Scraping the Barnacles

“I’ve only got one presentation” says Luke Sparkes, Principal of Dixons Trinity Academy.  Luke has created a rich culture at his school in Bradford, a culture that he reinforces by repeating crystal-clear messages.  ‘We over-communicate’, he explains, to ensure that the culture remains solid.

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The over-communication of simple, powerful messages, reminds me of the work of political strategists like Lynton Crosby, who masterminded David Cameron’s 2015 election success.  In an approach he describes as scraping the barnacles off the boat, Crosby distilled the party line into simple messages which were repeatedly reinforced.  If it works on the campaign trail, where a key message can be blown off course by circumstance, fate and fortune, then it’s no surprise that it also works in schools, where core values can easily be diluted by the daily grind.

A political strategist would also recognise the power of the mountain metaphor which permeates the corridors, classrooms and open spaces of Dixons Trinity.  Houses are named after mountains, the SEN department is known as ‘mountain rescue’ and students are assigned a fellow student as a ‘belay partner’ who provides coaching and support.   On day 1 in Year 7, new arrivals are taken to Leeds University to ‘see the top of the mountain’; later in their first term all students are taken to Ullswater to climb a real mountain.

The mission of the academy is expressed here: “the academy ensured that all students succeeded at university, thrived in a top job, and had a great life”.  The use of the past tense is deliberate, and it’s a tense that students also use in their own sentences, such as “Yusuf used the power of science to improve people’s lives”.   An aspirational sentence for each student sounds like one of those ideas that looks good on a flipchart in the head’s office in July, but gets lost amidst the hubbub of school life in September.  At DTA though, these sentences are a living, breathing reality.  The sentences rolled off the tongue of the students I spoke with, and on the afternoon of our visit students were preparing a presentation in which they reflected on their year and on their progress towards their sentence.  Students are allowed to update their sentence once a year.

Several times a day, Luke and his colleagues address students as they gather in ‘The Heart’ – an open space at the centre of the academy.  School leaders use this time to ‘re-induct, re-orientate’.  “We say ‘why’ a lot” says Luke – “the reason why we need silent corridors is because they are narrow and we want to be able to leave classroom doors open.”  Members of SLT pass through these open doors every lesson of every day.  In doing so they constantly check the temperature of the student body, and then ‘re-induct, re-orientate’ as required.

I’ve known schools where the same students give visitors the same tour, but at Dixons I got the strong impression that all students can lead tours and share the culture with visitors because they know it so well.  Luke said that he’s happy to host visits because it raises the self-esteem of students as they see people taking an interest in their school.  He’s particularly keen that their more challenging kids lead tours for visitors, as it gets these students to articulate the school’s values and therefore reinforce their own commitment to these values.

It’s not unusual for a school to proclaim its core values and to explicitly instil a positive culture, but I’ve never seen a school do it so skilfully and successfully as Dixons Trinity. Schools are such busy places that our message can easily get lost.  I remember devising an assembly schedule across the 39 weeks of the school year, with each assembly linked to a different weekly value, such as honesty, integrity, generosity, loyalty, compassion, kindness, commitment, courage, co-operation, gratitude etc etc.  Faced with the same task again, I could do worse than scraping the barnacles off the boat and ensuring that students are repeatedly exposed to the same core message.

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