Departure of head who helped transform school
As Canterbury High principal Phil Karnavas bows out after 27 years at its helm, he looks back on a remarkable transformation that has seen it become a leading light in educational creativity.
When Phil Karnavas took the reins at Canterbury High in 1990, it was two years off being shamed on the front of the Daily Express as one the worst performing schools in the country.
By his own admission, its reputation was dire. Its accommodation was “truly awful”, staffing was “generally poor” and “no child had even thought it possible to go to university, let alone actually apply”.
“The level of aspiration and expectation was so low that a limbo dancer could not have got under it,” Mr Karnavas said, in the straight-talking manner with which he has become synonymous. “It faced the genuine threat of closure.”
The school’s infamous day in the national headlines arrived in 1992, when just 4% of its pupils achieved five GCSES at grade C or above. It was ranked the 19th worst school in England.
But the tide soon turned under the leadership of Mr Karnavas.
“The journey began,” he said. “Results improved. Expectations improved. Buildings improved. The school’s reputation improved.” By any standards, the transformation over the past two decades has been nothing short of remarkable.
The school is now ensconced within the Canterbury Academy – a multi-academy trust which has an annual turnover of almost £14 million, employs close to 300 people and is responsible for 2,000 children.
It has the largest non-selective sixth-form in Kent – with a record 150 pupils this year applying to university – and sports facilities to rival any other. Mr Karnavas says its performing arts provision “is second to none in the area and based upon that which is found in the best stage schools of London”.
With its vision of “cradle to grave” education, the academy has a nursery rated “good” by Ofsted, newly built primary school rated as “good with outstanding features”, and its own Ofsted rating of “good with many, many outstanding features”.
The latest report, published last month, was a shining endorsement of the ethos Mr Karnavas has instilled at the school – one focusing on the pupils and their development instead of exam table positions. He said: “It is children that matter, not league tables or the performance-related pay rises for executive head teachers or chief executive officers.
“Individual children are more important than manipulated statistics and dubious comparisons with national averages.
“For children who have academic gifts then these should obviously be celebrated, but not all children are inclined to scholastic excellence and that does not make them second-class students, because they will be good at something else.
“They have other gifts, talents, aptitudes, skills and abilities. There is too much snobbery in education, especially in Kent with its selective system, which is actually a segregation system, and too many educational leaders look down their nose at vocational qualifications – until, of course, they need a plumber.”
Mr Karnavas claims the current education model encourages schools to focus on some children at the expense of others.
“There are no two ways about it,” he says. “The curriculum has been narrowed, students who are vulnerable have suffered and examination results at 16 for some have become more important than education for all.
“Under this model, Kent’s grammar schools must be a success because their results will always be impressive. They select those children aged 10/11 who are most likely to do well in examinations, and when these children take examinations at age 16 they do well. These children, despite all the twaddle about social mobility, still, and will always, generally come from the more affluent families.
“Why is that a surprise to anyone? Repeatedly parroting the mantra that grammar schools increase social mobility doesn’t make it true – this is, I’m afraid, ‘fake news’.”
Asked how he will look back on his time at the school, Mr Karnavas is clearly a proud man, but refreshingly frustrated at missed opportunities to improve the school further. He said: “I am sorry that I could not have done more and that I did not know when I started what I know now.
“Had that been the case I would, I think, have been quite good. I am sorry for all the things I said that I should not have said and for those that I didn’t say that I should have.
“What I’ll miss the most are the simple things. The children who say ‘good morning’ and ask whether I remember their dad.
“I never really set out to be head. In fact, I consider myself quite fortunate to have got away with it for so long.
“My one overriding memory will be of the children’s energy, their willingness to try, their positive nature, their growing sense of self-belief, their successes, their sense of humour, their openness and their unpretentiousness.
“They are the reason for this remarkable journey and a remarkable success story.”
That success is now documented clearly in black and white by the government watchdog Mr Karnavas has often been at loggerheads with.
But it’s not the “good” rating that he will look back fondly upon in retirement, bringing the curtain down on a 40-year teaching career, but the parting words of the inspectors who produced the report: “At the end of the Ofsted debrief this year, we asked the team to give us a verbal opinion of what they thought of us, since they were all experienced educationalists.
“They asked, ‘as a school?’ and we responded, ‘no, more as a concept or a vision’. The answer will stay with me forever: ‘Remarkable really, we have never seen anything quite like it’.”
‘My one overriding memory will be of the children’s energy, their willingness to try’
Canterbury High principal Phil Karnavas
Phil Karnavas in his earlier years