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Profile6th July 2022

“It’s okay to not be okay”, says Ark Elvin’s Tommy Ittu

Ark Elvin Academy in Wembley recently won the mental health excellence accolade at the Place2Be Wellbeing in Schools Awards, recognising their work to remove the stigma around mental health.

Ark Elvin has worked hard to create a safe space where pupils and staff understand the importance of mental health, wellbeing and self-care.

We spoke to Tommy Ittu, Vice Principal – Culture and Ethos, about his career and the importance of good mental health. This blog is part of our #ArkPeople series.

I grew up in Nigeria, where I had a poor education. I was raised in poverty in Lagos, but at the time, I didn’t see myself as poor. That was just life, and you got on with it. My parents died when I was young, and I moved in with a financially better-off uncle and his Gambian wife. They sent me to Gambia to do my A levels.

As an 18-year-old, I did not take my studies seriously. I was more interested in partying and making rap music with my new band mates, so I failed my exams. I quickly learnt my lesson and did better in the resits a year later. After I retook A levels, my aunt offered me a chance to go to the UK to study.

I discovered a love of computers quite early as internet cafes were popping up everywhere in The Gambia in the late 1990s. I became fascinated with web pages and how they work. I remember asking friends abroad to send me books about HTML so I could learn to code. 

Naturally, I studied for a computer science degree. When I finished, I wanted to enter the software sector, but I couldn’t stay in the UK because there was no shortage of IT professionals. Teaching was a shortage occupation, so I decided to try teaching.

My then girlfriend worked at a school and suggested I see what was involved. I joined the school as a volunteer to observe for two weeks while working for the tube in the evenings. With a lot of time on my hands, the two weeks turned into six months. 

I remember the first time I stepped into a classroom. It was a Year 12 IT class; I was instantly hooked! I knew this was what I wanted to do. I fell in love with teaching for two reasons. One, I was passionate about the subject and second, being around young people was very energising. After six months of volunteering, the head of department asked me if I wanted to train to teach, and that’s how I started. I joined the Graduate Teacher Programme to become an IT teacher and have never looked back. 

My leadership journey began shortly after my training; I was asked to consider a KS2 to 3 transition coordinator role and, soon after, I became Data Manager. As I gained experience, I was encouraged into different positions and training, including the Future Leaders Programme. It was there the concept of disadvantage really hit me. I suppose growing up the way I did, I just thought everyone had the same experience, and I certainly did not see anyone in the UK as poor compared to my experience in Africa.  

I remember being shown the stats on the disadvantage gap, which changed my perspective. It was no longer just about teaching; I was determined to help close the disadvantage gap. My personal mission to fight inequality through the power of education and technology was born.

I joined Ark Elvin in 2018, determined to make a real difference. I had followed the school closely since it transitioned into the Ark network in 2014. Our Principal, Becky Curtis, had a very clear mission to transform the life chances of our pupils. She did not have to do much to sell it to me, but her inspirational leadership ensured that we maintained a razor-sharp focus on the mission through the challenges – and there were many. I am proud of what we have achieved. We are building a truly great school.

Being part of the Ark network is excellent as you have access to rich resources, and we’re given exceptional support. For example, I know I can contact the Head of Safeguarding if I need clarity, and she always has the answers or points me in the right direction. There’s always someone in the network that will be able to help. We’re also able to be innovative in our own way as no two schools are the same; we can have unique personalities.

I’m now focused on culture, ethos, behaviour and safeguarding, but I still lead on digital strategy. I am a big advocate for mental health in schools. When I led and wrote our character development curriculum in my first year at Elvin, we allowed pupils to meditate in lessons.

We’re big on mindfulness and meditation. We teach them explicitly, and with our line-ups three times a day, we give pupils a peaceful, mindful moment to regroup before going into class. We’ve been working with Place2Be for a few years, and with them, we are arming our pupils with the tools and resources to support their own mental health.

It’s crucial that children feel a sense of belonging, especially being in our local area, one of the worst-hit in the pandemic. During the lockdown, we would call pupils weekly, recording and following up on safeguarding concerns. For many, the boredom, lack of routine and inability to see friends took a toll. 

When we returned to school, our mental health figures were higher than the Place2Be national stats. Like other schools, we also saw attendance and behaviour issues increase. Things have worsened since the pandemic, so we had to change things.

We increased our Place2Be provision to four and a half days a week. Place2Be works with pupils in two ways. Place2Be counsellors work with pupils (and sometimes their parents) who need it for at least 12 weeks. Place2Talk is a space where pupils can share any issues they have. Pupils can request a Place2Talk session online or can be referred by staff.

In stepping up services, pupils have more tools to cope with things. While we have seen an increase in concerns, we’re also ensuring they have the means to manage. Pupils can report issues to us because they trust us.

Our relationship with the Raheem Sterling Foundation has been fantastic as we now work with their partners at Headspace. This year, Dora Kamau, a master meditator at Headspace, led a class of more than 200 pupils.

In September, we’ll have a meditation room funded by Headspace and designed by pupils, and hopefully, it will be an integral part of the school. I’d also love for us to have a mindfulness garden.

As we get to the end of the academic year and after the challenges of the last few years, I’m reminded that although I didn’t choose to go into teaching, a chance encounter in the classroom got me hooked. I don’t see myself doing anything else.