NSN Hub Member Interview With Hannah Smart, ACE Tiverton School

As part of a new series, NSN is talking to the leaders of newly opened free schools to hear how they’ve implemented their vision and confronted the challenges of opening a new school. We recently spoke to Hannah Smart, Headteacher of ACE Tiverton School. ACE Tiverton is a special school that opened in 2019 for students aged 11-16.

Can you tell us about the original idea behind ACE Tiverton School?

“I was appointed after the free school application had been completed. But essentially the purpose for us existing was to meet the need in Devon to support students with SEN, particularly with significant housing expansion going on. We are one of three new schools, planned and developed over the past 3 years.”

What is unique about the school?

“We are a secondary school for young people with autism, and broadly each young person has age related expectations. This means there are no obvious complexities, and our young people have the capacity to function in a mainstream environment. They have mostly come from mainstream schools, and we are broadly delivering mainstream-style curriculums and outcomes. Our young people look and appear like mainstream pupils, however, this is because we are meeting their needs with the environment and the approach of the school.

Another thing that’s unique about us, is that we have been growing in the midst of a global pandemic. When everyone talks about things ‘returning to normal’, we don’t have a ‘normal’ to go back to. A new school going through constant change with a set of students that require consistency is no small challenge.”

What has been your biggest challenge so far? What steps have you/are you taking to overcome this?

“Our biggest challenge has been to enable strong education at the heart of everything we do, whilst still creating a safe space for students. Taking the concept of a school and making it a reality involves the competing pressure of meeting the needs of pupils, as well as ensuring they are getting the best quality of education. It’s especially challenging because 70% of our students had not been to school for a year or more, prior to joining us. The steps we have taken to try and resolve this have involved, in the first year, putting relationships at the heart of everything. We had to make sure staff were supported, giving them a chance to develop their style and strategy within the framework that we have set up. We’ve made sure the standard of delivery is the best it can be.”

How do you/will you define success at your school?

“In terms of concrete measures, every one of our Year 11s has had a post-16 plan, and by Easter have still been participating in this, so success means that our young people are still in employment or training. As well as this, good attendance is important, and ours is above national average for special schools. I think success means that our young people are having positive experiences that they wouldn’t otherwise have had, for example, playing on the football team.

There are things we still need to work on, for example, we do not have a fully embedded reading scheme, nor a completely coherent and sequential curriculum, which will be key indicators of success for Ofsted. But families tell me that their children have had a much better experience here than they have previously had, which, in these circumstances is a sign of success.”

What inspired you to lead a completely new school?

“I wasn’t looking to lead a completely new school; I was motivated because it was a headship in a special school for students who deserved [provision] as close to a usual experience as possible.”

Has anything surprised you since opening the school?

“The expectations of people outside of the organisation, such as parents, commissioners, community groups, have been surprising. Even as part of a trust, you can’t just roll a school out of a guidebook. The battle in the first year was people expecting things to ‘just be there’. There is an all-encompassing task list that sits behind a new school, that nobody can understand unless you’ve been through it, the sense that everything needed doing. As much as you can have your hand held as a part of a trust, you are the one to make the decision and set the climate for what then follows.

There is no task like walking into an empty building and needing to furnish it from the ground up – not just with students and staff but with paperclips and staplers!”

What advice would you give to other free school leaders who are preparing for their first term of opening?

“Think about it through the minutiae and take a moment to prepare. You can’t presume things will happen or things will be there, even if you have slick corporate systems around you, you have to prepare every detail. We were handed the building on a Friday and the students were starting the following Monday, so I went in over the weekend, stood in one of the classrooms and thought ‘if I were coming in here to teach, what would I need’. I walked into office and did the same thing; it’s that level of detail that is needed.

You also have to be the model for your staff, ‘walk the walk and talk the talk’; you cannot presume they are aware of the minor things they need to do. I would also advise free school leaders to talk to a head who has been through the process before, I would have really benefitted from that.”

What would you like to achieve at ACE Tiverton in the next 3 years?

“In 3 years, I would like our first Year 7s to have graduated with the fullest suite of level 2 qualifications possible. I would have liked to secure a deeper level of connection with families. Also, walking away with at least a “good” Ofsted judgement would allow us to create security in our practice.”

We’d like to thank NSN Hub member Hannah Smart for taking part in this interview and telling us about the rewarding and challenging aspects of opening a free school. The NSN Hub brings free school leaders together to learn, support and inspire one another. It provides a space to connect and find solutions to the issues which come up from running a new school. If you are a free school leader and would be interested in joining, would like to contribute or if you have any questions, please get in contact here.