Community triumphs with the Northern Powerhouse [interview]

Chris Dyson

The indomitable Chris Dyson is headteacher at the Outstanding-rated Parklands Primary School in Seacroft, Leeds - “the best school in the world.” A passionate, popular member of the UK education community, Chris and the Parklands team won the Collaboration award at the 2017 TES Awards.

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School leaders don’t come much more passionate than Leeds’ Chris Dyson. This Northern Powerhouse of a man - our words, not his - has been headteacher at Parklands Primary School for four years now. Chris is all about championing pupils and teachers, “selling the dream with a carrot, not a stick”.

Having taken Parklands to such amazing heights of success, we sat down for a tête-à-tête with Chris to find out just why everyone at Parklands is so happy...

As you’re such an enthusiastic Twitter user, we get frequent updates about Parklands Primary’s adventures. What is the school activity or event that you feel really sums up the Parklands ethos?

Well every Friday I tweet all about my #bestseatsinthehouse assembly, celebrating times tables - which we’re the quickest in the world at, verbally, as well as using the Times Table Rockstars. We celebrate the writer of the week and the stars of the week, all of whom get Dining with Dyson, where they come and have sausage sandwiches with me at break time.

One thing we’re certainly not ever going to win is a healthy school award. On Friday you could end up with a child being star of the week, where they get a sausage sandwich at 10:30; everybody in school has Fish and Chip Friday, irrespective of whether or not you’re on free school meals - although 82% of our pupils on free school meals, so that’s the majority. Then, if you’re lucky to be part of Best Seats In The House, you get a free pizza delivered from Dominos with some ice-cold lemonade, so that’s why we could never go down the healthy eating route!

The ethos of the school is ‘caring and sharing’, and we celebrate everything. We’ve just done a fantastic PSHE theatre production for Year 6 about the dangers of knife crime and carrying a knife. Very thought-provoking - the children were sat in awe and wonder. This came about as a company, Theatre In Education, needed a home. I’ve got 17 acres of an old high school, so we let them set up and operate with no rent; in return, we get to see the productions for free.

Normally a day doesn’t go by without us celebrating something, and Ofsted love that. You can see it on our website, on our Twitter - celebrating everything that these children do.

You mention performing arts there - Parklands has a partnership with Northern Ballet. How did this come about, and what do you hope to achieve through the alliance?

Oh, yeah! Northern Ballet is often seen as a fairly middle-class, upper-class kind of experience, shall we say. They wanted to ensure that they were working with disadvantaged children, to open up the world of ballet to the entire country, as opposed to the elite few. It was at my previous school that I did a pilot production with them, where we brought ballet into Science. The rotation of the Earth, how the Earth orbits the sun, that kind of thing. The children’s enthusiasm and progress meant that I brought this collaboration to Parklands as well. I sell them the dream at school, and children need a wide variety of experiences in their education. After a while, Northern Ballet invited us down to see a production, and this is the second largest ballet troupe in the UK! Getting these children down to the Grand Theatre in Leeds, which is a victorian theatre full of history and culture, it’s an amazing experience for them.

We‘ve continued running projects with Northern Ballet into the fourth year now at Parklands. Such is the impact, such is the warmth of the partnership, that we invite them into our classrooms. Now, when they conduct interviews for their education dance teachers, they use our children for the interview process. The partnership has really brought two different cultures together. It’s great for these ballet people to come to an area like Seacroft to showcase their skills, and these kids get to experience their first taste of the culture.

This community-oriented ethos led to Parklands taking home the Collaboration award at last year’s TES Awards. You were on stage with Julian Clary!

Good old Julian - he said “I wish you’d been my headteacher!” We’re a hugging school, and I was the only person who went up on stage and gave him a hug that night, so he loved that.

Image via author.

That sounds fairly indicative of Parklands as a school. Tell us more about what led to this amazing achievement.

I think people just love the story that we tell, that we’re selling. It broke my heart four years ago, when I first started and found out how few of the pupils had ever been to Santa’s Grotto. Obviously some have the opportunity, but in that first year I was really upset that fewer than 10% of the pupils had ever had the experience. When you’ve got kids yourself, and you’re used to saying “Oh, you’ve already seen Santa three times!”, I thought “do you know, I’m going to bring Santa’s Grotto to Parklands!”

I worked in partnership with Business in the Community, where Prince Charles is a patron, and basically we opened school up on Christmas Eve - not just for our children, but for the whole community. After doing this for three years now, we’ve managed to knock out 800 Christmas dinners, 800 presents from Santa; we have real-life reindeers outside, we have snow machines, we have a disco, we have a bouncy castle, and all of this is brought in through business links. And do you know, when you’ve got some tough, really hard Year 6 boys strutting into school on Christmas Eve saying “Huh, look at them donkeys with sticks on their heads”, it makes you realise that they thought reindeers were fictitious!

That was one big aspect, as businesses want to get involved. This past Christmas we raised £15,000 in two weeks to give pupils the ultimate Christmas. When I’m at home on Christmas Day, having an extra bit of turkey and another drink, I can sit back and think “D’you know, at least the beautiful kids at my school, and the beautiful community of Seacroft, have actually had a special Christmas as well as what they’re doing at home."

We’ve now managed to send home 130 Christmas hampers for our most vulnerable families. The Christmas season is our community’s most vulnerable time. We’ve got hot meals being prepared every day - we don’t shut when it snows, because we need to feed this kids. Even when the heating went the other week, we still opened for dinner time. We work in partnership with the Real Junk Food Project to help provide extra food. This means that parents can come into the school, donate as much as they want and take as much food as they need, even through the holidays.

In addition to that… I don’t send blanket emails to companies. I don’t just get a list of 300 companies and whack out an email. I identify a company, I go to the person who counts, invite them into the school, give them a full tour, sell them the dream, tell them about activities like the ones we hold on Christmas Eve. I tell them about how, even though Scarborough is only 45 minutes away from Seacroft, a lot of our kids had never experienced being on a beach, something that we take for granted. So I shut the school down on 18th July, and we get seven coaches and we all go down to Bridlington - the cleaners, the cooks, the office staff, the learning mentors, the friends of Parklands, the children - everyone.

The companies love stuff like this. In Leeds we’ve got a big development round Thorp Arch going on with GMI Construction. So I wrote to them at 10 o'clock - the time when I have most of my mad ideas - saying: “When you take on these apprentices and you get them to practice painting on a wall, and then the next day it’s whitewashed for someone else to paint it, why don’t you bring them all into my school at easter and decorate the classrooms?” Parklands is an old high school, and hadn’t been decorated since about 1972. GMI loved the idea so much, and appreciated that I’d been so personal, that they shut down their operations for two days and sent their entire workforce to the school. They decorated 18 classrooms plus corridors. Then Thorn Lighting got wind of it and said “Well we’ll come and put £60 grand worth of free lighting in”. It’s that nice, low-energy stuff. Again, it’s about that personal touch.

Unilever’s got one of their main offices near Seacroft, and when the vice president who runs all of Europe came across to the UK from Singapore, the only school he wanted to visit was Parklands, because we’re always tweeting about what we’ve got going on here. He came in and took a tour, and before leaving took out his chequebook, wrote us a cheque for £2,000, and said “Here you are, put that towards it” - without me asking for anything!

I’ve got 17 readers from Lloyds bank, who do a write to read programme, I’ve got Squire Patton Boggs solicitors who come in and do Maths programmes with Year 6… They love coming here because they get involved with the children, they get a free lunch - it’s all about teamwork and being a community.

Of all this means that I can have class sizes of 17 with a TA in every classroom, because I’m not spending money on decoration, on maintenance, because I’ve got brilliant volunteers who come in and do the grounds. We had about a thousand volunteers here last year.

It certainly sounds like you’ve got an incredible team of support staff at Parklands, too.

If it wasn’t for the support staff - we’re talking TAs, learning mentors, people in the office, lunchtime supervisors, kitchen staff… If it wasn’t for these people, the school wouldn’t be where it’s at today. It’s about valuing absolutely everyone. It means that, when we have a great visit from Ofsted, we all go out - not just me and the senior leaders. You’ve got to keep that team together. All my TAs who go off on residentials, they get a day off in lieu, for example.

If you take care of your staff wellbeing, your sickness level is halved. We were lucky enough to get an Outstanding, and I’ve never given a rollicking to a member of staff for as long as I’ve been here. It’s about guidance, about coaching, about bringing the best out in people. It’s about being very hand-on.

You mention staff wellbeing there. How do you go about keeping teacher workload, a very prominent issue, at a healthy level?

Well first of all, when I became head here I stopped homework. Spelling goes home, reading books go home, and Mental Maths goes home, but no writing. The reason for this is, there’s nothing worse than coming in on a Monday morning and having all of these eager, brilliant pupils bringing you 7,248 sheets of homework. The kids work so hard in the daytime at school, I don’t want to be sending them home to do more work. It’s coming up to SATs time now, and one thing we don’t do is send home past papers.

For parents who want extra homework, I’ve brought in IXL, and the children can do any work on there that they want and the computer marks it for them. This therefore cuts down on marking, which is great for wellbeing.

Secondly, I’m in assembly every day from 09:40 to 10:00, and the teachers stay in class and mark. Friday’s assembly is so good, we do it twice. We do one in the morning, and then a second assembly in the afternoon from 14:05 through to 15:10. It’s all-singing, all dancing - staff can either stay in their rooms and mark, or they can join the assembly, which they generally prefer to do.

Thirdly, I don’t want to see any planning. I trust the teachers to do the planning, because the advantage of coming straight out the classroom into a headship is that you know what tires you and what doesn’t tire you. I used to fill out my planning format, and then I’d never look at it again. What I’d do was plan onto my smartboard. That way, when you come in on Monday, you’ve got all of Monday’s lessons on there. Therefore, I say to my staff, “you plan however you want to do it.” I’m always in and out of the classrooms - in a non-threatening way! - and it’s always easy to tell how a teacher’s getting on.

Finally, another thing for teacher workload: I don’t have waste-of-time staff meetings. Again, being a class teacher for 22 years, there are some meetings where your staff are just nodding off! This time can be much better spent on extra planning time, or looking at books across the year groups. Staff meetings should have a proper impact on the day-to-day.

Your school proudly provides “equality of opportunity”. How do you go about doing so?

Just make sure you know each and every child in school. Which children are vulnerable, which children are at risk, which children aren’t likely to have had breakfast before they come in, and so on. I’ve got a team of four learning mentors that are - in a nice way - ‘down with the kids’. None of my staff see themselves as above the estate in which we’re working. We understand the needs and the hardship of the community. It’s our job to ensure that children want to be there.

As has been quite well-publicised, we cut exclusions from 150 three years ago down to 0. In fact, we’ve actually started taking on children who’ve been excluded from other schools, kids who haven’t been to school in over a year. They come in, we sit down, and we go over a plan. We’re very much into nurturing, which is about understanding that some kids can’t learn from 08:50 to 15:10 at 100mph all day. We’ve got five, six, seven children who do the basics in the morning - reading, writing, Maths - and then the afternoon is about the nurturing - painting, gardening, the Minecraft club, and so on. Going with the carrot as opposed to the stick, giving them as many opportunities as possible.

Time for a couple of questions from our community! First of all, @MrsHisback asks: “Do you think your fantastic school is now sufficiently on the ‘right track’ for the staff, parents, pupils and wider community to continue the brilliant work as and when you decide to move on?”

Well first of all, I’ve got no interest in moving on. I’m not in it for the big bucks, or a £300,000 superhead position. I’m in it for the community, and because I’ve got 17 acres of land, I’ve got capacity to grow. I’ve also got a fantastic senior leadership team that is very, very young, so that will offer plenty of opportunities. I hired my assistant heads by looking at what teachers really stood out to me when I first arrived. I’ve also got these young middle leaders, who are taking Maths and English and running with it, developing their own style. I’ve got a very, very, very good, exceptionally strong team. They’ve seen what the bottom of the pit looks like, from when the school hit rock bottom several years ago, when they were told that they were useless. What we do as a school is encourage, develop and nurture, to help these teachers grow and be a strong part of the school community.

Secondly, @MrJunkFoodChef asks: “If Chris could remove one thing from the curriculum, and replace it, what would it be and why?”

Now, I’m obviously going to upset some people here, and I’m so, so sorry. Everyone’s got their own agenda. Some people hate PE, some people hate art, and I’ve got to upset somebody here! I’d go with losing RE, and I know I’ve got some brilliant Twitter followers who love RE. I’d blend it into PSHE, making it all about respecting diversity and people’s different religions.

That being said, I might be even more controversial and say to get rid of modern foreign languages (MFL). The languages we really need to learn are ones like Mandarin and Japanese... Without wanting to sound like a difficult Brit, as it were, you can go round most of the world and get by with speaking English. You don’t need to speak French or Spanish. The reason why I mention Mandarin and Japanese specifically is that I once spent six weeks in Japan and could not get away with speaking English - nobody speaks it over there. We spent the entire time pointing at things on menus, which led to some really interesting dishes! So, I would go with either RE or MFL.

No doubt that will get people talking! With all of this said, what do you, Chris Dyson, hope to achieve in the next year?

I just want the school to carry on growing and shining. One thing we didn’t do in October when we got our Outstanding grade was celebrate too hard and decide to rest on our laurels. We carried on doing exactly the same. I carry on with my walkarounds and my drop-ins. I took out lesson observations a lot time ago - you’d enter a classroom to find candles burning, soft music playing, thinking “This is normal…!” So we just have friendly drop-ins. For the next Ofsted inspection, it’s all down to the SLT. So far as I’m concerned, the troops we have doing such great work in the classrooms should just keep doing what they’re doing. We shouldn’t be keeping the school open until midnight, and we don’t need to go into panic mode.

It’s just about continuing what we’re doing. I came in this morning to find - toasted to perfection, mind you - a hot cross bun on my desk. I’ll sometimes come back at dinner time to find a sausage roll from Greggs or a happy meal on there, because the staff are happy. And if you’ve got happy staff, you’ve got children who will achieve.

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