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Jon Jones, head of Bristol Brunel Academy

Strength in numbers

Editor Stephanie Broad meets Jon Jones, head of thriving Bristol Brunel Academy

Posted by Stephanie Broad | February 04, 2016 | School life

When I arrive at Bristol Brunel, Principal Jon Jones is busy talking to a pupil. Right from the start, I get the impression that Jon is a hands-on Principal, as he greets students by name and informally drops in on lessons. The impressive building houses over 200 pupils in each year group, and has been oversubscribed for two years now. But this hasn’t always been the case.

Jon starts by telling me about how Bristol Brunel came to be. “We’re a PFI build, and we opened in 2007,” he says. “We took over from the predecessor school, Speedwell Technology College. It was a failing school in many ways – the roll was dropping rapidly, there were a number of problems around attainment of students, and it was the worst-performing school in the city – one of the worst-performing in the country.

“About 14% achieved 5 A–C grades in English and maths, which meant it was in real dire straits.

So it became an academy and opened as Bristol Brunel Academy, originally as a ‘soft federation’ with John Cabot Academy, which is an ‘Outstanding’ school, and then over time the federation grew. We joined with Bristol Metropolitan and grew into the 14 schools that now make up the Cabot Learning Federation.”

Jon says that the building has had a huge impact on improvement: “There’s a combination of things that supported the school in growing and improving – one was a new build, which had a big impact. It’s an amazing place to be for our youngsters, in terms of them feeling valued in their education when they walk into a building like this every day.”

Having the support network of a federation of schools has enabled the academy to grow, and Jon has big ambitions for its future. He continues: “I know that, a phone call away, I have a range of principals who can work with me to support our young people and stay ahead of national changes that are happening. From the academy’s perspective now, we went on a fairly steep trajectory of improvement to get us to ‘Good’, and I think we need to be on the same trajectory now to get to ‘Outstanding’ – we aim to be there within the next two to three years. There aren’t many schools who share our context that achieve the Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ status, and that is something we aspire to do.

We spend a lot of time looking at ‘Outstanding’ schools and learning from where they’re having real success for students in a challenging cohort.”

BBA achieved ‘Good’ in Ofsted in 2013, the first time a school on the site had achieved that rating. But more important for Jon is the popularity of the academy.

“When we look back at 2007 where there were 75 students enrolled in year seven, to where we are now where we are over capacity and having appeals for students wanting to join the academy, it’s a lovely moment,” he says. “It means the reputation of the academy is growing, the playground talk in the local primary schools is positive, the reputation of the academy is strong, and the students are choosing to come to us. To measure our success, there are a few key things – our roll, our outcomes for students, and attendance – all those things are improving at the moment. We’re not there yet – there’s always more work to do – but we’re getting to where we need to be.”

“We’ve got some more plans for this building. One of our biggest challenges now is how we maximise the use of space in the building. With it being a PFI build that’s very expensive to do, to make changes after the build has been completed, but actually what we’re finding is that the building is bursting at the seams. We have more classes than we’ve ever had before and that poses some challenges for us. That’s a wonderful place to be.”

Being one of the biggest schools in Bristol has benefits, too. “It means that we have a full-time careers advisor, a full-time attendance officer, they focus on one role around the academy, but that comes with some challenges as well,” he says.

“We try to focus on every student as an individual, getting to know them all really well, their home circumstances, how they learn best and other important things. That can be tough with 216 students in a year group, but we have the staff to manage it.”

We come across a wall covered in small plaques at the school’s entrance. This is BBA’s Wall of Wishes. “It’s one of the things we’re known for,” says Jon. “When students moved across from the predecessor school into the new building, these were the wishes and dreams they had for their futures. I use these regularly in my assemblies, and in end of year celebrations, to keep them dreaming for their futures and raise their aspirations.”

There’s no doubting that the students’ wishes are front of mind, as every student enters the building through the same door. Jon continues: “In the morning we have everyone coming in through one door, we have all of the year teams down here to meet and greet students, to check their uniform, look them in the eye and see how they are. This is really important. If they’ve had a bad day, or are having a difficult time at home, they get opportunities to connect with someone as soon as they arrive in the academy who is there to support them, which has been really important. It sets the day up really well.”

Jon's leadership style is collaborative and direct.

“We spend a great deal of time being around and getting into lessons. There’s a real trust with teachers and we’re really fortunate that colleagues around the academy understand that to improve teaching you need to be in and out of lessons, and giving feedback to one another,” he says. “Our curriculum teams collaborate to share ideas and best practice, which is really positive.

“In term one, I spent time every day going into lessons. I just walked through, so it’s not a formal observation, it’s just to experience where really good practice is happening and where pupils are learning really effectively, then being able to go back to colleagues and provide general feedback on where the bright spots are happening that we can grow and continue to develop, as well as recognising where things need to be developed further. There have been some real benefits of our lesson drop-in model, it has supported us to identify where great teaching and learning will deliver the best outcomes for our students.”

Jon has been on a steep career trajectory, having moved up within the ranks of Cabot Learning Federation. “Having worked alongside inspirational leaders, like Steve Taylor [the current CEO of the federation] and Sir David Carter, who supported me with leadership development and gave me some really honest feedback, it makes me really proud to have gone from NQT to Principal within the same organisation. It’s a wonderful moment, I suppose, to look back on that and feel that you’ve grown through an organisation and the support they have offered me to grow and develop along the way.”

So, what’s the best thing about being a headteacher?

“Every day is very different,” Jon concludes. “I have lots of contact with students. Occasionally that’s about positive things, but more often than not I’m picking up something that maybe shouldn’t have happened. For me it’s working with students and outstanding teaching professionals. If we are to get the academy to ‘Outstanding’ we have to have strength in every aspect of what we do, so I think it’s the people I work with every day. The building’s lovely but it’s the people you work with every day that make it for me. It’s the hardest job in the world, but the best job in the world, all wrapped up into one.”

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