A secondary school in Wembley has undergone a dramatic transformation over the last six years under the stewardship of its new principal.
Having previously been marred by financial irregularities, poor pupil behaviour and being put into special measures, Rebecca Curtis has overseen the school’s progress culminating in its recent outstanding Ofsted rating.
Ark Elvin in Wembley first opened in September 2015 when the notorious Copland Community School was controversially transitioned into an academy.
Alongside problems with bad behaviour, poor facilities, and staff issues, in 2018 the High Court made Copland’s former headteacher Alan Davies pay back almost £1.4 million in wrongful payments taken from the school.
Ms Curtis took up the reins in 2017 after Ark Elvin had been rated inadequate at inspection and put into special measures. Since then the school has gone from strength to strength and is barely recognisable from what it once was.
Ms Curtis told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS): “The school has been through some very, very difficult periods. It was a pretty unhappy place.”
She said: “At the time there was a very strong feeling against the idea of schools becoming academies and coming out of local authority control.” Things have changed drastically since then, with the overwhelming majority of Brent secondary schools now being academies.
Ms Curtis added: “The school was in special measures and the outcomes were very poor. It really was at the bottom of the pile in Brent. It was in the old building that was literally falling apart around people, rain was coming through the ceilings and radiators were falling off in the corridors and rooms. It was a tough time to be a member of staff and a tough time to be a child to learn.”
Fast forward to 2023 and Ark Elvin has been celebrating its recent outstanding inspection and excellent exam grades.
Ms Curtis said: “It’s been an extraordinary few years. The outcomes continue to improve and children are making really extraordinary progress and that’s really what matters.”
But in order to turn around its fortunes, the school has seen massive changes take place. Ms Curtis jumped at the chance to become principal when the opportunity came up as she “fell in love with the school” after working a six month placement there in her early 20s. She called it an “opportunity to do something special”.
She said: “A little bit of my heart was already here. I just really wanted to make a difference in an area of London that I know, for a community that deserves a good school, and in a school that had been through so much. There were big challenges in those early days, the building, a £1.5 million deficit, we had to go through a restructure, behaviour was poor. There was a lot that we had to get right.”
In June of 2017, Ark Elvin underwent another Ofsted inspection, this time being rated as ‘requires improvement’. Ms Curtis explains that, whilst this was nothing to celebrate, coming out of special measures removed some of the stigma that that brought and confirmed to the team that they were moving in the right direction.
Then in 2018, the school was able to move into a brand new £30 million building, which Ms Curtis described as a “fresh start” for everyone. She said: “I think for the first time that the children began to feel proud about their school.”
She added: “It’s very difficult to go to the school where all your friends are saying ‘oh, you’re not going to Ark Elvin, are you?’ Suddenly, they were going to this amazing school with amazing facilities and that really made the difference.
“However, it can be like the emperor’s new clothes, where what happens in the building doesn’t match that quality. But we were in the process of improving the curriculum, training teachers and really raising expectations around behaviour.”
The starting point was to understand the pupils, analyse what stage they were at and work out how to get them the best grades possible to enable them to attend the top universities and apprenticeships.
For pupils whose starting point was particularly low, the school initially opted for a “depth before breadth” approach, meaning they focused on a small number of topics that they taught really well, before broadening the curriculum out as they improved.
Ms Curtis explains: “We wanted every child to see that they’ve got huge potential, that they can create their futures and that they have the power to make a difference. It was also important that every member of staff who joined us held those high expectations for our children. The formal curriculum was really important, but also the enrichment, in terms of after school clubs and trip days.”
The transformation has been well received by the students’ parents, who were described as “really supportive”. Ms Curtis said: “The fact that the children were now saying they were having a good day and working hard, and they could see that they were getting lots of homework – our parents are now our strongest advocates.”
But progress hasn’t been easy over the past few years. Like the rest of the country, the school has had to battle through the pandemic. Covid had a disproportionate impact on certain communities, whether that be due to poverty, multiple-occupancy housing or access to health information, and Brent was one of those.
During the first wave in March 2020, there was a particularly high death rate in the borough and this was felt in the schools. Ms Curtis explains: “I never in my life thought that I would have a bereavement tracker at school.”
She added: “We had to track the number of children who had been affected by bereavements within their family. In a number of cases, we had children who had lost more than one member of their family, because they lived in multi- generational households. You just can’t underestimate the impact of that.”
According to Ms Curtis, the pandemic is not over as teachers specifically are still managing the fall out of school closures and the shift to online learning. She points to 25 per cent of pupils nationally being persistently absent, which is a huge increase on pre-pandemic levels and the disparity gap is growing.
Ms Curtis said: “That’s a lost generation and they are disproportionately from more disadvantaged backgrounds. It’s a national crisis. The mental health challenges that we are experiencing, these are long term societal issues that we are seeing in schools now that will play out as this generation grows up. This crisis isn’t getting the attention it needs […] it’s not high enough on the agenda.”
This gap has been compounded by the cost of living crisis, according to Ms Curtis. She claims that the number of safeguarding concerns linked to poverty have “gone through the roof” and are “incomparable to three years ago”.
She said: “That can be anything from changing habits and experiencing anxiety around the family’s financial situation, to expressing that they are hungry, or that they don’t have somewhere comfortable to sleep.
“But schools can close it, we know how to do it, it’s not rocket science. It just needs to be resourced and school’s serving more disadvantaged communities need more. We are not superheroes, we can only do what we can do, but we are in a great position to be able to do more with the right resources.”
Despite the recent success, staff at Ark Elvin are determined not to stop there. Ms Curtis says the motivation is to make sure that every child goes on to have a great future. She added: “It’s great to get the recognition that we have, but none of us get out of bed for Ofsted ratings.”
Ofsted has come under criticism recently after headteacher Ruth Perry took her own life when her school was downgraded to the lowest rating. MPs have since launched an inquiry into inspections, which will consider the impact they have on staff workloads, as well as the wellbeing of teachers, school leaders and pupils.
Ms Curtis said the experience she went through recently with Ofsted was “genuinely a positive one” but appreciates that might not always be the case for everyone. Whilst school’s need a level of accountability and parents must be able to see how good their local school is, Ms Curtis acknowledges that “one word doesn’t describe everything that happens in a building”.
The pressure inspections can put on staff is immense and the teaching profession is tackling a number of issues recently, such as disputes over long hours and poor pay, which have impacted morale, mental health, and resulted in many leaving the profession altogether.
Ms Curtis said: “No-one goes into teaching thinking it is going to be easy, the last few years have been particularly tough and challenging. We’ve had to really adapt in so many different ways. [But] it is also the best job in the world. […] It’s a real privilege to be able to do the work so it’s our job as leaders to try and make that work feel more sustainable.”
She added: “The bottom line is every person who works in the school deserves to be paid better than they are because it’s such important work. It’s really important for school leaders to prioritise looking after the adults in the building, because they are our most precious resource. We can only do the work that we do if they are happy and working hard.
“The only way we can flip the narrative around what’s happening in education is by creating schools that are genuinely supportive, happy, hard-working places to teach in. We’ve got to show that it’s possible to work in a sustainable way. […] I really hope we can create schools where it does feel like it’s a job you want to do and one you feel proud of and are excited to do.”
Ms Curtis believes Ark Elvin can be used as a “beacon of hope” to other schools who may have to take a similar journey. It has been able to demonstrate that, despite all its complexities, it’s still possible to create a high achieving school.
She said: “I want to shout about what we are doing, not to show off, but to tell people who are just a few years behind us it’s possible, keep going, and believe that you can make a difference.”