The Most Magical School

This is a blog post about a school’s inspirational USP. I’ve been thinking a lot about school culture and have come to the conclusion that through the latest developments in school networks such as multi academy trusts, there is the risk that a certain je ne sais quois of individual schools would be lost in the process. When a school’s USP is allowed to shrink away, we risk losing the hearts and minds of parents and the wider community.

The most ‘magical’ school I went to visit and work in was a Montessori primary school. Now, you know I’m not the biggest fan of the Montessori philosophy, however, the headteacher sought accreditation, developed the Montessori philosophy all the way through the school and then of course this became the school’s USP. The Montessori thing was like a beacon that attracted a certain kind of family who wanted a Montessori approach and therefore were invested in the success of their children and the school before they stepped onto the premises. These parents had aspirations for their children and in due course the good behaviour and academic standards also became part of the school’s USP.

The magic of this school extended into the family home: the kinds of conversations happening at the dinner tables would reinforce the high status of teachers in the children’s minds so that when they went into school they would listen and work that little bit harder as well as be more likely to follow the rules and routines. And those that lived next door who were a bit more ‘meh’ about the whole thing would be hearing ‘this school is great’ down the shops or at the pub. Due to the great reputation and USP of this school, the parents had been co-opted to provide extra energy and enthusiasm for this organisation and the subsequent ratcheting up of effort of every single pupil and parent also had a positive effect on the teachers.

So, the teachers could actually teach and because they weren’t exhausted, they could invest a little more of their mojo in building those relationships and giving their enthusiasm to the subject matter being taught, rather than having to placate, cajole or entertain. Most of the staff, including the headteacher, were then able to volunteer their time to run an interesting after school club. Teachers hardly ever took a day off sick and since all the children were working hard from the start, there was no need for teachers to have to bust a gut over constant interventions. I have never met an entire staff that was happier, friendlier or more willing to go the extra mile than the staff at that school – they were a great team and supported each other so well. The USP of the school attracted the best teachers and those that couldn’t get a job there seemed to volunteer until a position became available. All the TAs seemed to be volunteers too, eager to work at this friendly and happy place.

Due to the general positive vibes and extra energy everyone seemed to have, there was extra capacity to give to children with special educational needs. The school then developed a reputation for being very inclusive for children with severe disabilities – everyone was trained in lifting children in and out of wheelchairs for example. If a teacher was struggling with a child who had high needs on a particular day, another teacher would volunteer her TA to help.

All this developed from a very clever approach to USP requiring an initial investment of time and resources which then ended up co-opting the hearts and minds of whole families and the wider community. The magic didn’t happen by accident: it was a leader’s planned, purposeful and proactive approach to PR and the school’s USP that generated all this (people in the street would talk about how it was like a private school).  She had real vision and it was nothing to do with quick fixes or firefighting approaches. Don’t get me wrong, there were also those efficient systems in place that ensured the school ran like clockwork and I think it’s probably no coincidence that she had a background in business/financial services. A leader cannot do all this alone and credit also goes to the teachers who bought into the vision and invested more of themselves as a result. They were appreciated and trusted and you could see how that made them feel good.

I put this picture here for no other reason than the family Corvidae, my favourite animals, are great planners*

You’ve probably gathered that I’m not trying to persuade anyone other than myself here about how I would go about running a school. Here are my conclusions:

  1. A USP needs to be positive and really quite unique. For me, it would be all about tradition, a knowledge rich curriculum and the development of scholarly dispositions/habits. Further, I would say that ‘tradition’ also includes helping our next generation to participate in social discourse and this means giving them scripts for positive and caring communication because so much of that has been lost in our local communities. This, ultimately, would lead to happier children, especially if they come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  2. Leaders need to create those efficient systems so that their teachers aren’t exhausted! I would work towards an ideal situation whereby most aspects of the school are running like clockwork. I do love a system anyway.

The other magical aspect of a school having a great USP is that it also creates a powerful alternative ‘identity’ for children to step into when they enter the school gates. So, instead of a child thinking about how their parents are getting divorced or the fact they live in cramped, cold and damp flat, they would leave their troubles behind and instead think about being successful in class and experiencing happier playtimes with their friends. Surely this is the best way to give children a proper childhood?

Who’s with me?


*Odin had two pet ravens: Huginn (from Old Norse “thought”) and Muninn (Old Norse “memory” or “mind”). Someday, I don’t know how, I’m going to get myself a pet raven or two!




2 thoughts on “The Most Magical School

  1. Perhaps the most impressive experience I ever had was visiting a magical local authority. Granted, I didn’t get to see all the schools, but I did meet most of the 46 primary school heads, and they were some of the most confident and articulate ones I’ve met–and in the process of selling our Wave 3 intervention, I met quite a few very good ones. Interestingly, it had a lot to do with key LA advisers (usually ed psychs)–which is one reason I’ve always been a bit sceptical about academies.

    In this case, the LA was West Dunbartonshire, which is second only to Glasgow in terms of social deprivation in Scotland. And the ed psych was Dr Tommy MacKay. In the early 1990s he started an initiative to improve behaviour in the primary schools’ playgrounds which, as one can imagine, was rife with bullying and rowdyness. It took him three years to convince the all of the heads, teachers and TAs that this was possible–but it’s amazing what can be accomplished if you’ve got one inspiring leader who can get everyone singing from the same songsheet.

    Next, Dr MacKay (who’s now a Professor) convinced these schools that all of their children could be taught to read. All of them. Using Jolly Phonics and Toe-by-Toe, they eventually succeeded. This took a lot longer, because first the teachers had to be de-programmed to get rid of all the whole-language nonsense they’d learned in ITT–but the task was a lot easier because they had already learned to take control of their classes, and their pupils were all on board. They’d entered the virtuous loop you’ve described in the Montessori school you visited–and their USP was that your children wouldn’t get bullied, but instead would learn to read and develop the attitudes necessary to thrive in secondary school and in adult society.

    The interesting thing about all this was the effect it had on parents. When it dawns on you that your children aren’t doomed to lead the same crappy life that you’re leading yourself, you start taking an interest. In other words, good schools can transform communities. But without strong leadership at the top, it’s pretty hopeless. Another example of the transformative potential of a USP is the London Boxing Academy, which is one of the very few PRUs in the UK where you don’t find cynical staff running entertainment programmes just so the can keep their mitts on the substantial sums attached to their pupils. Simon Marcus founded the school in 2006, and their USP is that all of their teachers are boxers and hence are utterly fearless when confronted by the most violently anti-social gangstas imaginable. They can actually say ‘No’ to them and expect to be obeyed. And what’s interesting is how quickly young thugs identify with the school once they see how older pupils’ lives have been transformed.


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