Hope and Wonder
Last year was tough. It was a great year but a tough year. Lots changed. New principal, new leadership team, a new focus for the college. We were responding to a challenging 'start up'. We were only in the 6th term of being open when Ofsted visited and judged that the UTC 'required improvement'. We were hugely saddened by this but they were right... the multiple priorities during start up had an undeniable impact on the college, and while our students and staff delivered a sterling effort, we were disappointed by our first crop of results which were below the national average. We were devastated that not all students had achieved their potential and we arrived for work this time last year with an enormous challenge. We were on a mission to cut through the chaos; to distill the competing priorities and bring a simple and confident focus.
It was a tough year.
At the beginning of the second term, I encountered an artist by the name of Lisa Swerling. She makes these often remarkable little worlds which she calls glass cathedrals. Initially I saw one entitled 'the world is a scary place but I have armbands' and I wished that I had armbands or a safety net but it's hard to feel like failing will be okay when you know that students will underachieve if you get it wrong and that under achieving can impact negatively on their life chances. I really like the magical charm of her work and continued to look. And then I saw 'Hope':
I was moved by this piece, enough to buy it for our staffroom. A number of times last year, it was important to hold on to what we were doing, to stay faithful to the watering and feeding and weeding even when we could not yet see the plant. We believed in the potential of Elstree UTC and believed that this would be the year of growth and improvement. We cared for our seedling and encouraged all of our students to do more ground work; more intervention sessions; more lunchtime revision; more coursework redrafts and sure enough, Elstree UTC broke through the surface and the potential was realised. If you haven't yet seen our headline figures from this years exam results, then you may not know that whilst GCSE results were going down nationally, our results went up by 30% in some subjects and by 22% across all subjects including English and Maths. 22% up in one year puts us in the top 5% of most improved schools in the country (compared to 2015 national data). At post 16 we went from 100% pass rates in only 7 subjects to 15 subjects seeing every student achieve. In a number of our specialist subject areas, we achieved national leading results (like 81% distinctions in Production Arts). It was so satisfying to see the improvement, to see what our seed had become!
A colleague reminded me this week of 'The Seed'. It still hangs on the staffroom wall. It now symbolises that time last year when we were all tired, when we had to encourage each other - staff and students - not to be anxious, that we were not going to repeat the disappointment of the previous year but that our seed would come good. And it did. So at the start of this year I revisited Lisa Swirling's glass cathedrals. I was looking for a companion piece to put alongside 'Hope'. I picked this one - it's called 'The Night Job':
I have always found Wonder and Inspiration to be best expressed by space; by the galaxies and cosmos, the swirling mists of energy and matter, whose secrets lie behind life and beauty. I love the idea here that such wonder was achieved while no one was looking. I love the faceless worker in overalls who faithfully paints the stars while no one notices and while all else sleeps. It made me think of all our students last year who didn't sleep as they redrafted coursework and crammed for exams. It made me think of the countless 'all-nighters' that staff endured to plan lessons and mark coursework and then mark it again, the Saturday mornings and Maths residentials; there is no doubt that our entire college community went well beyond the minimum requirements and that is wonderful and magic and conscientious.
And now it starts again. Another new year - new students and more exams and coursework. More intervention sessions. This year we have more than hope, we have confidence that clear focused targets in line with a strong, strategic college development plan and a relentless emphasis on learning and student progress we again realise wonder and magic. We have momentum and we know that the stars come out with hard and relentless work. So thank you in advance to every parent that helps with their child's homework, thank you in advance to every student who does that extra half an hour, thank you in advance to every member of staff who burns the midnight oil planning and marking because such unnoticed acts paint the wonder and promise of the cosmos.