In her recent blog post, “Why visits to schools can sometimes be a bit rubbish,” Claire Stoneman writes that, when we visit schools, “We need to pay critical attention to what those great schools are doing that have such an impact on the life chances of their kids, and we need to look at both the detail and the whole: what specific things are in place and how do they contribute to the school’s culture?”
I’ve been lucky enough to visit some of the top schools in the country serving students and families from an incredibly wide range of contexts: Michaela Community School, Guildford High School, Bedford Free School, Marlborough College, Paddington Academy, Glenmoor and Winton Academies, West London Free School. Each of these has its own culture and there were so many details to think about which contributed to the whole.
I’ve learnt so much from every visit, but today I’ve been blown away by the most coherent and cohesive culture I’ve ever experienced in a school.
The attention to detail, the careful crafting of systems and master-crafting of care at Dixons Trinity in Bradford were all phenomenal.
Luke Sparkes, Deputy Chief Executive of Dixons Academies and Founding Principal at Trinity puts this down to “Clarity, simplicity and rigor. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.” He modeled this in his presentation early on in the visit with frequent over communication of key messages – including the same four slides which, we were told, are used at the start of each meeting and presentation. Each slide was beautifully crisp and simple too: an image of one of Dixons’ students with a single sentence, summarizing the big idea. Clarity, simplicity and rigor in full flow.
Towards the end of his presentation, Sparkes told us, “Don’t focus on what we do. Focus on how we do it.”
If you were minded to, there are many surface features you could take away from Dixons.
You could steal:
- Morning meetings with quizzing
- Appreciations over lunch
- Family dining
- Silent corridors
- Afternoon meetings
- Rebranding detentions as corrections
- The transfers on the walls
- Taking year 7 to a university on their first day at school
- The metaphorical use of mountain climbing
- Putting progress rank order lists on walls
- Having a “sentence” for the school, stating it’s purpose
- Teacher deliberate practice sessions
You could make a right hash of this though.
What’s so stunning at Dixons and what’s much harder to replicate because it takes sometimes painful hard work are the threads of values and drivers which run through each and all of these things (which Dixons call artifacts). These threads and the staff alignment to them gives each artifact a clarity of purpose for staff and students. Alongside this clarity, and this is equally stunning, is the attention to detail in the planning and implementation of every single item on the list above.
Everything is timed in a way which makes things feel reassuring, slick and professional, but also very human.
Above is the slide which is shown on a huge screen during Family Dining for Years 10 and 11 in the school’s Heart Space. The food at lunch is hot, but the experience is exceedingly warm. The students develop a sense of service by collecting, dishing up and clearing away. They talk together. They eat together. Social issues are avoided whilst maintaining a shared social situation. Leaders talk about timings using microphones (again adding a level of professionalism) but this is so that everyone is clear what’s happening and when. Due to the consistency with which this is done, even students in Year 7 and new and inexperienced staff gain in confidence. They know what they’re doing, when, how and why. The slide above looks regimented and there are clear structures in place, but this clarity enables the students to all have a positive lunchtime experience featuring human interactions under the caring eyes of the staff.
We were lucky to see many of the artifacts in the list above in action. What most interested me though were the threads of communication which have run through all of this in order to generate, maintain and develop the level of coherence at Dixons. The induction programme, briefings, what to dos, shared language and bulletins, as well as the SLT walk the day, strategic and team meetings that Dixons’ Principal, Emma Steele, described all lead to the sense that the Dixons team work together with pride.
This is a culture implemented and cared for with radiant rigor – a culture with true colour.
I’m very grateful to have had the chance to visit.