Educating Essex 8: The Parable of the Good School

'Excuse me, can you tell me where Passmores school is?'
Ladies and gentlemen, I have BEEN to the mountain top. This week I visited the mother-ship of telly schools: Passmores, in Harlow. It was, of course, the event horizon of the Channel 4 edu-phenomenon black hole Educating Essex, which gave me far too much to write about a few months back, as the fixed rig docudrama attempted to peel back the curtain of schooling and let the public see what kind of wizards were pulling the levers. It was the hit you couldn't miss if you were a teacher. I wanted, perhaps for the first time,  to draw a teacher-eye picture of what our favourite telly-comp was like from the inside, as opposed to a journalist's preferred storyline.

Not unlike an educational endoscope.


It is, I must say, hard to miss Passmores, given that the front of the building (I say front; it's built in the shape of a starfish, or the Nickelodeon Splat!) has the name spelled out in wooden planking thirty feet high, in a manner that could enable identification from space, should the Mir satellite ever need to aim something at them. It's a quite spectacular build. I should point out that Passmores moved into a groovy new edu-plex towards the end of the series being filmed. Hawk-eyed viewers will have noticed that results day was celebrated in what appeared to be Blofeld's hollowed-out volcano, as compared to the Grange Hill film set that served as prior address.

Not a BSF identikit model, but a spectacular example of what can be done when teachers, as opposed to committees design a building for purpose, it's swimming in broad open spaces, light and eye-lines that reminded me of the Guggenheim, or more closely, the central court of the British Museum; the assembly hall was contained in the heart of the starfish (do starfishes have hearts? Or are they like inspectors?), to give you some idea of the scale of this building, and the roof, like the Old Lady of Bloomsbury, is a glass porthole. Vic Goddard, the towering, towering Godfather of Passmores, who had kindly invited me for the day, told me that he had been part of the team that harnessed up and helped to clean off the shower of avian guano that speckled it daintily. Which tells you, I think, a little bit about the kind of Head Teacher he is.

Very surreal to be somewhere that I had written so much about, and meeting people who might have been, as far as I could tell, CGI mannequins. Every now and then I bumped into one of the heroes of my previous blogs, and I would freeze for a second, access my files labelled, 'Did I say something sarcastic?' and then carry on.

The man himself, Vic. He is actually eight feet tall in real life.
If you've read any of the interviews in the Guardian, or seen the various TV appearances they've done, you will have encountered a frequent set of phrases used by most people to describe Vic Goddard: inspirational; enthusiastic; infectious; committed. Now, I've been to a few business guru seminars where the hard-on standing at the podium whipped crowds up into cultish frenzies; I'm suspicious of anyone described as 'inspirational' because cults of personality are almost exclusively built around men and women who cannot possibly meet the expectations of the crowd upon which they surf. But I spent a whole afternoon with Vic, and I am happy to confirm what I already suspected: the man is an genuinely inspirational Head. 'They'll carry me out of here in a box,' he said with perfect sincerity. Of course if

he blows town next month with a bag full of money and broken dreams I'll look stupid, SO I'M COUNTING ON HIM NOT TO DO THAT THING.

He really is the genuine article; I have no idea what he was like as a PE teacher (other than, as all PE teachers, villains), but he conveys the sense of being an excellent leader- totally focussed on what he wants to do, totally committed to the well-being of the children, totally driven to make it happen. Best of all, he doesn't possess what I often perceive in the committed: intolerance, the fart in the spacesuit of excellence. Achieving any kind  of excellence required a focus like a laser, but the downfall of that single-mindedness is often the death of collaboration or humanity. Which doesn't make it a bad thing. But wouldn't it be an excellent thing to have that focus and still convey the sense that you gave a shit about the people you expected to carry out your vision? Take a bow, sir.

He took me on a tour of the school. Not an Ofsted serving suggestion, but just a general walk around 'the arms of the starfish' (which is also the name of a stag club in Soho, incidentally), past room after room of glass-walled classes full of children all working away, drawing, writing, turning the Tempest into a rap, the usual. Not one of them looked unruly or desperate; not one of them erupted into faux-outrage when we entered. There was even a cover lesson where the kids were working quietly (I KNOW!) in pairs, happy to answer questions. This wasn't something you could fraud for the cameras, and there certainly wasn't any 'days-out' jiggery-pokery with the naughty kids; this was a school where manners, respect and discipline were part of the atmosphere, and I have to admit, it was a beautiful thing. Maybe it was the CO2 monitors in every room, which, when they pipe up in warning, are answered by a designated pupil charged with opening windows. I AM NOT KIDDING YOU HERE THIS IS A SYSTEM THEY HAVE. Wouldn't it be simpler to have that automated? I asked, perhaps a little drunk on modernity and futurism. 'An extra hundred thousand,' said Vic.

(I was reminded of the scene in Running Scared, when the undercover cop asks the police garage to soup-up his patrol car, making it invisible, invincible, invulnerable. 'It won't be invisible till five,' replies the laconic grease-monkey.)

Of course, part of the wow factor is always going to be a beautiful new build with glorious attention to space, detail and utility. But the success of Passmores is so much more than that. I asked Vic to narrow down a bit on how Passmores enjoys such an atmosphere of calm and learning, and he had a practised but sincere response; consistency, a shared vision throughout the school communicated clearly to everyone, and reinforced by senior staff. Now I know from a variety of dodgy management positions that this is one of the hardest parts: first of all you have to have a vision, otherwise you deal with life as it comes, and endless other factors buffet you as they will; but next you have to acknowledge that you cannot do everything yourself; your job is to drive people in the direction you want, and let them to drive their people the same way, preferably with their buy-in, sometimes without it. The school chariot travels nowhere, and slowly, unless the horses all pull the same way.

Good example: the behaviour system at Passmores appears to be so tight that I couldn't slide a razor blade between its molecules: all detentions are collated centrally and displayed in the public space for all to see, 48 hours in advance. Meaty ones too- hours, hour and a half, enough to make most think twice. Kids who have a detention for laziness in class, low output, have a chance to hand work in before the hour of their sanction, to void the detentions- but they still have to turn up to have their status assessed. Best of all- and this is the clincher for me- the end of day registration, so all pupils have to report back to form groups (vertical age form groups, I might add- the one I entered resembled the auditions for Bugsy Malone), and if they have any detentions they get escorted back to the main hall, for collection by their captors and mentors.

It really was a joy to behold. Not because I enjoy seeing children assigned to the gaol, but because of the certainty of it, the difficulty for any child to elude it. Of course, they could just bolt, like any other sanction, but a member of staff is paid to analyse each day's detention attendance, and track/ pursue any fugitives. Simple; effective. What the anti-sanction brigade often forget is that the purpose of sanctions is to render themselves obsolete; that providing a deterrent to student misbehaviour is designed to make sure they don't incur sanctions in the future. And a deterrent is only a deterrent when it is believed to be inevitable, which in a school it can be, unlike, say, society, where justice and the jailer are easily given the slip.

I have to mention the toilets. If someone told me the staff dunnies in my gaffe were to be integrated with the students'- AND become Unisex, I would probably poke you in the eye with a marker pen and quit. But that's exactly what they did here....and it works, against every instinct and reservation I have about blurring the demarcation between students and staff, and the necessary invisible fences of probity and protection. They really are quite gorgeous: tall, sturdy, cleaned THROUGHOUT the day by dedicated cleaners who sign off an inspection sheet a la hotel toilets. Dyson hand dryers; a wash basin that could double as a chocolate fountain (another club in Soho, coincidentally enough); broad canopies of glass and light, and an entrance accessed through the broad pavilion of the corridor. Quite eye-popping. Caution demands that you should come back in two years' time and see if this egalitarian leveller can be maintained, or will it disintegrate through disinterest and decadence. Believe me, most cocktail bars don't have latrines like this, which in most schools are a grisly affair.

The toilets, Heathrow Terminal 5, VIP lounge. And Passmores.
And that's the point. Vic asked the kids what they wanted from the rebuild, and overwhelmingly they said, 'Toilets we can bear to be in.' Which put me in mind of the old maxim about restaurants; the attention paid to them reflects the care shown in the kitchen, which is absolutely, demonstrably true in my experience. How often do the staff give a damn about the facilities kids rub up against every day? An interesting exercise in perspective.

Man, the toilets here are better than my powder room and MY FRIEND THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH THAT.

Point to make; every time we passed a kid in the near-silent corridors (I said to Vic, 'Is anyone IN right now?' '900 of them, yes,' he replied. I thought maybe they were Borrowers.), Vic either spoke to them by name, or mentioned a previous conversation they had had. Now, you don't get that kind of face recognition unless you spend a large part of your time on the beat, walking into classrooms and not buried in data sets and meetings with the LEA. I think it was this that most impressed me; just on a simple stroll around the school staff were highly visible, and senior staff equally so. Passive supervision, Vic called it; everyone sees everyone else, like Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, and civil society occurs on a visible and subconscious level. Quite beautiful to see. And equally gratifying to see every kid speak with decorum, warmth and respect to Vic as we passed. I imagine Fonzie feels like this when he walks into Al's diner.

And, pleasingly enough I was also introduced to the Big Beast himself, the inimitable Mr Stephen Drew, whom we met while he was patrolling the corridor, looking for children with undone top buttons and inappropriate eye-liner so he could gather them into his sack and torture them. And, dear reader, I would like to exclusively  report that the man's feet were entirely unshod; devoid of shoe; naked to the raw cotton sock. I cannot recall if the TV shown included footage of Harlow's Zola Budd padding around barefoot; I can only assume it's a tactic with which he can creep up on anarchist students, plotting sedition in complete silence. It's a thin possibility, but it's all I've got. You don't ask questions like that, although he claimed his office was hot, and I thought A-Ha! a flaw in this Utopian edifice. The Daily Mail can have that one for free: 'Half-naked eccentric disciplinarian stalks overheated laboratory school.'

S-Drew is equally impressive; an intelligent, friendly man whom, I imagine, is the same man in the corridor as he is beyond it. It's something that he seemed to share with Vic: an impression conveyed of being in exactly the right place at the right time, doing something you love, with dedication and care. Aristotle declared that the point of human life was eudaimonia- a kind of flourishing, matching one's potential to your challenges and developing thereby. I sense at least two men in a state of incremental eudaimonia here. And when the individual flourishes in his or her role, the community flourishes. And when the community flourishes, the individual flourishes, in a perfect integration of both  socialist and liberal visions. I would not, I hasten to point out, like to get on the wrong side of Mr Drew. There's a sense that he would crawl over broken glass to support your education but also that he possessed an ENDLESS OCEAN OF STUBBORNNESS THAT MEANT HE WOULD NEVER GIVE UP TELLING YOU TO DO YOUR TIE PROPERLY UNLESS THE SUN WENT SUPERNOVA. Perhaps not even then. Good man.

The Inclusion Centre. No, I'm NOT kidding.
It's a school run on law, but also character; not simply a prison of sanctions and rewards, but also a community that understands why such rules have to exist and works to make electric fences and punishment unnecessary. It would be easy to diminish their success by claiming that the catchment is agreeable and supportive, and that such children naturally comply and collaborate; but that would be wrong, for two reasons: firstly, while it might be no Hackney or Easterhouse, it's no Hampstead either, with higher than average kids on Free School meals and SEN children. Secondly, communities like this don't just happen by themselves; they take years to evolve, with direction and continuous struggle. Vic told me that it took years to get the ship turned around, and get everyone trained into the systems he wanted. Now that they had, you could barely see the wires any more. But they were there, just the same.

I even got a chance to meet that other hero of Educating Essex, Russell King, of 'Clear off, scumbags' fame. The Daily Hate and others had a bit of a field day with him, mostly because his awesome one-liner became a catchphrase for the series (and me) and became emblematic of a certain type of media outrage, directed against what they perceived to be inappropriacy and unprofessionalism. Except that it wasn't; it was evidence of fantastic relationships, where humour and context could enable communication like that without harm or risk. It was a sign of an expert teacher, not a bad one. But then, how could the journalists from the Hate and others know anything about that? They don't know anything about schools, not a drop. In other words, they can be ignored, as I ignore the opinion of anyone who knows f*ck all about schools because they have never been inside one except as a customer.I spent half an hour with Mr King, and his compassion and commitment to students is fathomless. He even had articles on his wall about inspiring students to go to Russell Group/ Oxbridge Universities because, 'We don't have a sixth form, and if they want to get to top Unis they need to be working towards that before they leave here.' So, even though there's no direct benefit to himself or the school, he chooses to give kids a leg-up into better futures.

That's a teacher, if you don't mind me saying. A real one.

As we mingled with students at the end, Vic chatted away to Mollie, whom we saw on the show; edited for the glass box, she seemed belligerent and troubled; in the flesh she seemed funny, intelligent and personable. That is, of course, the problem with TV; it adds ten pounds to your ego and idiosyncrasies. You wouldn't recognise this school from the simmering stock pot of insurrection and angst that the camera portrayed. Of course you wouldn't: dozens of fixed-rig cams filming for a year, boiled down into seven, forty-five minute segments of drama and narrative. Of course, no one wants to watch people working quietly in biddable cohorts of near silence, so that's Showbiz. But it's important that we recognise what we saw.

This Playa got humps AND junk.
I asked Vic two questions that were deliberately cheeky. First of all, I asked him what was next for him? Without hesitation, he said, 'Why would I want to do anything other than this?' And I believe him. Here's a man doing what he loves, in excellent manner. In many ways, isn't that the life ambition of us all? The second question was, 'Will there be another series?' For the first time, I saw a flicker of fatigue wash over his face, which normally defaulted to positivity, enthusiasm and good humour the entire time I was there.

'Channel four want to. I don't really; it wouldn't be the same now. When the first one went out, no one thought anyone would watch it.' Like Big Brother, which started attracting even more pathological personalities as the fame snowball rolled along, a second series would have no point, other than to satisfy sequel fever. It would be like the Godfather 3, or the remake of the Italian Job.

I know that Ofsted calls Passmores- sorry, Passmores Academy now- an outstanding school. But who gives a monkeys what they think? I'm a teacher, and part of me saw this as a chance to review it, like a restaurant. Well, you know what I think about the toilets, and someday I'll tell you about Vic's 'special' sandwiches, so I hope you'll take my comments in the context of a man who works and breathes education, schools and kids: Passmores is an outstanding school. I spend half my time trying to dismantle and scorn the moronism that permeates and percolates through education in the UK. It is a relief, a detox and a rest-and-be-thankful to talk about an example of education working so well, of a school where the systems, the leadership, the kids and the learning all embrace and support each other. There's no such thing as a perfect school, and what works in one context may not work in another- in fact, I would say that it's guaranteed that they usually don't- but Passmores does a damn fine job of doing what a school needs to do with its catchment. It's very easy to say what's broken in education; far harder to suggest what 'fixed' might look like. Ladies and gentlemen, exhibit A.

Vic walked me to the reception as I left. A visiting year 6 girl in the corridor shouted after him, 'I wanna come Passmores!' as we walked away. You can't buy that kind of rep. It has to be grown from a seed. In the cab back to the station, the driver asked me if I worked there. I told him I was just visiting. 'A good school, that,' he said as we sailed into the golden evening sun. 'One of the better ones.'

And I thought: Passmores; one of the better ones. Not a bad epitaph.

Same picture as before, but ruder. And therefore funnier.
Clear off, scumbags.

Click here for previous blogs on Educating Essex:

Episode one
Episode two
Episode three
Episode four
Episode five
Episode six
Episode seven

Click here for the funniest thing I saw this week.

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  1. I wanna come Passmores too!

  2. Tears in my eyes - thank you. RK.

  3. Tom - this is a wonderfully eloquent article which does exactly what it should - inspires. Also really good to note that things that we are doing at our school are on similar me some hope!


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