All along the littoral of the Thames Estuary, there are communities trying to adapt to the changing nature of the British economy. Areas with previously high levels of work in industry or shipping are regenerating and shifting their economic priorities.
This challenge has been particularly marked in Chatham, with the closure of the Dockyard in 1984 leaving a legacy of deprivation that is only now starting to be addressed. Schools like The Victory Academy are in the vanguard of efforts to help improve the life chances of young people in these areas.
As Principal Mandy Gage readily acknowledges, The Victory Academy has faced some significant challenges in transforming academic standards and improving its reputation in the local community.
‘When I became head in 2015, the school was in a difficult position – we knew we needed to instil respect, pride, and belief in our young people. The arts have always been successful at Victory, but now we are using them as a vehicle to drive forward whole school success. In only two years, the school has gone from ‘Requires Improvement’ to being rated ‘Good’ by Ofsted, achieved record GCSE results, and in 2017 was ranked the best non-selective school in Medway by the Department for Education’.
The road to improvement really began when Victory became part of the Thinking Schools Academy Trust. The ethos of the Trust is to nurture successful children who are confident and can think and act independently. It encourages children to recognize their own habits, strengths and areas for development.
Such an approach chimed well with Victory’s existing strength in the performing and visual arts, and was integral to the development of the school’s Victory Virtues. These are a set of principles co-devised with students at the school, and include skills like ‘bounceability’ and listening with empathy.
Carley Dawkins, head of the school’s visual arts department, explains: ‘Our Victory Virtues are habits of mind. They encourage students to think independently and empower them to adopt positive habits’.
Each Virtue has its own branding and every single year group that goes through the school is encouraged to consider the Virtues through artistic expression.
‘If you say “Draw persisting”, it’s a really hard concept. But because students have had to research each virtue in so much depth, they know what they mean through and through. The Virtues have been really, really successful. They instil a desire to constantly strive for accuracy, and the determination to keep trying’.
Hannah Couch, head of the performing arts department, adds: ‘Previously, students would relish arts lessons but sometimes misbehave in other subjects. What we have now - and we’re really proud of this, it has transformed the school - is a universal language of learning. So, how you behave in art is exactly how you behave in maths, in science, in English, because we’re using the same thinking toolkit’.
According to Mandy, these changes have become part of the fabric of Victory: ‘When you walk into our school, the first thing you see is an absolutely massive mosaic that the whole school created and it’s about us and our values. It shows that link between thinking and the arts and there’s a naval reference on there as well. That’s the first thing you see. You walk around the school, everywhere you go you will see it. And not just displays either, you feel it. You listen to students, they talk about it. You go into lessons, you feel that. There’s an energy here’.
Developing a strong programme of arts education has also been vital in redressing another long-standing challenge for the school: low student numbers. Last year, the school had 88 Year 11 students, but 170 in Year 7.
Mandy sets out the transformation that is underway: ‘Over the last three years, I have visited different primary schools in the local area and surrounding towns, building strong relationships with teachers and showcasing the innovative arts-based approach that we have pioneered here. We have invited primary school pupils to taster days, to try out activities like creative writing, and the response has been absolutely fantastic. We’re looking at being potentially oversubscribed for the first time’.
Medway’s rich heritage offers a further opportunities for students. Rochester was the long-time home of Charles Dickens; Rochester Guildhall and Cathedral both actively engage with children and young people; and Chatham Historic Dockyard is one the country’s leading independent museums.
‘Medway is a really culturally rich area, and what we must all strive to do is draw on that culture to support the personal development and growth of young people’, says Mandy.
Naval links feature strongly in her vision for the school, which she describes as the ANT triad: Arts, Naval, Thinking. There are strong links with the Historic Dockyard, whose Preservation and Education Director is a Governor at the school, and the school now has its own unit of Sea Cadets. This combination of different strengths has helped define a new identity for Victory, one which has been recognized with an Artsmark Platinum Award.
The relationship between school and community goes both ways. Staff members are actively engaged in the work of cultural organizations in Medway to shape provision. In addition to her role in the Medway Local Cultural Education Partnership, Mandy sits on the board of Nucleus Arts, a local community arts charity. Hannah sits on the Medway Music Hub board and leads agenda items on teacher development for the Hub. With all this activity, Victory’s ambition is unlikely to diminish.
‘We see ourselves at Victory as quite a brave school because we have taken some really bold, innovative steps to transform performance and student engagement’, says Mandy. ‘We’re doing what we believe in – and achieving great success’.