prepared for those choices too.

      But I’m really the wrong person to discuss this with, while I’m certainly sympathetic with their aims

      • Ian Lynch says:

        It depends on the extent to which you believe the only thing that matters is optimising the exam outputs in order to escape from the menial tasks of the lower classes such as flipping burgers and driving trucks to the middle class professions like teaching and the civil service. Maybe its chasing rainbows in that there is no real evidence that better exam results creates jobs.

        • David Didau says:

          Doug Lemov quoted evidence that test scores explain 80% of GDP

          • Ian Lynch says:

            Take a look at

            http://www.oecd.org/pisa/pisaproducts/pisainfocus/49685503.pdf

            The chart on page 2 shows the distribution of PISA reading scores with GDP. The evidence is that above an income of 15000 USD per capita, increasing GDP per capita is very weakly linked to performance but below that threshold it is very strongly linked. It’s certainly non-linear. To explain this I’d say getting all your population to school in reasonable health is the most significant factor, much more so than exactly what you do with them when you get them there. Children are obviously adaptable so the great majority learn to read if they are in an environment that has a lot of reading going on. A significant minority might respond particularly well to particular interventions but its not the stuff that is going to add massively to GDP output.

            Another way of looking at it is the way that chart is drawn, GDP is along the X axis which is normally the independent variable with the dependent variable up the Y axis. That would imply it is reading competence that is dependent on GDP not the other way round. Of course the education profession does have an interest in it being the other way round 🙂

    • Andrew Sabisky says:

      It would be exceedingly strange if KIPP schools did not have higher drop-out rates, given that they are essentially getting populations with below-average achievement levels to perform at or above average. Consequently, when the kids go to university and the highly structured support is taken away, you see regression to the mean. It could hardly be otherwise, particularly given that assessment at university level is also generally less structured and less amenable to coaching or teaching to the test. It’s not really realistic to expect anything else.

  6. mark says:

    Sounded a bit creepy to me. I like a quiet classroom as well, but these sound like Stepford children.

  7. Burgess says:

    The kids are paid to go to school?

  8. Rich Ten Eyck says:

    On first read, this seems remarkably similar to the approach used by the KIPP charter organization here in the US. They make a connection between research that suggests that the Executive Function of the brain is delayed in areas of extreme poverty and that a focus on structure and character development is more effective in raising student achievement than is remedial work. It seems obvious that such system help young people learn how to “do school” well. Do we have any longitudinal info about how they fare beyond school years? What other questions are people asking about this approach?

    • David Didau says:

      It’s remarkably similar because they used KIPP as a blueprint 🙂

      I’m not sure about all that executive function stuff – at KSA they’re much more interested in cognitive load theory rather than something dubiously class-based.

      And I’m not aware of longitudinal studies – these are good questions to be asking

      • Teach Eat says:

        From what I hear KSA is a good example of teacher burn out. I live and teach close to this ward and know a few people who work or have worked in this school. The phrase ‘great school for the kids;
        not so great for the teachers’ is very common. It would seem the cost of these inpressive results is the teachers’ mental well being. Apparently, last year, two teachers had nervous breakdowns due to stress and had to leave their posts; I hear 80 hour weeks are the norm; and, of course, there are the obiquitous rumours of controlled assessment/coursework manipulation due to top down pressure to ‘succeed’. I also hear two of the founding slt have left in relation to these stresses.

        It makes you wonder: who’s really earning these grades and what are the long term implications.

        • Mabelruns says:

          Unfortunately I agree with Teach Eat. This story is played out over and over. It co es down to wringing every last bit of juice……..yes, an 80 hour week would do that.

  9. […] I reported my observations about King Solomon Academy, a number of commentators pointed out the similarities to some of the Charter Schools in the US. […]

  10. […] I reported my observations about King Solomon Academy, a number of commentators pointed out the similarities to some of the Charter Schools in the US. […]

  11. David Didau says:

    I’m not sure it’s reasonable to criticise Ark for wanting to publicise their successes. Isn’t that just human nature? And I found the staff at KSA very modest and reticent about what they do. I’d love to visit your school too – email me if you’re interested: ddidau@gmail.com

    I too have spent time in several of our most prestigious independent schools. My brother-in-law is a house master at Eton so I know it pretty well and I’ve recently visited both Harrow and Oundle. I don’t think we can realistically compare the most selective schools in the country to KSA. The sense of entitlement of the boys at Eton is overwhelming – they know they are the future elite and they take their privilege and destiny utterly for granted.

    But they too behave (for the most part) quietly and respectfully in class and might find more similarities to life at KSA than the jungle of some schools.

    • The Ploughand says:

      Is it a choice between silence and the jungle for state educated pupils? Do you think that the sense of entitlement at Eton is linked to their behaviour codes? I think there is something missing in the KSA/KIPP silence (KIPP didn’t have this level of silence when I visited ‘back in the day’)…. which is present in the (surprisingly to me, more flexible) behaviour codes for some of the top independent schools. Our aims are to create smart kids who are successful after 18 – so is absolute silence necessary in the corridoors?

      And with regards to publicity – whose job is it to ensure that it’s not just those with publicity machines who are lauded for their success and used as an example for others? I must get my calculator out and work out, for example, how many schools fall in the top 20% or maybe the top 10 percentile points for achievement?

      By the way – what did you think was the link between the size of KSA and its GCSE results?

      Grateful for the visit request. Will email you a bit later.

      • David Didau says:

        Silence: for what it’s worth this is only at KS3 – in KS4 they can talk in corridors.

        Whose job? Well, seems sensible to suggest schools might do well to blow their own trumpets

        Size matters I’m sure, but I think it’s a very useful excuse for other schools to say KSA’s success couldn’t be repeated in their school

        • The Ploughand says:

          Ok – we have a different perspective on silence. But I will admit that I did think the silence made the teacher’s job SO MUCH easier, one could quietly give a single instruction and everyone would hear it and then follow. I don’t agree that the silence always beneficial to students. There are some positives and some negatives.

          Trumpets – I think that’s the job of journalists – not schools. Mainly because there are a number of headteachers who don’t seem interested in publicity and if their successful schools lie silent/un-visited/un-invited to Downing Street etc then, possibly, people are duped into thinking that THE successful methods/places are the ones they hear about. The other stories are just as gripping – a) the stories of the silent/hidden schools b) the comparison with the visible schools to find how many different ways one could get great results. It’s a bit like the teachers who sing their own praises in schools – sometimes it’s a good thing but sometimes there are other, stronger teachers who are ignored.

          Size – it’s a question of how to replicate success, not whether.

          • David Didau says:

            Silence – what are the negatives?
            Trumpets – journalists’ job is to tell interesting stories and sell papers. They’ll default to the easiest possible way to do this.
            Size – agreed: How is what matters

        • The Ploughhand says:

          I will reply on silence…but I need to think it through properly.

        • ploughhand says:

          It’s been a bit mad this term but I’m still going to reply to your points when I have finished formulating my ideas. However, I was re-reading a few of your old blog posts and found this quote which partly answers your question about silence

          Professor Robert Sylwester at the University of Oregon says, “Misguided teachers who constantly tell their pupils to sit down and be quiet imply a preference for working with a group of trees, not a classroom full of young people.”

          From your post http://www.learningspy.co.uk/learning/what-is-good-behaviour/

        • ploughhand says:

          You are impossible!!!! 🙂

          I’m going to let it rest. I’ve re-read my old posts and I’ve already stated (though not explained) my perspective.

          1. It shouldn’t be a choice between the jungle and silence for state educated pupils. Why is it necessary to insist on silence? If you look around Greycoats Hospital School or the other top state schools in London you won’t find either silence or a jungle. Ever been to visit GHS? They have very strict behaviour codes which the girls abide by AND their intake is not as selective as the papers made out when Gove Junior was admitted. Yet – silence isn’t on their codes.

          If you compare GHS and KSA – is KSA really doing something good with its insistence on silence? It seems ridiculous to me to compare KSA with a jungle school – its behaviour codes will always seem like a good thing if you do that. You should be comparing it with other top state schools.

          2. I don’t think anyone would dare suggest treating the children of the wealthiest/articulate parents in that way. I can’t imagine Eton or Westminster (I haven’t yet been to spend a day) insisting on that level of constant obedience and silence. I feel there is some human dignity lacking at KSA and other schools like it. And I wouldn’t want my son to go to that ARK school for that reason… Ironically, he’s been accepted by a ‘top London day school’ – so I’ll let you know what behaviour is like on the inside, if we decide to go.

  12. […] I start, if you have no idea what I’m talking about, you may want to read this really interesting account of a visit to King Solomon Academy in London by David Didau. When I first read it I thought it just […]

  13. […] ‘seat’ signals; David Didau’s mention of one, ‘clicking,’ in his account of a visit to King Solomon’s Academy, aroused curiosity, confusion and a degree of […]

  14. […] since I wrote about my visit to King Solomon Academy a few weeks ago and left the question of whether I’s want my children to go there hanging, […]

  15. […] a school can be an agonising process. Ever since I wrote about my visit to King Solomon Academy a few weeks ago and left the question of whether I’d want my children to go there hanging, I’ve […]

  16. […] are schools who use the reward system in more individualised ways. David Didau writes here about his visit to King Solomon Academy: “They use a payslip system where every pupil gets £15 a pay just […]

  17. […] I visited King Solomon Academy two years ago I didn’t realise it was possible to run a school where low-level disruption […]

  18. […] big story has been the remarkable results achieved by students at King Solomon Academy in Westminster. This is a school with a very high proportion of students in receipt of Free School […]

  19. Michael says:

    Hi David,

    Many thanks for your article, KSA have achieved something remarkable and I’ve found your reflections very valuable. It was mentioned in the comment section about teacher workload at the school and that this is perhaps the cost of such success – do you know anything about the expectation on teachers, is this accurate that teachers work 80+ hour weeks?

    Best wishes,

    Michael (considering an application there!)

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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