Before the Spotlight visit, I was adamant I should focus on one area of the packed agenda for this piece, really concentrating on the detail and what other free schools could learn. Upon arrival, it became clear I had been naïve. In the first five minutes, Trust CEO and former Headteacher Nic Brindle explained how year 11 students had built a timber-framed extension on the side of the classroom we’d be using to house design and technology equipment. That story alone could fill a page – from sourcing the timber from a local B&Q as part of a community project to the sense of pride held by the year 11 builders, there was something different about the Fermain Academy.
Managing to put everything I found interesting into this short blog is an impossibility. I could easily list all the fascinating insights and smart decisions made by leadership, but like a kid in a candy store, it would end up an incomprehensible mess of excitement and wonder. In being strict with myself, I’ve decided to focus on something that really stuck with me – Nic’s reference to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and its influence on decision making, and Sam Finch’s (School Business Manager) tangible belief that “happy staff equals happy children”.
It’s obvious – all schools want their students to be safe, happy and successful. Yes, there are differences of opinion of how a school accomplishes that, but I certainly can’t think of any school, free or otherwise, that aims to make students feel any different. That said, the Fermain Academy is unrelenting in its emphasis, referring directly to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a starting point.
Basic needs are met – students are provided with breakfast and lunch for free, as well as hot and cold drinks throughout the day, and the school is secure. By secure, I don’t mean the keep-students-on-lockdown security that can easily spring to mind when you thinking about a PRU or AP setting – “doors are to keep people out, not shut pupils in”, says Nic – but there is an openness and respect between students, staff and the environment. Brindle is proud there is no graffiti to be found anywhere in the school, that his weekly session cooking bacon sandwiches for staff and most deserving students continues to take longer, or how students reacted to cigarettes being confiscated at the beginning of each day in response to complaints from local residents about smoking near the school – “on the first day of the ban, we were stood outside the building expecting a riot, but all the students handed everything over on arrival and it’s stayed that way since”.
From my short time visiting the school, I got the impression that two-way respect goes a long way in meeting Maslow’s next stage: psychological needs, characterised by belongingness, love and esteem. Every child who joins Fermain receives a two day, one to one induction; every member of staff is paid to spend two weeks in August honing in on the school’s vision – as well as going out for meals together and other bonding activities, including caving and poetry workshops. Again, Nic’s relentless focus on building a community and meeting needs is extraordinary. Even the small class sizes, averaging four students and capped at eight, are put together with community in mind. Students are grouped by ability, not age, and class groups are reviewed every 6 weeks to ensure every student is working with every other student at some point – though Nic did add that previously, year 11 students had found year 8 students irritating, so social relationships are also considered when establishing classes. With a solid sense of community as a foundation, teachers are able to push students and reward their achievements and progression. Nic was forthright in addressing that his “students aren’t thick because it’s AP” – students are set targets and stretched, are expected to complete work experience placements, and every subject offers a league table qualification. Teaching is not ‘dumbed down’ or expectations lowered. And success is rewarded: in the weekly assembly on Friday, each subjects chooses a ‘worker of the week’ who earns £1; the overall ‘worker of the week’ as determined by points awarded by staff for positive behaviour, attendance and progress earns £5. At the end of each half-term, the money is redeemed in the form of gift vouchers. Equally, sanctions are structured clearly: students with less than 95% attendance in a week lose five minutes of Friday enrichment time; 90% attendance sees them lose 10 minutes, 89% loses them 11 etc.
It pays off.
Attendance in 2017/18 was 93.4%, while Ofsted said “The school has a dramatic impact on improving pupils’ attendance. Rates of overall attendance are close to last year’s national averages for all schools.”. And it doesn’t end there: Fermain tracks students for three years after they leave and boasts zero NEET alumnus.
Staff are rewarded, too – though it was this discussion that caused most debate between delegates. Nic wrote the staff contract and HR policies. Pay is related to performance, salaries are based on an internal pay structure, and policies aren’t in line with the Burgundy Book. Targets are set as a minimum expectation and pay progression is discussed only when targets are exceeded. Staff are expected to work 8:30 – 14:30 with no break and free periods are filled with timetabled responsibilities. One delegate said “Nic, I’m sat here listening to you and it sounds great, but why do they stay working for you instead of going over the road and getting more money?”. A fair point – but, again, the sense of community might be the answer. Staff want to be there. And it’s not as draconian as it may sound – there is a bonus structure, separate to salary progression, and other extras are part of the staff experience, such as random days off for staff who have been particularly stretched, whole staff social trips and meaningful CPD (including three staff who have had their teaching training paid for by Fermain).
Which leads me on to Maslow’s final need: self-fulfilment, characterised by achieving one’s full potential.
It is a great privilege to be able to visit so many schools as I do through working for NSN. Every school has at least one thing that really sticks in mind, either because it’s innovative or brave or executed exceptionally well. But of all the schools I’ve visited, it is probably the Fermain that will stick with me the longest. Every single student and member of staff is on the same page – all striving for excellence, respecting each other, being more than ‘just’ a school.
Anybody looking for an example of a school that goes above and beyond to be more than ‘just’ a school should look to Fermain. Perhaps Ofsted put it best: “Leaders have ensured that the school’s ambitious values radiate from all members of the school community. Staff and pupils affectionately refer to the school as the ‘Fermain family’”.