Open Evening Speech of Mr Martin Lavelle

Posted on: October 10th 2015

As a father myself I have been in your position and understand the pressures that you are under when choosing a school for your child to spend the next seven years. Choosing a school where they will flourish both academically and socially, where they will be stretched and inspired both inside and outside of formal lessons, is no easy task.

Like you Year 6 pupils, our school is also poised at a very exciting moment in its life, with an opportunity to become even more successful. 

My vision for Southgate School is that the needs of all learners are met so that results at GCSE are at least 90% 5A*-C including English and mathematics with more students getting the very highest grades, which would better reflect the potential of our student body.

Southgate students are already very successful and leave here to go to best universities including Oxbridge, but more importantly, the best university for the particular course or career that they want to follow.

For be in no doubt that we are an academic school. Our exam results were up this year in both GCSE and A Level, with more students getting the very top grades, a trend that bucks the local and national picture.

On top of this, students have started to return to us from other local institutions once viewed as a guarantee of A Level success, saying that they believe they will do better at our school.

So why are we so successful?

Let me begin, by stating my guiding philosophy; it’s not a complicated philosophy but it gets to the heart of things and the core purpose of schools and it is this: young people have one chance of getting a truly outstanding education and it is our job to ensure that they get it. Everything that happens at our school is focused on this point; if something doesn’t affect students’ outcomes or student happiness, why would we discuss or even consider it? It is this challenge that motivates me, that gets me up in the morning; the desire to ensure that all your children become the best that they can be, achieve more than they think they’re capable of and go on to lead happy and fulfilled lives. It is working with young people that inspires me and keeps me energised.

Southgate school is a place where there are no ‘grey’ children who pass by without an adult talking to them all day. We are a school where the individual is recognized and where all students no matter what their prior learning, their perceived ability or their home circumstances, are expected to achieve, are part of a can-do culture and ultimately of course, are successful.

No doubt most of you have arrived here tonight full of questions that you want answered in order to make an informed decision about whether to send your child to this school and of course, this is right and proper. But let me state quite clearly now, that the single determining factor in deciding how well your child will do at any given school is the quality of teaching that he or she gets and in this you as parents are relatively powerless as you don’t choose the teachers.

Education is in an almost constant cycle of change. It is hard enough for those who work in education to keep track of all the changes already in place or scheduled to happen in the near future; it must be nigh on impossible for people not directly involved. What, for instance, is the difference between a converter academy, a private sponsor academy, a chain of schools, a federation of schools, Free schools or faith schools? The answer, once one cuts away some of the peripheral stuff, the political or religious origins, is precious little because they are all schools and if the quality of teaching at any of these institutions is not good enough it is your children who will be the losers.

So, how can you get reassurance about the quality of teaching at a school?

You look, of course, at league tables, which again will give you some partial information. They will show you headline results and, of course, these are important, particularly to those students who have done so well.  But these have often misrepresented the truly successful schools. Belatedly, the government has woken up to the fact that schools should be judged by the progress that students make from their starting points. This is what you should be looking for; evidence that all students make significant and sustained progress from Year 7, be they able and academically brilliant, practically gifted, excellent at sports or the arts, or whether they come to the school hiding their light under a bushel. Ask your self this; do students at this school reach and in many cases surpass their potential?

This is the crux of the matter, because this tells you how good the quality of teaching is at any school. This is why today many schools previously seen as bastions of academic excellence are now feeling the long hand of Ofsted on their collar, why we have grammar schools under the Ofsted spotlight; because a figure of say, 80% 5A*-C at GCSE might look impressive but actually, looking at the ability of the students who joined that school in Year 7, student outcomes should have been 95%.

I have already told you that we are an academically successful school, where student outcomes and progress levels are well above national averages. But we are not an exam factory. With the reputation that our School has, as a Teaching School and as a consistently successful, happy school, we are able to attract high calibre candidates for all positions. In some schools you may have an outstanding teacher teaching next door to a mediocre teacher, but that doesn’t happen here because so many teachers want to work in a school like this, which means that we are in a position to appoint from the very best teachers, which in turn means that your child will go from one outstanding learning experience to another. This cannot be said of all schools.

Hopefully this answers a key question for you. But I want you to leave here tonight with the clear understanding that academic success can only be achieved if students enjoy school, have fun and are well supported.

In an era when students find themselves revising over many, if not most of their holidays and under increasing pressure from staff who are themselves under pressure to deliver, I believe that school leaders have an increased duty to ensure that students still enjoy school, that they can have fun, celebrate things and still be successful, be it academically, on the sports field or on the stage. A student might not automatically get better results by playing sport, being in a school production, going to Art club or by doing the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, but at least they will be in school for longer and they will be happier and therefore more likely to be successful. Plus you will know that they are not locked in their bedrooms playing computer games or trawling the internet. Getting involved in extra curricular activities is a must do; this is what helps builds character and fosters academic success. Extra curricular activities also build friendships and I believe it is absolutely essential that all children have a friend at school and that they look forward to coming here.

We meet with student representatives on a regular basis and engage them in an ongoing dialogue aimed at improving the student experience and we celebrate the achievements of the students, to help develop a can do culture. We have an ethos where students support and encourage one another to succeed, where it is ‘cool’ to do well.  I want students to feel positive and energised when they are in school; this way they are more likely to be successful students, aware of their social responsibilities and able to contribute positively to society.

Thank you for listening and I look forward to working with you and your child over the years to come.

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