Interview with: Jeniffer Sing, headteacher of The Academy of St Nicholas

The Academy of St Nicholas is a thriving school community in Liverpool, catering to over 850 students and growing. Headteacher Jeniffer Sing joined the Academy in 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Educate speaks to Jeniffer to find out more about her leadership journey so far.

Originally from Lancashire, Jeniffer studied English Language and Linguistics at university before embarking on teacher training. Starting as an English teacher, Jeniffer quickly got promoted and has held roles including head of 14-19, head of English, assistant headteacher and deputy headteacher before joining The Academy of St Nicholas in 2020.

“Being an English teacher, it’s such a critically important subject that you almost feel that you owe it to the children to give them the best quality of English and literacy,” explains Jeniffer. “That’s where my passion came, seeing the impact that you can have with so many young people. That’s what inspired me to get in to leadership too, because with literacy you can spread the impact of that over multiple cohorts.”

Starting your first headship role can be daunting. Starting your first headship role during a global pandemic is surely not ideal, but Jeniffer takes it all in her stride. “I joined at the start of the pandemic, but I had a really strong, positive handover with the previous headteacher and was working at St Nicholas for one day a week from Christmas, so that really helped and supported the transition,” Jeniffer explains.

But of course, there were challenges. Designated as requires improvement by Ofsted, Jeniffer was focused on moving quickly with school improvement. While the pandemic was demanding, Jeniffer reflects that it was a positive time for the Academy in many ways.

“The staff were wonderful. We recognised that we were a school that was designated as requires improvement so we wanted to use that time, as well as supporting the students and their families, to really make headway with our curriculums, protocols and systems for when the students returned.”

Under Jeniffer’s leadership, the academy got to work with making improvements, looking at the vision and ethos and redesigning leadership and curriculum structures. “We talked about what a successful school would look like in this part of Liverpool and what our children needed to help them to be successful citizens,” explains Jeniffer.

“We came up with a new vision which is that we are a community where everyone can flourish and thrive no matter their background, because we are a diverse school in terms of religion, ethnicity and lots of other ways, we are hugely diverse.”

As part of this process, staff reflected on their own school days and looked at what they wished they had been taught, outside of the compulsory subjects. From this, the academy’s ‘Curriculum for Life’ was born.

“The Curriculum for Life sits alongside the academic curriculum, it is a half an hour daily slot at the beginning of each day and it is mapped out really carefully to teach students through key themes,” Jeniffer explains. “Our tagline is that we are preparing students for the test of life, not for a life of tests.”

During these sessions, students learn life skills, take part in group reading, collective workshop and debates to provoke thought and dialogue. “We want students to not only have a good education but for them to be successful in society,” says Jeniffer. “All of our curriculums are designed around that vision. All of the conversations we have with our young people always come back to that – how can we unleash what is special about you so you can be a good citizen and contribute to the world that you live in.”

“We believe that it is unique to our academy, the children would not get this in other schools. It’s something that we continually review every year because each year group is different and has different needs, so we really tailor the Curriculum for Life for what our children may need,” she adds.

In March of this year, the academy’s efforts were recognised by Ofsted following a monitoring inspection visit. The main findings concluded that “the quality of education is improving” and “leaders and those responsible for governance are taking effective action toward the school becoming a good school.”

But Jeniffer is ambitious and relentless in her passion to continue making improvements.

“We are a community where everyone can flourish and thrive, so it’s making sure that we embed that vision in everything we do,” says Jeniffer. “That is my vision, that is my purpose for the school and the staff are very much on board with that. We are constantly reviewing what we are doing and evaluating to make sure that we can make ourselves even better.”

Jeniffer says the academy’s joint Catholic and Church of England faith supports this ambition and overall ethos of compassion, resilience and respect. “Whilst Christianity is about love, it’s also about unleashing the uniqueness of every child and tapping in to that,” explains Jeniffer.

“What that means is we will not settle for less, we will have the highest expectations for our students because we owe it to them to prepare them for life, and life is hard and tough. No matter what the challenges are that we face, we should have the same expectations as every high-performing establishment in the country. That is very much my vision and how we try to lead the school as a leadership team.”

Jeniffer and her team are looking forward to continuing the journey of school improvement and welcoming Ofsted back to see the fantastic things that are going on. The year ahead looks just as exciting for students, from travel abroad opportunities, building on an exciting careers programme, musical performances and extracurricular clubs. All those things that make the “soul of a school” says Jeniffer.

“There’s just something about children from Liverpool which is different,” Jeniffer explains. “They speak their minds, they’re ambitious, they don’t accept the norm, they want more, and they keep me on my toes. They ask me regularly how I am helping them, what I’m going to do next and how they can be involved. So that is something that I’ve not quite seen from children in other schools that I’ve worked at.”

This, alongside the relationships between staff and students makes the academy unique, says Jeniffer. “Staff know all of the students, they know their names, they know what makes them tick, what makes them not tick, and for me that is really powerful to see in our academy because you don’t get that in all schools.”

“It is something that we are really proud of because ultimately it is the relationships that you have with the young people that will create that ambition and that success. It is something we are really proud of and continue to develop year on year,” adds Jeniffer.

Society demands a lot from schools, from ensuring students develop academically to offering opportunities to develop personal and character skills for life beyond the classroom. Jeniffer seems to juggle these challenges with ease, and is working hard with the whole school team to make a lasting impact.

“There is no other job in the world as exciting and unexpected, every day is different. There is nothing more inspiring than working with young people and seeing the impact that you can have on them as people, but also on their education.”

“As a Lancashire girl, I wasn’t sure how I was going to be welcomed in to Liverpool, but the community has been really welcoming to me and we are very much a family here. I feel very much that I’m at home.”

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