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.

Kentish Gazette Canterbury & District - - Front Page -

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

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