Michael Ribton on the (rocky) road to success

Wednesday 19th April 2017

Before Burlington Danes became the first Ark school in 2006, it was one of the worst performing schools in London; now, it’s considered one of the best. Michael Ribton joined the school’s leadership team in 2008 and following Dame Sally Coates, became Principal in 2014. Here he talks about the school's history and eventual transformation. 

“I can only reflect on a personal basis on what I saw when I arrived in 2008, but the school was a profoundly sad place. Students didn’t like it at all. It was undersubscribed and had all the classic signs of a failing school: poor quality teaching, staff absences and too much emphasis on supply teachers. 

“Originally founded in 1699 as a girls’ school, Burlington Danes Academy could boast an illustrious history. The school raised most of its money through a collection plate (which we still have) or through selling embroidered napkins and pillowcases to the royal household. In fact, one early school inspection in the 18th century said they spent a bit too much time on embroidery and not enough on learning! However, like many other inner London schools in the 80s and 90s it didn’t cope particularly well with becoming a mixed school, alongside the changing demographic of the area. The former girls’ grammar school teachers found themselves being challenged by teaching mixed classrooms with diverse backgrounds and the performance of the school started to deteriorate.

“When I joined, the school was beginning to improve, but there was still much to be done. We had the specific brief to turn the school around. We held an assembly in the first week for every year group where we laid out our vision for the school and made it clear that everyone needed to work with us to achieve it. Part of it was about simply reiterating that we were here to stay – they’d seen so many heads come and go in the previous few years.

“We asked the Senior Leadership Team to name all the teachers whose performance they felt needed to be reviewed. We also asked all the heads of years to name the students in their year group that had displayed challenging behaviour, and we invited them to a meeting with their parent or carer. Those meetings were really powerful because they unearthed a lot of issues that hadn’t been properly addressed, in terms of learning needs and situations at home. We explained in those meetings that we wanted to create better life chances for everybody and that’s where the process began.

“One change we made was to introduce the house system, and a lot of competitive sports - which encouraged students to feel proud to represent their school. We focused on the performing arts, taking part in Shakespeare festivals and putting on musical productions. I think that got a lot of buy-in from the students – particularly those who were less academic.

“Once we’d established these ways of engaging our students, the big focus was on teaching really great lessons. That focus has never left the school and we work really hard on making teaching and learning in the classroom the best it can be.

“There wasn’t a Sixth Form when I joined, so it’s relatively new. We’ve grown our Sixth Form from nothing to become the biggest in the Ark network. At the moment there’s about 250 students in our sixth form and we’re looking to grow it to 300.

“If I were to point out one thing that has helped the school improve immensely, it is the strong drive for excellence that comes from Ark. The training and development that Ark provides for me and my staff is invaluable.

“We also have our governing body, which is extremely important, as the governors are linked to subject areas which they report back on. Our staff are very familiar with the governors which is very powerful and certainly wasn’t the case in my previous school.

“On top of all that, the support from the head office has been remarkably helpful in areas like HR and recruitment, helping us bring on board and train excellent teachers, who are aligned with the Ark mission.

“So what’s next? Well the school is constantly self-improving - it’s a dynamic place. We have recently introduced extended days for year 11 students only. We call it Period Eight. That’s where all the intervention happens. Period Eight is compulsory and that’s where teachers can really get involved with every student.

“In terms of the next five years, our aim is to provide a better preparation for our Key Stage 3 students in every aspect in terms of taking exams. We want to be an outstanding school with strong results.

“But although it is important to secure the school academically, the narrative has a shifted a little from results to destinations. We want to steer our students towards a career of their choice or university. So we are using that to drive some changes within the school. Growing the sixth form is very important. We want a 100% return on destinations.

“I find the most rewarding aspect about Ark Burlington Danes is that we’re a community school. Like other Ark schools, we don’t filter our intake in any way, which is increasingly rare. We simply accept students based on their proximity to the school gate by postcode. Yet we’re still competing with other schools that are selective. I’m really proud of the fact that most of our students who are going to university are the first in their families to do so.”