Mav­er­ick Prin­ci­pal David Perks on ed­u­cat­ing the kids

The Wharf - - CANARY WHARF - Jon Massey

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 east­lon­don­ 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

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