Tommy is a climber’ was one of the first exchanges I had with a member of staff, days before Foxfield Primary School was placed into special measures. It was an understatement.
The oldest of two siblings, Tommy lived with his mum and stepdad in a council flat on the infamous Glyndon estate. The Glyndon Estate is not a comfortable place to grow up.
The estate featured in a Channel 5 documentary, Gangland, shown in 2016. Just making the programme proved to be so dangerous that its producer, Paul Blake, had to revise the format after someone was seriously hurt mid-filming.
In the end, it was decided that getting gangs to record footage of themselves was the best way forward, rather than exposing cameramen to the dangers of filming some of London’s most notorious criminals.
The documentary featured gang members talking openly about their lives, including seeing people stabbed, shot and fighting with police. Since the documentary was first shown, two of the members have died. There is a dark side in some communities, to which our schools offer a very contrasting environment.
Tommy the child
This is the environment in which Tommy was growing up. Sometimes, after school, the boys on the estate – some as young as eight and nine – play ‘gangs’, using pretend knives and role-playing anti-social behaviour.
Staff at Foxfield Primary School had been asked by community police officers to identify these young boys from CCTV footage. There were genuine concerns that exposure to such dysfunctional, antisocial behaviour may lead to an increase in violence for the next generation.
Like many of the ‘Woolwich Boys’ profiled in the documentary and other media, Tommy didn’t see his dad too much. When he did spend an occasional weekend with him, the school knew that Mondays were going to be tough.
Not that Tommy cared too much about school in 2014. The curriculum offered was dull and uninspiring, the teaching did not take into account Tommy’s learning challenges or interests, and too few staff saw beyond Tommy’s home situation to understand Tommy the child.
So Tommy did what Tommy liked to do, and that was climb.
When Foxfield was rebuilt in 2014, they designed a large, open concrete play space surrounded on two sides by residual earth banked up against the wall. This created a five-metre drop from the top of the bank overlooking the playground.
The building contractors installed a six-foot high wooden fence around the bank, with a gate at the bottom to deter pupils from climbing over and potentially falling off the five-metre wall that surrounded the play space.
They failed to consider that, for pupils like Tommy, jumping over the fence and dangling off the wall offered a better alternative to staying in lessons – especially those he hated.
Tommy was also inclined to scale the fence and walk along the top of the drop when he was upset or angry. It gave him control in a world where Tommy had little – especially when he found out that mum was pregnant again.
The first few weeks after new leadership arrived at Foxfield were occupied with dealing with situations involving Tommy or other pupils behaving in similar ways. Risk assessments were put in place, health and safety checks undertaken and a new, higher fence erected to deter Tommy from climbing.
These are the kinds of behaviours that schools in crisis exhibit; they are reactive and strategic, what some would describe as ‘putting one’s house in order’. It didn’t stop Tommy from being angry, though.
Like all the pupils I have ever known in Tommy’s situation, he was a smart kid. He noticed how teachers’ body language shifted towards certain pupils – how some pupils’ actions elicited effusive nods in agreement, while others received tacit acknowledgement of learning tasks.
He was even disposed to notice the type of feedback he received in his learning books compared to other pupils – it was as if the school didn’t care enough about him, so he would care even less about the school, and then some!
The strategy for turning around Tommy’s attitude towards school was not a conscious one but, over the next two terms, Tommy noticed subtle behaviour changes that helped him.
Firstly, the school stopped arguing with mum or, even worse, avoiding her altogether, and began to engage on her level. They met regularly and the school listened to her. This revealed health worries she had about her expected baby and the extent to which Tommy was anxious about this.
Staff learnt that Tommy wanted to speak more about the positive relationship he had with his dad and granddad, even though he didn’t see them too often. This led to the school setting up structured times when Tommy could come and talk about family life.
Listening to Tommy’s concerns also revealed some health issues that he had. Home life wasn’t always easy. His bedroom was damp and he had asthma, which flared up during specific weather conditions.
This allowed the school to offer some health interventions and work more closely to help Tommy just feel a bit better about coming to school. Tommy’s attendance improved and, as his behaviour got better, teachers stopped rejoicing inside when Tommy was off sick. Instead, they followed up to find out where he was.
Undoubtedly, though, what made the biggest difference for Tommy during this period was the relationship he began to form with staff.
Shortly after the school was placed in special measures, the leadership team took the decision to move the leadership office away from the coded, tucked-away corridor at the front of the building, down into the bowels of the school on the ground floor.
This was nearer to Tommy’s classroom but also located more centrally to the dining hall, playground and other social spaces.
The leadership office became an open-plan space where teachers would meet to plan or meet informally. This modelled ‘open to learning’ leadership, but also leadership through relationships.
Whether Tommy wanted to test staff, or whether he was curious about the changes taking place at the school, he started to pop in quietly – always unannounced, just to say ‘hello’, and then he would leave.
Recognising the social benefits to Tommy of these brief exchanges, staff began to engage him in conversation, firstly inquiring about family and home, then about his learning: challenges, likes, successes and those ‘useful learning mistakes’. Gradually, slowly, Tommy built trust and learned to trust.
The school then put in place some structure around when Tommy could come into the leadership space. He was allowed to come in during break times, to share good learning, and when he was in crisis, Tommy was allowed to sit quietly and reflect.
Just knowing that he had a space he could use to calm down made a difference. Instead of climbing the fence to walk along the wall, Tommy would come inside the leadership office and sit.
Between 2014 and 2017, these episodes of crisis became fewer and fewer. Tommy learnt to regulate his behaviour – and also learnt to be a learner.
Rob Carpenter is CEO of the Inspire Partnership – a family of five schools within Greenwich and Medway; this article is an edited extract taken from his book A Manifesto for Excellence in Schools, published by Bloomsbury.