IN SEPTEMBER 2010, when we were faced with many challenging students, it took time and resilience to change a culture where lack of respect for authority and unacceptable behaviour had been the norm. Every day, for six months, between ten and 15 students were excluded. Reintegration meetings took place every morning from 8.30 to 11.30 to send clear messages to students and parents that respect for self, for each other, and for the environment, together with high aspirations and standards, were expected of all students.
On the first day, I led assemblies with each year group, beginning with a prayer. Several rude and disruptive students had to be removed, and it was clear that basic good manners had to be taught before we could move forward. Seven years on, students arrive at assemblies quietly, properly dressed, and in an orderly fashion. The atmosphere is now conducive to reflection and stillness before the assembly begins.
John Wallis Church of England Academy is now the non-selective school of choice in Ashford, Kent. We are an inclusive school with children of faith and no faith. There have been no permanent exclusions since we opened. The culture has changed. Students appreciate education, and staff are making a real difference to the lives of our young people. Forgiveness and reconciliation are at the heart of our academy: every child is seen as a child of God.
HIGH standards have had tangible results. Since our sixth form opened four years ago, many students who would never have dreamed of higher education have earned university places. And our academy’s spiritual life has been transformed. Throughout the school, every day begins with prayer: in our senior leadership team meeting; in classrooms at the start of the first lesson; and at daily assemblies at half past ten. Prayer accompanies everything we do, and is now the norm.
Few of our pupils attend a local church, but I believe that the school has become the church for our community, pupils, staff, and families. Pupils visit our chapel regularly, and, in Year 7, there are regular sessions on Christian teachings with our lay chaplain.
Pupils and staff regularly ask us to pray for their loved ones who are sick or in trouble, or when there is a bereavement, and it is accepted that, at these times, we accompany pupils, students, and staff in prayer. Recently, for example, together with the chaplain and two teachers, I attended the funeral of the young mother of one of our families, who had died of cancer.
ONE of the highlights of our calendar is the Christmas carol service, when the story of the birth of Jesus is retold in word, song, and dance. Six times a year, we celebrate the eucharist at the end of the school day; it is a voluntary celebration led by local ministers. On Ash Wednesday, ashes are distributed as Lent begins.
Our pupils and students acknowledge that our staff go the extra mile in their care and love for them. We work with families who live in challenging circumstances, and have great needs. Whatever their circumstances, they are loved, valued, and respected, because they are not only our neighbours, but also brothers and sisters in Christ. Thus, our pastoral care is central to all we do in our academy.
One of our sixth-form students told me that she had met a Year 7 girl who was excited because she was going to the chapel to have a lesson with the chaplain. Few of our students or staff have had a grounding in the Bible or in theology, but many now live their lives in faithfulness and courage in the face of adversity.
John McParland is the principal of John Wallis Academy.