Partner spotlight: an interview with James Fornara

James Fornara, Principal at the alternative education provider Wac Arts College, talks to Khulisa's Directory of Delivery about school exclusions, alternative provision and his vision for the UK's education system...

Damian: What was your motivation to work in Alternative Provision rather than a mainstream school?

James: It was the experience of working in a therapeutic setting when I was doing supply teaching. I worked full time as a drama teacher for the first 6 years of my teaching career and also did a bit of supply teaching. I was sent one day to a school in Acton called the Pupil Parent Partnership. I had quite a lot of experience in mainstream settings but this school just blew my mind. The second I walked in I thought, “I like this.” It had a very different approach to the mainstream set-up, which over the course of my career has become much more traditional – a lot more authoritarian and focused on a narrow band of subjects. Alternative provision doesn’t have those constrictions – by the fact that it’s alternative, you’re doing something different from the mainstream.

Damian: What differentiates your role from a mainstream Head Teacher?

James: I don’t think there is a huge difference. My work is a little more targeted and focused due to the fact that I have less young people to deal with. Most secondary schools have 500 to 1500 kids. We’ve got 90, so I’m able to learn all of their names and those kinds of things. Fundamentally, it’s the same kind of role, I still have to be concerned with the budgets, the staff team, parents and carers, the experience of the young people and keeping them safe.

"There are hundreds of kids crashing out of mainstream settings because they’re not set up to meet their needs."

Damian: What are your views on mainstream education?

James: I think you can be sent down an assessment rabbit hole in mainstream education. Successive governments have made the mistake of thinking that if you assess it, put a number on it and track it, that will immediately drive up the quality of education. In a narrow sense, it has, but I think it’s also had massive unintended consequences. The narrowing of the curriculum, where arts subjects aren’t counted in the same way as maths or english, has had a very perverse effect on the breadth of curriculum offered in mainstream settings. I question the kind of thinking behind the obsession with results and league tables. Parents, carers and students are not customers in the business of education, they are participants in it and I think it’s very foolish and reductive to think that you can drive improvement in something as complicated and nuanced as education in the same way you might drive the improvement of a sports shop selling football boots. Frankly, I despair of mainstream education. Yes, you can point to an increased number of young people getting so called ‘good GCSE’s’ in so called ‘good subjects’, but I think the counterpoint to that is the explosion in mental health problems, which is in no small part driven by this enormous pressure young people are under to pass GCSE’s.

I think we’ve created a lot of perverse incentives within the system and have put enormous pressure on the students themselves, parents and carers and on senior leaders. I’ve sat in meetings with intelligent, well-meaning, dedicated Head Teachers who have described students as, and I quote, “a blip on their data dashboard.” They don’t really mean that, but that’s the position they have been forced into. There are hundreds of kids crashing out of mainstream settings because they’re not set up to meet their needs. If you don’t come from a relatively highly functioning, middle class (for want of a better expression) background, you will find it difficult to survive in mainstream, because of the pressures on you. A lot of what goes on now, especially in the later years of primary and secondary school, is just teaching to the test. I taught in a primary school around 10 years ago and the Head teacher, having seen my drama and music background, said to me, “I don’t need you to do anything else with them but English, Maths and Science to cram them for the SATs.” I just think that’s tragic and utterly short sighted.

"I’d like all schools to be like Eton... it’s no wonder the current crop of British actors are all old Etonians. Private schools know what’s worthwhile and prioritise it. Apparently, that’s not good enough for everybody else."

Damian: What would you say are the three biggest challenges you’re facing as a school and as a Head Teacher at the moment?

James: The number one is funding. The way post-16 education is funded is hugely problematic. The Department for Education doesn’t recognise the concept of Alternative Provision post 16 and this is a huge problem for us, as almost three quarters of our provision is post 16. All colleges and sixth forms will tell you that they’re struggling with funding. There are penalties if young people you enrol don’t complete their course. That’s something else that people have taken from the world of business and superimposed on educational settings. I’m not sure that you should be penalising teachers and institutions for students not passing accreditations when the reasons they are not passing accreditations are beyond the control of the school and college. We are very lucky with our staff team, but staffing is also an issue and I can think of a number of colleagues that we have lost purely because we can’t pay them enough. In a sense the answer to the biggest problems are all funding related – it’s money.

Damian: Are you aware of the review into school exclusions led by the Department for Education?

James: Yes – we’ve given evidence to it and I think it will find that there is a real problem with exclusions from mainstream settings. I’m conscious that I can talk myself out of a job here, because if there weren’t exclusions my college wouldn’t be full. Nevertheless, we need to think again about how schools are organised, how it affects young people who don’t necessarily have a good family background and set-up. I think we have a very strange way of thinking about education in this country – this notion of what is academic and what isn’t. We seem to have got obsessed with subjects like English and Maths and Science being regarded as academic and everything else being non-academic. I think that we need to radically rethink that approach, because it is not preparing young people for the world that they are going into. I think that is what is causing the massive surge in exclusions, as are all of the league tables, all of the obsessions with performance and attainment data. We’re now reduced to thinking of young people as purely statistics for the school. Is that going to look good on the league tables or not and deal with them on that basis. I’m a big believer in alternative provision, though I suppose it would be better if we had a mainstream settings that didn’t require pupils being chucked out of it.

Damian: What is your vision for the education system in the UK?

James: I think we need to get back to allowing schools in local areas to work together collaboratively. I think it was a huge mistake to get rid of local education authorities. I think if people wanted to improve quality and felt that local education authorities were a barrier to that, they threw the baby out with the bath water. The academies and free schools programme is predicated on the idea of giving schools freedom, but it’s now created lots of autonomy without central control, The Department for Education has now created regional schools commissioners to fill in the kind of bureaucratic control they had when they had local education authorities – they’ve just replaced one set of bureaucracy with another, having lost a huge amount of expertise in the process. I think we should go back to schools working collaboratively in local areas. I would follow the Nordic model where the kids don’t start school until age 7 and there are no nationally standardised assessments until 18. I would abolish league tables and this one is really good… I’d nationalise all private schools. I’d like all schools to be like Eton. Eton employ their own seamstress! It’s no wonder the current crop of British actors are all old Etonians. Private schools know what’s worthwhile and prioritise it. Apparently, that’s not good enough for everybody else.

Damian: Finally, what could the Department for Education do to benefit the young people at Wac Arts College?

James: Recognise the concept of alternative provision post-16. Do away with the type of qualifications on offer. And I’d do away with all of those ridiculous subject delineations and fund all qualifications at an equal level.

We’d like to say a big thank you to James for taking the time to chat to us and share his views. If you’d like to find out more about Wac Arts College, you can visit their website or email info@wacartscollege.co.uk

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