The story of how the ‘worst school in England’ was transformed to become one of the country’s best has been highlighted as a blueprint for the Cayman Islands to follow if it wants to integrate schools and raise standards.
Peter Hughes, former principal of the Mossbourne Community Academy in central London, visited the Cayman Islands on numerous occasions and was involved in discussions with the non-profit foundation Literacy Is For Everyone over proposals for a new type of school in the territory.
Those talks have yet to lead to any concrete action, but he believes Mossbourne, and schools like it, do provide an example of effective partnership between the public and private sector to radically transform results.
Mossbourne, which opened in 2004, was at the vanguard of a new academy structure in England.
In the late 1990s, the poor state of the education system in the Hackney district prompted government to take radical action.
“There was this point of systemic change where the local authority had its powers to look after education removed,” says Hughes, now the CEO of the Mossbourne federation with responsibility for four schools and a sixth-form college.
“They depoliticised education and put it in the hands of a non-profit called the Learning Trust.”
This allowed philanthropic funding to flow into the school system and also delivered more autonomy to Hackney’s schools.
At Mossbourne, says Hughes, “The headteacher is the CEO of the company and the governing body are the directors.”
The school now has consistently ‘excellent’ inspection ratings and regularly appears near the top of national exam results tables. It is a far cry from when its predecessor, Hackney Downs High School, was decried in parliament as “the worst school in England”.
Yet it still draws the bulk of its students from the same catchment area.
‘Blaming families is an excuse’
The transformation was achieved, says Hughes, through good teaching combined with a philosophy of high expectations and no excuses.
Many of the students come from economically deprived areas.
But Hughes insists family backgrounds and social problems – often cited as the cause of struggles in Cayman’s schools – cannot justify mediocre results.
“Let me be 100% clear here. Blaming the families is an excuse, nothing else,” he says.
“Children live up to the expectations you set for them and you should set them high. You need that constant message that you believe they are going to be successful, reminding them constantly that they are worth it.”
Not all students have the same advantages, but Hughes believes schools can give them stability and opportunity that they sometimes lack at home.
Reading interventions and homework clubs supplement the curriculum at Mossbourne. But he says one of its greatest achievements is to have created a “calm and safe” environment where the expectations are clear and learning is at the forefront.
Recruiting good teachers is key
The single biggest advantage of the academy system, he says, is the power over recruitment.
“Do head teachers in the Cayman Islands have the freedom to utilise their budget to get the best quality teachers into that building?
“The most important thing you can do as a principal is recruit well. How you hire and develop your staff and build structures within your school that allow them to teach well will determine how successful you can be.”
All of that is possible, perhaps, within the existing structure. But Hughes says it is made easier when decision making and accountability rests at school level.
Mossbourne is still subject to government inspections and admissions processes – they cannot cherry pick students – and they must still sit GCSE and A-Level national exams.
Beyond that, he says, there is total operational freedom.
Could it work in Cayman?
Hughes, who had talks with Woody Foster and Pilar Bush of LIFE when he visited Cayman, says a version of what Mossbourne Academy has achieved could be a model to integrate Cayman’s schools and improve standards.
He had been involved in discussions over how to make that happen but the interest, at the time, was largely from the private and non-profit sector. He says he would still love to see a ‘Mossbourne school’ in Cayman.
He believes the British school has shown that success can be achieved regardless of social and economic challenges.
“We are on a council estate in the middle of London and 50% of our kids are pulled from that area. We also have politicians’ children, we have parents who have brought their children out of private school to put them in our school.”
The school is oversubscribed and operates a lottery system to fill spaces.
It was built with a mix of public and private money but draws its funding from government. Hughes says the model could easily be tweaked in Cayman to attract a mix of fee-paying and government-funded students.
“There are a number of ways you could do it. You could try to mirror the population demographic.
“I believe education is a great mixing ground and it should be socio-economically diverse,” he says.
“That is what Mossbourne has achieved and wouldn’t it be great if Cayman could achieve that as well?”