Exploring Career Development with Peter Groves

Our People & Culture Back

This week, we speak to Peter Groves, Principal of Harris Boys’ East Dulwich Academy. Recently making the top 20 schools in the UK Fairer Secondary League Table, Harris Boys’ East Dulwich Academy has had a tremendous upward trajectory since opening in 2009. Receiving its Outstanding judgement from Ofsted in 2012, the academy has been in the top 2% schools nationally and have carried forward a vision towards transforming learning for the community it serves.

Tell us about your journey with Harris?

In 2009, I joined Harris Boys Academy as an Assistant Principal, so I have been at East Dulwich Boys’ for 10 years. After working as Assistant Principal on different areas of the school, I was then promoted to Vice principal and allowing me explore the two sides of the vice principal role: the curriculum, teaching and learning side and the pastoral and safeguarding side. I was then lucky enough to be Head of Academy, and then made Principal. Reflecting back, it has been a great journey, during which I received support and training throughout my career development.

What does working for the Federation mean to you?

As a head teacher, what it means is that I am able to do whatever’s best for the context of the school and the cohort that I have. Harris Academy East Dulwich is an all-boys academy in Central London, some of the other academies are in very different circumstances so it’s important in my role as Principal to decide on the way the academy is going to run. We maintain autonomy but we have the strong supportive presence of the Federation. In strength of numbers and in expertise, the Federation provides ample support. Where there is demonstratable good practice, we can learn from that, where there are central resources, we gain from that, where there are resources such as HR, IT or resources within the consultancy team, who are experts in their subject areas, we can gleam a lot from that.

We get the best of both, an adaptive school which can flex to its intake and the areas that it serves and the staff that it has as well as the Federation backbone to call upon encompassing all the services of the Central Team. Within this, we have access to subject specialists and career experts and who by being a part of a MAT of 48 academies, are industry leaders. As industry leaders, they are essentially top of the sector, and in working with various different education and research bodies, they make sure we are at the cutting edge of what is exceptional teaching and learning.  

How can we see your vision as Principal for Harris Boys’ Academy East Dulwich?

I think it’s an interesting thing – There are mottos and vision statements for schools. There’s a lot you can take from this. We have our own vision, but it is better demonstratable in person. You’d see it in the embodiment of what we do and you see it in how the students speak to staff and how staff speak to students.

It’s based on this idea of respect – respect for yourself and respect for each other and from that comes the idea that by respecting yourself means to get a great education because a great education will unlock your potential and your future. The academy is very much geared towards the idea of giving the children, students and young adults that come here the very best chance in life by being able to leave the school as what we call, an active citizen. An active citizen is someone who has attained their academic credentials, they’ve got what they need to go on to their next step – be it on an apprenticeship, university or the world of work. The other part of this is to ensure students leave here as people who contribute positively to their community. It’s this perpetual idea that by working together to shape active citizens that we will therefore impact the community and allow people to succeed and prosper in fulfilling lives.

The other part of that is what we envision and carry out for our staff. It is important that my team is made of people who are open to change. Being reflective practitioners means no one here is a finished article, there’s no one here who is perfect. But everyone here is open to the idea that they can improve, and we focus on building and maintaining a supportive, safe space to facilitate this.

We are very lucky to have an amazing staff team who work together, and what you get from this is an inertia of this body of professionals who are striving to be the very best they can be. It is down to these two points – staff who are on board, who want to change futures and want to be better at what they do, and students who buy into this idea of ‘I’m at school because I can make myself a better person and I can flourish in life.’ When you have these two points together, which is what we have worked very hard to obtain, then you can make wonderful things happen. And that’s shown through our outcomes and is also shown through if you’ve ever had a chance to speak to the boys and the parents of this school community.

What would you say to a prospective applicant looking to join Harris Academy Boys East Dulwich? What can they expect when joining?

First thing they’ve got to expect is that they’re going to be challenged to want to do their profession. I see the teaching profession in two parts – the first part is the passion behind wanting to work with children; children are wonderful sources of inspiration and light and you can have an amazing influence on people’s lives and it’s the most rewarding occupation. However, you must also have to have passion in your subject area – as a teacher, it is through how you convey your passion and interest that will influence and stick with your students.

So, what I look for at interview stage are those two points: People want to work with children and they understand what that means and people who are proactive about their level of knowledge and understanding. If you are a geographer for example, I would like to think you are being proactive about your subject knowledge, attending exhibitions, reading journals because that’s going to inspire people in the classroom. That’s the starting point – but we are definitely not expecting finished articles and we’re not expecting people who are going to come in and be able to do the job straight away because it is a difficult.

You have to have resilience, you’ve got to have backbone, you’re going to have days that don’t go well, you’re going to have days which go amazingly. And it’s the ability to reflect, learn and come back and try new methods and improve. People who put that in flourish. 63% of our staff train with us now so we’ve got a body of staff here who have trained with us and work with us and really get what we’re trying to do. What’s great about that is anyone who does come in has a model to follow, who’s been in their shoes so it’s a great place to learn your craft.

We want people that work with us who are going to flourish and benefit with us. We are committed to not only just shaping student futures, we are shaping staff’s futures. Ideally, I would like teachers to become the very best teachers they can be and then if they want to, the very best Subject Leader or Strand Leader they can become. We want people to develop with and we want people who are ambitious for their students and for themselves. We have a thriving learning journey and you can see that from the people who have joined us. Very recently, we made one of our old NQTs, Assistant Principal. It’s amazing to think that can happen at this academy. But likewise, I came in as Assistant Principal and now I’m sat here as the Principal, so these things happen and I think when people see the progression in front of them, and see people who have been before and where they are now, it’s encouraging and it gives them something to aim for.

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Can you tell us a bit more about the staff CPD, working culture and approach to wellbeing at your Academy?

We actively canvas staff opinion and as Principal, I have an open-door policy and so if people want to come and speak to me, they can come and speak to me. I also make sure to walk the school, all day long and as I’m on the gate in the morning and I’m on the gate when leaving I see staff and I see students all the time. I hope that they see that we are an approachable leadership, because that’s what I want from my senior team as well, approachable to hear what’s going on. From the staff surveys we do, feedback suggests they feel listened to, it doesn’t always mean we always agree, but they have a staff body voice and it’s important we listen and acknowledge this. We have very clear policies and we treat everyone fairly and equally. And we understand that they have a very tough job and everything that my leadership staff do is to make their jobs easier. Everything we do is to serve the teachers so they are able to teach the students.

The academy isn’t run from the top, it is run by examples. That’s the model we work on. Our approach is more formed on mutual cooperation, it’s a focus on what you’re doing great at and what can we do to improve. Once you take away the idea of comparative measurement, removing the ‘how high you should jump approach’ it’s more about how we can do better as staff. Facilitating and maintaining collegiate trust is central to this, as you are able get more from your staff. You benefit from more risk-taking, more innovation, you get people who are more onboard. So that’s key. As our staff work together, they are able to thrive in an incredibly supportive environment. You’re not in isolation, or constantly in fear of being judged or measured. You’re working hard in an environment that is supportive in providing what’s the best for you and the student we serve.

What would you say sets Harris Federation apart from different MATs?

I think there was a myth that started some years ago, that working for a Federation like Harris or a large trust, meant that staff were overworked. I think it’s absolutely the opposite. I think the idea of the professional input and the time that we spend developing staff, we would not want to lose them, we would much rather help them develop further. One of things we’re really looking to do is to continue encouraging staff to look for their next step, from the training opportunities we offer through the Teaching School, whether that be in a NPQ or a vocational, subject related course. Just to expect someone to continue to work hard in the role that they are doing for an indefinite period of time isn’t good enough for retaining staff. And also it isn’t good for staff, because if people are doing the same thing year after year, they might become stale, they might become disinterested – people need to be learning and people need to be challenged to therefore be infused and develop as professionals and I certainly think that the Federation work hard at that and we work hard at that in Harris Boys’ East Dulwich.

We hold meetings with staff on a annual basis to talk about where they’re going in their career and what they need from us to develop that and ultimately, if that means that they are going to leave us to become an Assistant Principal at another school or often as it happens across the Federation, then that’s fantastic for them and we’ve helped them on their journey and maybe they’ll come back as a VP or a Principal. But the key is you see the best in people, and you help them to get there.

Outstanding schools means maintaining outstanding staff. With over 40 academies across Greater London, we continue to strive for the best possible outcomes for the students we serve and the staff that join us. Our academies reflect exceptional learning and development, it is as reflective of the hard work of the outstanding staff we retain. As evident in our visions and values, part of our commitment to facilitating exceptional learning, is looking for and supporting inspirational educators. At Harris, teams are always encouraged to innovate, try new things and to do what suits the education of the children and teenagers we serve. We have a culture of sharing best practice and finding ways to say ‘yes’ for what works best for you in your academy, department or classroom. We believe there is no better place to grow your career.

To learn more about Harris Boys’ Academy East Dulwich opportunities, click here or to learn more about the Harris Teaching School Alliance, click here

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