Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Interview #2: Mr. David Brunton

May 19th, 2010 · No Comments

Interview with David Brunton, headteacher of City Academy Norwich

Soon after my interview with Dr. Leaton Gray, I scheduled an interview with Mr. David Brunton, headteacher at City Academy Norwich. Before I go into the details of the interview and other observations I made, I felt it necessary to give some background on the “city academy” program (now commonly referred to “academies”).

In 2000, the New Labour government continued seek out ways to fulfil its initial campaign focus on “Education, education, education” by announcing the city academy program. The program seemed to imitate in many ways preceding programs to encourage the private sector (i.e. private companies, businesses) to invest in state education. According to David Blunkett, the Education Secretary at the time, the program was “a radical approach to promote greater diversity and break the cycle of failing schools in inner cities,” [Francis Becket, The Great City Academy Fraud (London: Continuum, 2007), 10] Each school (deemed failing or in “special measures” by Ofsted, the national school assessment organization) would be taken over and/or merged with a sponsor. This sponsor would be required to put forward two million pounds in capital invested in the academy and the government would fund the rest of the school (These public costs were expected to be about ten million pounds, but it often went well beyond this amount. Meanwhile, the private sector was only required to invest two million pounds – no more.). These sponsors could control many, if not all, aspects of the school including the hire of teachers, admission of students, use of the buildings/campus, and design of the curriculum.

Given the heated controversy of academies (mainly the issue taken with the heavy reliance of public funds in the privately-controlled institutions), I went into the interview with Mr. Brunton seeking to gain some perspective on how academies can positively rejuvenate and improve state education, for I hardly expected him to criticize academies as the headteacher of one.

First, some observations I noted while sitting in the lobby and in an assembly Mr. Brunton held with students (The assembly interrupted our meeting, but it actually helped a great deal). Coming from a public high school, I did not expect the lobby to feel like an office. Some large print on the wall (a quote from Mr. Brunton) read “We will always work with you to achieve the best outcome for your child in every situation. This is the key driving force behind all of our work.” On another door a sign stated “Ties and Blazers on beyond this point.” I also found it odd that two representatives from Tropicana walked in for their appointment with another administrator a few minutes after I sat down in the lobby (I am sure state schools do meet with private companies for contracts – e.g. a Pepsi vending machine – but it came across as less like a school and, again, more like an office).

This was especially evident in the assembly held in the middle of our meeting. Seated in the back of the auditorium, I saw Mr. Brunton and several other administrators ask students to submit through hand-held keypads answers to questions ranging from “Would you use the canteen if different food was offered?” to “Do you feel safe at school?” to “Should there be a ‘Rewards Room’ to contrast the ‘Discipline Room’?” These questions, among others, were clearly meant to evaluate the status of the Academy in its first few months in existence. On the other hand, another perspective could see the assembly as a meeting among employees who are asked to evaluate their level of satisfaction with the company.

My interview with Mr. Brunton began with a history of the City Academy and its recent transition from Earlham High School in August 2009. The traumatic four years prior to August 2009 set Earlham HS down the route to an evaluation of “Special Measures,” or failing. One of the main questions we focused on addressed the motivations for private companies to sponsor an academy. Sponsoring an academy “tick boxes for” organizations by presenting tax breaks and a way to increase their presence in the local community. (I would also later learn that sponsors often gain an actual profit from sponsoring academies after renting out parts of the building when school is not in session.)

City Academy Norwich has improved, in the few months prior to my interview, many of the ills that once plagued Earlham HS. Besides generally offering a “fresh start” and a “clean slate” to the same student population, the Academy saw the following changes:

Ø    Attendance:  5% increase

Ø    Disciplined Students: Great decreases in all stages of discipline used

Ø    Students estimate to pass GCSE: was 19%, now 38%

Ø    Teacher days lost: was 598 days, now 61 days

Certainly these are marked improvements, but Mr. Brunton appreciates that there is much work to be done.

When asked about whether the privatization and the city academy is the only solution to the issues facing state education (e.g. inequality in admissions, parental discontent, relevant curriculum, effective management, etc.), Mr. Brunton rightly stated that something had to change. One of the most difficult things for some to accept is the concept of “change” and its many different forms. So far, the City Academy was doing its best to change the school to fit the needs of its students.

The controversy surrounding the city academy program seemed muted to some extent against the relative gains made by the new administration and programs instituted by the City Academy and Mr. Brunton. It will most likely take some time before their true impact takes form, but I would say they are off to a generally positive start.

Tags: Brandon