Maverick Principal David Perks on educating the kids
David Perks is a maverick. The principal of the East London Science School founded it to deliver a rigorous education to its students whatever their background or ability, designed to equip them for life at the top echelons of society, be that in the towers of Canary Wharf, treating patients on the operating table or collecting Nobel Prizes.
An Oxford graduate with a 25-year career teaching physics, he’s not short on ambition for the children entrusted to him or on passion for a curriculum with a clear focus on maths and the three sciences.
We meet at the Lower School, currently based in The Clock Mill at Bromley-By-Bow’s Three Mills Island, but before the interview begins head girl Beatrice Banyte and head prefect Nicole Zieleniecka, both 14, are asked to have a chat with me.
Both are articulate and acquit themselves admirably. Following our conversation, David returns.
“The reason I asked Beatrice and Nicole to talk with you was that I trust you can find what we’re trying to do here from the kids as well as from me,” he said. “They’re both in set two. “The way we operate is that when kids come to us in Year Seven, we’re very quick to get the ability range in English and maths and their reading age. Then we try and set them by ability by form group – we call it banding.
“They then follow their lessons in that group for the first two years.
“The point is we test them a lot and, if they improve, we move their teaching group every half term.
“We write our own tests – they have about 12 subjects and they will do 12 tests every half term.
“We test from six weeks in at Year Seven level and the reason is we want to know how well they’re doing, regularly and quickly, so if there is a problem we can pick it up.
“There’s no hiding. Every lesson counts. If you don’t do that lesson, you know it’s going to be tested so you’re going to have to do something about it.
“That works from both the child’s and the teacher’s point of view.”
Students are ranked publicly in their year for each subject and results are sent to parents every half term.
David said it was an approach designed to counter the “wasted years” of Key Stage Three where, in his view, limited progress was achieved between Years Seven and Nine.
“We’re asking our pupils to do a lot – it’s a very academic curriculum for every child, not just for the top, because we believe even if a child has not succeeded in primary school we’ve got enough time to change that around,” he said.
“They just have to know that if you work hard you get it.
“They know where they are in comparison to other students.
“In truth, it’s something they’re not really aware of, but when doing an examination they’re in competition with their peer group.
“If they’re competing with each other and they know they are, then the whole thing works.
“People ask: ‘Don’t they get upset if they’re at the bottom?’
“Well, not if they can go forward. It’s constant progression from October in Year Seven. There’s no mistake about it. You can’t pretend. We are brutally honest.
“As a result, if they are facing a problem, we know. The parents know, the kid knows.”
The prospect of improvement is what drives David and his staff.
He’s adamant the East London Science School will not give up on its charges and that it’s relentless in its positivity.
“Our teachers are trained to take every child with them,” said David.
“Educationally that means a particular thing.
“A lot of what happens in education is we make assumptions that some children can’t do things. This is what’s really different about us.
“We take every child and say: ‘It doesn’t matter what your ability or background is when you enter, you’re still doing it’.
“The professionalism of our staff is based on the fact they look at the child in front of them and try and unblock whatever is stopping them going forward. “Even if they’re in the bottom set. “I could take you to our bottom set in Year Seven. They’ve only been here a couple of months and we know them back to front because of what we do. That’s not because they’re badly behaved, it’s because we’re pushing them and finding out what’s not working in lots of different ways, but never saying no.
“We never say: ‘You can’t’, we always say: ‘You can’. “They ask: ‘What do I do?’ Work harder. It sounds like an onerous thing to have to deal with but actually that’s life.
“If you don’t face it, sooner or later it’s going to turn round and get you. That’s what’s waiting for them.”
It’s tough talking and a tough approach, but that’s intentional.
However, there are more dimensions to the school than the purity of academic achievement in maths, chemistry, biology and physics.
Unusually for a state school it teaches classics (including Latin) and philosophy alongside the more technical subjects of computer science and electronics.
And beyond the slew of subjects available, there’s its enrichment programme.
“Our aspirations for what we’re doing with the kids are absolutely clear,” said David, 56.
“We’re trying to create engineers, scientists and medics of the future.
“That’s our goal. When we’ve done that we can say we’ve achieved it.
“Because we set out from day one to do that, we take all the barriers out of the way and drive at it.
“If you give us your child we’ll find out if we can do that with them.
“And they will get a brilliant experience from us because of all the other stuff we do.
“We’re not just about the academic although that is absolutely core and we will not water it down.
“We’re keen to give them the broadest possible set of experiences to go along with it.
“We know a lot of people who live locally won’t have the cultural capital you would have if you went to an independent school and paid for it. So we give it to them for nothing, mostly. We take them on as many trips as we can to open their eyes. In Years Seven and Eight they get at least 30 a year.
“There is nowhere else that does it and that’s the standard bit. The bits we do on top of that include entering all of Year Nine for the Duke Of Edinburgh Bronze Award.
“Then we look at taking them out of London.
“In May we shut the curriculum down for two weeks for enrichment fortnight.
“We take them to Oxford, Cambridge – they all go whatever set they’re in because you don’t know who’s going to switch on. We’re always saying look up, look at what you could do.
“As a physicist I’m obsessed with physics and flight so they go to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, wherever we can reach.
“That allows you, as a teacher, to tell a story constantly.
“When it’s the normal enrichment thing, we do a series of art trips to all the great galleries in London.
“One of my favourites from the first year was taking the bottom set in Year Seven to the Wallace Collection and having one of the curators explain it to them sat round it. That’s how you do art. We’re bringing it to life by making them see it and how it works.
“Then we’re at New Scientist Live at Excel – it’s giving them opportunities constantly.
It’s really two things – a core of rigorous academic education aimed at getting them to a top university from day one, and the broadest possible cultural experience that allows them to grow as individuals and to do things they didn’t even know you can do. “It’s the education I wish I’d had.” Having opened the school in 2013 and with its first GCSE results published in 2018, David is proud of its achievements. And with transfer to a purpose-built facility expected in 2021 at Stephenson Street near West Ham, the future for the school looks bright.
“I think I’m proud of the fact there’s not a child in this school we haven’t educated and put a lot of knowledge in,” he said.
“We really have pushed them and have given them that. When they work it out in later life they might come and thank us for it.
“I definitely see myself as an educational maverick.
“I’m not taking the easy route. I don’t want to, or see the point.
“I’m not doing it as just a job. I’m trying to find out what we can do and how far we can get.
“I’m happy with where we are now but I think there’s a lot further we can go.
“The end of that journey looks like a Nobel prize-winner coming back to see me and saying: ‘Thank you’.
“That’s no joke, when I set up the school the one I looked at as an idea was The Science School in the Bronx, and it has more Nobel prizes than any other. “It can be done. “I’m also proud of the fact we create teachers, really good ones.
“If a teacher comes here and works with us for two years they’re a completely different person afterwards and they can go anywhere and teach. We impart the expectation thing and say: ‘Look at the kid in front of you’.
“The moment of teaching is very short – it’s when you look them in the eyes and they get it and you know you’ve moved them.
“When you learn how to do that, that’s the craft of teaching. It makes it massively worthwhile.
“When you can do that, you’re addicted and you can’t stop. Optimism, that’s the thing.” For more information go to eastlondonscienceschool.co.uk for more information
I’m happy with where we are now but I think there’s a lot further we can go. The end of the journey looks like a Nobel prizewinner coming back to me and saying ‘thank you’ David Perks, East London Science School
The East London Science School opened in 2013 and will move to a purpose-built facility in Stephenson Street near West Ham, hopefully in 2021