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Profile2nd June 2021

Academies with aspirations: Ark principals discuss opening new schools during a pandemic

In September 2020, 180 Year 7 pupils began their secondary education at the new Ark Blake Academy in Croydon; over in West London, anticipation mounts as Ark Soane Academy in Acton will finally open to students this September. Ark Blake’s Principal Peter Shaw and Ark Soane’s new Principal Matt Neuberger talked to us about opening new schools in an unpredictable environment.

Peter, how did it feel when the first Ark Blake students came through the door last September?

That first day was terrific as it’s fantastic to welcome pupils, and there was a sense of excitement and a buzz. In our first assembly, we spoke about what it means to be an Ark Blake pupil, explaining our beliefs, values, mission, vision and getting pupils to think about where they’d be in seven years. Pupils had two days of induction that culminated in a special ceremony. We presented every pupil with their school tie, and they pledged that they would live up to the school values. It was at that point they were fully admitted into the school. This was important for us as a new school because it gives that sense of meaning and belonging from the start. 

Matt, what are you looking forward to when Ark Soane opens?

I can’t wait to see students interact face-to-face, do exciting activities in a regular classroom, and develop our enrichment curriculum. By the time we open in September, we’ll have much more freedom around how we operate, so I feel like we’re opening at the perfect time. It’s that combination of a new school opening – with a fresh start with a fantastic team of staff with me and the backing of Ark – and it’s coupled with the world coming out of a stressful period and it all comes together to give us the perfect opportunity to establish a new school.

Children have had a lot taken from them throughout the pandemic, so I want to give them many opportunities that help them grow and develop. I’m looking forward to seeing students blossoming as they join our school and do exciting things.

Tell us about the staff who are bringing the school’s vision to life?

Peter: I’ve seen enormous leadership potential. When I walk around the school and see high-quality teaching and see their classrooms celebrating our ethos, it gives me great confidence that we are fully aligned in our vision for the school and that our systems are capable of delivering the standards we are aiming for.

Matt: I’m in a fortunate position where I’ve recruited high calibre staff for each subject, and it’s the collective mindset that will unite us. If we believe that all children can excel, it becomes a question of how well we do our job. Suppose a student has had a poor primary school experience, has a problematic family background, or has a behaviour issue, we have the mindset, the values, the systems and the tenacity to remove blockers and help them succeed.

How are you building relationships with parents and the wider communities?

Peter: I took on the role in May 2019 and had a lead-in time to engage with the community. I was visiting primary schools and speaking to Year 6 pupils about the school. We also had community events and open days. We ran one-to-one meetings with every family. We talked about the school’s ethos and got to know their child by asking them about their favourite subject or what they wanted to do in the future, and this helped us build a rapport.

Matt: I’ve been building those relationships since I was appointed in February and have run lots of virtual meetings with parents and families. Being able to do that online in a way is great because it allows more flexibility but we clearly miss the natural conversations that only happen face to face. I’m also keen to meet people from local businesses and organisations, ensuring the school is part of the community.

I want the school to be open to the community and have groups getting involved with the school. I’m creating a calendar of activities and want to run exhibition evenings where students can show off all of the great work that they’re doing each term to the current and prospective school community, local businesses, and school governors.

Peter: There are huge efficiencies about meeting online but there’s no substitute for being in a hall with the school banner and mannequin with the uniform! In addition, being face to face in the community allows you to convey your commitment and passion for your vision more effectively. This summer, I’m inviting parents to come and tour the school with me as Covid-19 restrictions meant many parents haven’t been inside the school, so they’ll have the chance to see their child’s work and tour the school for the first time. 

What’s so exciting about opening a new school?

Peter: You have a blank canvas and the enormous privilege of being the headteacher that establishes the vision and the opportunity to lead the whole community on a journey to do something very special. As Matt said, it starts with meeting with parents, communicating our aims, and getting theirs and their children’s buy-in. Then it’s about taking that through to the next phase of opening the school and making it a lived-out vision.

It’s a privilege that very few people get to enjoy, and with that comes a huge responsibility. Perhaps the most exciting thing you get to do is put the team together around this vision. It’s such a thrill to be stepping into the unknown together and feeling very adventurous, like pioneers in a new area of education. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many of us. You’re then refining it and enhancing everything each year as you bring in new staff, pupils, and parents.

Matt: The ability to define, shape and bring people together around a vision is exciting. We also have the chance to become an excellent school as there’s nothing that’s gone before it. The success is down to my team and me and how effectively we work. There are no reasons why Ark Soane and Ark Blake can’t be two of the best schools in the country, which is very exciting and terrifying at the same time. I’ve got high expectations for the students and the school, and I know many people have the same hopes for us.

Peter, what final advice would you give Matt?

Fundamentally, you’ve got to hold fast to your original vision for the school and to value what matters – preserve your ethos at all costs. Inevitably, you’ll get drawn into a myriad of details that go with leading a school, but always remember what you are here for and what’s the real purpose of why you’re doing everything you’re doing. So, again, it comes back to your core beliefs, vision, values and mission that everybody signed up for. Always focus on what truly matters.