Meet the father and son behind a Peterborough academy’s success

Ben Erskine, the current principal of Fulbridge Academy, and his father Iain Erskine, the school's former principal
Ben Erskine, the current principal of Fulbridge Academy, and his father Iain Erskine, the school's former principal

As part of our drive to improve educational standards I have been meeting with head teachers and principals (writes columnist Jonathan Lewis, Peterborough City Council director of education) .

We want to develop a list of priorities for all schools to follow to achieve success. I recently met with Ben Erskine, the current principal of Fulbridge Academy, and his father Iain Erskine, the school’s former principal.

The school has enjoyed 10 years of good Key Stage 2 results. This is what they told me about their success:

What is the main issue to address to improve educational standards?

Iain: “There are several issues, but one dominates and impacts on the others - the quality of leadership in the school. A leader must align staff to the school’s vision and aims. They must create an ethos, culture and climate that results in a unified team.”

Ben: The headteacher is the key person in creating this culture. They must display all the correct behaviours and attitudes for other staff to emulate. You cannot lead from your office. You need to be visible in corridors, classrooms and on the playground.”

Iain: “Resist the temptation to do everything yourself. Headteachers should be facilitators, ensuring everyone does their job well. Like an orchestra, they are the conductor of the school, ensuring everyone works together to achieve the school’s goals.”

Ben: The headteacher must also nurture other staff into leaders through training and development. Senior and middle leaders must be given real responsibility and be able to make decisions without worrying about micromanagement.”

Iain: I am fascinated by leadership and study it in great depth. In my new role as a leadership trainer for The 4cs Academy I coach and mentor leaders. There are timeless truths about leadership that are common to all successful businesses, sports teams and schools. It’s knowing what they are and adopting them into your own leadership style.”

What other factors make a school successful?

Ben: “We think long and hard about what we teach, basing our curriculum on research. We think about the skills our community need? To do this, we have worked with a number of recognised leading education theory specialists.”

Iain: “It is important to focus on children’s needs, not the tests. Test results will improve if your educational offer is a good one. Reading, writing and maths are important, but more important is to broaden knowledge and for pupils to be confident and clear in expressing opinions as it opens the gateway to the others.”

Ben: “How we teach is also important. Read the latest research. Be aware of advances in neuroscience that challenge many past teaching approaches. More of the same will produce more of the same results. Schools need to embrace change, be innovative, creative and challenging in their thinking - but always research based.”

Iain: “Don’t just focus on the 3Rs! A broad and balanced curriculum raises standards. Embrace PE, dance, drama, art, music and science. Whole class teaching is essential - only using interventions and booster groups as a final or last minute resort. Offer a wide range of extracurricular activities. We recently introduced forest activities and continually try to broaden and improve our educational offer.”

Any final thoughts?

Iain: “Headteachers must acknowledge that nobody can do it for them. Schools must lead their own improvement agenda themselves, through the quality of their leadership. Manchester United were successful under Sir Alex Ferguson because he was a great leader, the same with Richard Branson at Virgin. A school’s success is equally down to the quality of the leadership.

Ben: “A leadership ethos that is based upon an aligned, whole staff ‘no excuses and high expectations’ culture. A headteacher’s main job is to create that culture. In addition to leadership and in the words of Robin Alexander’s Cambridge Primary Review, a school’s educational offer is vitally important, it should: ‘Engage children’s attention, excite and empower their thinking and advance their knowledge, understanding and skill’.

“Better results will then follow.”