Rachel Macfarlane has been teaching in and around London for the past 30 years. She’s the Principal of Isaac Newton Academy, an all-through school in Ilford which opened in 2012 as part of the Ark network. This summer the school saw its first cohort of students receiving their GCSE results, and Isaac Newton shot straight to the top percentile of schools in the country. We asked Rachel what led to the school’s success, and what were the biggest challenges...
We opened Isaac Newton because there was an urgent need for additional pupil places in Redbridge. It’s an area with high levels of deprivation, and as Ark works in areas where there is the greatest need, the charity decided to open a new school here with the support of the local authority. Like all Ark schools, Isaac Newton is non-selective.
We were really welcomed into the local area. When the school first opened it was envisaged as just a secondary. But there was also a need for primary places, so two years down the line we opened the primary school. We’ll have nearly two thousand pupils in 2020, when we’re completely full.
What attracted me to the role was the opportunity to open a new school. It was something I had always dreamed of doing. But I hadn’t worked in a multi-academy trust before. I quickly learnt a lot about Ark, and was very attracted by the idea of being part of an international children’s charity with a really clear moral purpose and vision. One of the things I like about being a principal in the Ark network is that everyone has high aspirations and expectations. Yet we don’t want to create a cookie-cutter model – we want our schools to develop in their own ways and to be individual and unique.
When we started out here, it was very important to me to think big. I threw the net really wide, visiting a whole range of interesting schools to gain inspiration – other Ark schools, top-performing schools in the UK and abroad, independent and state schools. I was interested in how top private schools do customer care so well and took my founding staff to Wellington College to see this first hand. I also went to see some KIPP and Uncommon schools in the States to investigate how they have built character-development into their curriculum. This helped to shape our programme at Isaac Newton. And I visited Phillips Exeter Academy to learn about the Harkness method of teaching which we have incorporated into all schemes of learning.
It was a hectic year. I asked myself ‘What are the intrinsic non-negotiables that I want every lesson at the school to have? What are the things I want to liberate my team to do their own way, according to their particular teaching styles?’ I appointed colleagues who were equally ambitious in their aspirations. We asked, ‘What would it be like if we did this? Forget the fact that we don’t know anyone else who does it – let’s just imagine how it could work’. We encouraged each other to be brave.
There’s inevitably an advantage – if you’re being big and bold – in starting from scratch. We set really high aspirational targets for our student outcomes. We wanted to support every child to get the qualifications needed to access a top university.
A small but significant example of how we do things a bit differently is our policy of family dining. We have our own in-house team of caterers who prepare fresh halal, non-halal and vegetarian food from scratch daily. Students don’t bring any food or drink to school. We all sit down at lunchtime and staff and students eat together. This ensures that students are eating hot, healthy food during the day and they’re not losing concentration by the middle of the afternoon. But it’s also about having a meal in a family-style, building relationships, having conversations about things other than curriculum matters or classroom learning. And it ensures that there are really good levels of supervision at lunchtime – without it being authoritarian – and no litter/food mess around the building.
The staff here are really hard-working and committed to the school. But this makes the challenge of supporting and sustaining everybody’s energy levels and looking after everybody’s wellbeing harder. With so many inspirational practitioners and great role models on the staff, we sometimes have to remind colleagues that striving for perfection all the time isn’t realistic or desirable. The other difficulty is that you’re designing everything from scratch, so every lesson you teach you’ve had to newly create. And on top of that each year you are inducting a new set of teaching and operational staff as the student body grows. Doing this effectively and comprehensively is a massive job. But it’s also a wonderful opportunity to have an annual injection of new ideas from people with a range of experiences.
I think the community and the public look with a greater level of scrutiny at a new school. I know that they were very interested in our first GCSE outcomes, because it was a chance to see whether we could put our money where our mouth is. I think we succeeded. The percentage of pupils that received five or more grades 9-4/A*-C including English and Maths was 85%, far above projected national averages. And the school’s Progress 8 score was +1.0, which places us comfortably in the top 1% of schools in the country.
There were some great individual stories – Halema (pictured right) was one of our GCSE students and she got the top grade in every subject. What’s fantastic about her is that she wasn’t only focused on her GCSE results. We develop our students to be well-rounded individuals. Halema has played at the Ark Music Gala at The Barbican and in ensembles. She took part in Jack Petchey’s Speak Out Challenge, various STEM competitions and has fundraised for the local community. It’s wonderful for a student to excel academically yet still be interested in such a broad range of experiences.
I’ve been most proud of the fact that we have created a school community that has a mutual, consistent and coherent belief in the same set of values. Whenever we survey the staff, students and parents, everyone is subscribing to the same thing. And right through from Reception we’ve got great outcomes: the year 1s who smashed their phonics scores, the year 2s who got really good SATs, the GCSE cohort and their fantastic results. I’m delighted that the hard work is paying dividends. People are buying into something which is aspirational and tough, but for all the right reasons, and we are all seeing the fruits of our labours.
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