James Kerfoot, headteacher Childwall Sports and Science Academy

When James Kerfoot joined Childwall Sports and Science Academy, he embarked on a journey to show how Childwall is changing. Five years later, he tells Educate how Childwall has changed through its learning without limits philosophy.

Push your limits

by Hannah Fowler

Growing up as a farmer’s son from North Wales, a career in teaching wasn’t on James Kerfoot’s radar, until an injury dashed his dreams of becoming a footballer.

“I was playing at a reasonable standard and then I damaged my knee quite badly,” he says. “I missed the chance to change from History to Law in university because I was having surgery, so due to my weak left knee I then drifted through, finished my degree and thought if I can’t play professional or even semi-professional football for very long, then I want to teach some P.E.”

After studying at Nottingham University, James applied for teacher training at Manchester Metropolitan and from there, his teaching career began. Although, James says all of this wouldn’t have been possible if his dad hadn’t sent him away to a boys’ grammar school. “I got an expectation culture that I wouldn’t have got from my local schools and I think that changed my entire life,” explains James.

It is this expectation culture which James has tried to instil at Childwall Sports and Science Academy. Before joining Childwall, James was head of history and politics at a comprehensive in Oldham and then assistant head at New Heys Comprehensive School (now known as The Academy of St Nicholas). After a couple of years as deputy, James took the reins at Childwall in September 2013.

Entering his fifth year, James is reflective on his time at Childwall and what the team has achieved to date. “(When I joined) I came out with this mantra of Childwall is changing to try and change the way the school was going to operate and to get a message out to the community that there was a new head with a slightly different vision,” explains James.

“So now I’m about looking at Childwall has changed, and what have been the impacts of what we’ve seen over the past four or five years.”

So how has Childwall changed? Passionate about leadership, one of James’ main tasks has been rebuilding the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) and creating school leaders across all levels. “We have made really large improvements and the last Ofsted report certainly talked about the leadership and management judgement being good,” says James. “It was strong because it’s not about me, it’s about the team, it’s about how the SLT are developing and growing.”

“The faculty leaders are the engine leaders of the school, they are stronger now and they are running their areas and showing their vision which is great,” he adds.

James likens the headteacher role to “football manager culture”, one bad season and you could be gone, he says. And with so many accountability measures, which should schools prioritise? For James, his priorities are clear.

“I’ve got three core aspects of my role, number one I have got to keep your child safe every day, number two I’ve got to make them enjoy school and love coming, and number three great exam results,” he says. “And I think they are in that order, and I’m not going to apologise, exam results come last. If you focus on the results culture you get quite a slow experience for children, it’s not a fun experience.”

So what Childwall did four years ago is reset the school vision, introduce a mission statement of ‘learning without limits’ and launch ASPIRE values (Aim high, Succeed together, Persevere, Inspire, Respect our school and Enjoy learning).

The faculty leaders are the engine leaders of the school, they are stronger now and they are running their areas and showing their vision which is great

“We really are focusing on putting the children in the middle of it all and not trying to be an Ofsted driven, outcome driven school but trying to focus on spiritual, moral, social and cultural development (SMSC),” says James.

“What we have seen over the last four years is there has been a nearly 5% improvement in our attendance in the whole school – which is massive. A 1% attendance improvement is huge, to go up 5% over four years is dramatic. We’ve seen our Progress 8 score hugely improve over the last two years, teaching and learning is stronger, attitudes to learning are stronger,” adds James.

Intake numbers are flourishing too, when James took over, his Year 7 cohort had just 80 children, now the school is full with 180 Year 7s and is projecting a waiting list for next year.

“What I’m hearing from parents which is really interesting is they are not choosing us based on Ofsted, they are not choosing us based on exam results, albeit they are better, they are choosing us based on the fact they think we can care for their child and for me that is brilliant,” James explains.

But there are still a number of challenges for James, with 850 children under his care, ensuring every child meets their potential is a priority. “How do you challenge every learner when you are a fully comprehensive school with children in a room who can’t read too well? How do you take their limits away?” he says. “How do you challenge those Russell Group aspirants who want to go to University? And it’s a personal passion of mine, how do you challenge those children who are high ability on entry but disadvantaged from home?”

While there are no easy answers to James’ questions, Childwall try to embed the ‘learning without limits’ mantra from day one. “In the first week of Year 7, we make every single Year 7 and their pastoral team walk up a mountain,” explains James. “We pass them the message that learning is hard, it is a challenge. So over the next few years if they are telling me that they can’t do their maths homework I say well you got up a mountain, so get on with it. No excuses.”

Five years down the line, James is still as passionate as ever and ready to face the challenges ahead. “The biggest learning curve for me has been to let go, trust your staff, trust your students, watch what is happening within the school and capture it and celebrate it,” he says.

“I have learnt absolutely loads but I have a lot more to learn.”

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