Mark Siswick, Executive Headteacher of Chesterton Primary School, in south London, and co-founder of the Wandle Learning Trust, was honoured for services to education in the New Year’s Honours list by being awarded an MBE. The Northern Echo writes: “During the pandemic, he helped to create a national home learning programme, filming more than 100 lessons in phonics and reading to try to stop youngsters from falling behind.”
His founding of the Wandle Learning Trust was to him one of his most exciting achievements, and it’s one for which he deserves national recognition. About a decade ago, he and his colleagues worked in partnership with a local secondary school, Chestnut Grove Academy. He exclaims that together they have done some great pieces of work. Chestnut Grove became an academy around 2012, and the two schools formed a trust in 2017. The foundations of which were their strong partnership.
He explains: “We had been working together before, but this created a formal partnership. The teaching school, the English and Maths hub are accredited to us because of the high performing schools we work with. This created a strong foundation on which to build Wandle Learning Trust. The Trust’s belief is that all children have the right to the best education, and we work tirelessly to achieve that.”
Siswick thinks his MBE probably came from the Department of Education: “I have run teaching schools, a Maths hub, an English Hub etc. Because of the strong outcomes that come from Chesterton Primary School, particularly around early reading, we’re providing really strong phonics teaching. There has been recognition for that piece of work. I have been a national leader for 10 years, supporting schools that have challenges. I can give them direction and support to meet their challenges. There is not a one-size-fits-all model, but I can help them to achieve their goals successfully.”
Mr. Siswick says he was inspired by his upbringing, his own education and lifestyle. As a child, he grew up in the Pennines. At primary school, he was taught between the ages of 6 and 11 by two teachers who covered multiple year groups. This made his teachers almost part of his family, with lots of outdoor learning through the environment. Unlike most 7-year-olds, with this connection with his teachers, he knew his adult vocation: he decided to become a teacher.
At university, he later went on to realise the educational experience by doing a music and education degree at the teacher training college of Bishops Groosseteste University, a specialist education college for students to become teachers. So, from the age of 18 he taught in schools, and from this point on he says he discovered which types of schools and communities he wanted to work with. They involved diverse communities, those that are underperforming. He knew he could do something about that, and he wanted to give children within these communities a chance in life.
He explains: “I have worked in very challenging schools, with English as a second language, high needs children, and with families with deprived backgrounds. They all need a strong, broad and balanced education, and the schools I have supported have been within those environments.”
In essence, he is working hard to tackle the gaps that exist nationally between different families and different backgrounds. “There is a national push to move the lower performing families closer to the higher performing ones – looking at why there is such a wide gap between the better off and poorer families, ensuring that everyone gets the right opportunities to succeed”, he reveals.
Teachers: pillars of community
In his opinion, how important is it for teachers and headteachers to be role models for other teachers, including those wanting to come into the teaching profession? He responds by suggesting that teachers as educators are pillars of the community. They set examples as learners in their own right. While they may be teaching, they are also constantly learning.
It’s about being smart, too. If a school expects children to wear a school uniform, they also need to set an example in how they dress. They also have to come to school ready to teach and to learn because children expect their teachers to follow the same standards they’re required to comply with. “If you set the standards of the children, the children expect the same of the teaching staff – setting examples of behaviour. If you expect children to behave in a certain way, your teaching staff should do too”, he explains.
Excited and proud
With schools closed for a second time in a year, except for key worker children, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, he comments: “I think everyone’s very busy at the moment, and teachers are working superbly hard. I am immensely proud. You kind of think they have their day-to-day job, and they are going even further. They are excited to work, proud of what they have put together to build bigger platforms. There are some great pieces of work out there. I have been overwhelmed by how much positivity there has been, and that’s heart-warming at a time when teachers are remarkably busy. Teams within our schools feel immensely proud about it, and it’s been very kind of them.”
It’s therefore poignant to ask him: “To what extent has the trust helped children who were unable to attend school, and how many children has he and his colleagues helped to stop children falling behind?” He replies by explaining that the schools operate using a Trust-wide approach, and that the Wandle Learning Trust currently consists of just 4 schools.
He adds: “There has been lots of media coverage about children not having access to devices. So, we have done some significant fundraising to buy laptops, as almost one in three of our pupils within the Trust qualify for Pupil Premium. From the first lockdown, our Heads of school have worked closely together to provide practical and moral support to each other around all their various challenges. That combined experience has been absolutely vital and has allowed us all to innovate and bounce ideas off each other.”
“The Letters and Sounds videos that we launched in April 2020 have been invaluable for our own pupils, and they have also been used by schools nationwide. To date we’ve had more than 5m views of our videos, and close to 50,000 families have subscribed to our Letters and Sounds for Home and School YouTube channel. The feedback from teacher colleagues across the country has been very gratifying. As a Trust we have access to a wide range of professionals within the organisation which allows us to adapt and provide resources and support at a really accelerated pace.”
Using online learning
So, what advice did he have for the primary schools that are currently closed – particularly from the perspective of using online learning for pupils aged 4–11 years old? There are now vast amounts of material, to which the school have access. He advises schools to make use of the strong resources they have put together. It is also vital to maintain strong relationships and close contact with parents and their children by keeping the conversation going.
He added: “Schools are closed, but they are not really closed. We have more than 50 students in our schools. So, while we don’t have all of our children in school, we are just operating differently with in-school learning and home-learning. We try to be very realistic in what we set for children – about what can happen at home. It has been a real learning curve for us all – as a nation, not just as teachers. Meetings by Teams and Zoom are likely to continue a long time after lockdown.”
Future plans: to grow
In conclusion, he talks about the future plans of Chesterton Primary School and of the Wandle Learning Trust, revealing there is still much to do. On his task list is to get children back to school and on track: “We have plans about what they will need to do once they return. It’s essential that our children a prepared for adult life. The focus and ambition on making sure children receive the best education is still our priority.”
Despite the ongoing challenges that began in 2020, and being in the midst of a pandemic, he says it’s been a big year for Trust developments. For starters, the Trust’s “Paxton Academy moved into a brand new purpose-built school, and we recruited our first Headteacher to lead Paxton, and later in the year Ravenstone Primary joined the Wandle Learning Trust.”
Now, throughout 2021 and beyond, the aim is to continue to grow by welcoming like-minded schools. They must have the impetus and dedication to work collaboratively to achieve the best outcomes for children in order to join the Trust.