‘I am confident we are on a good path’ - New Hewett Academy principal hopes to forge stronger community links
PUBLISHED: 12:28 13 November 2017 | UPDATED: 16:45 13 November 2017
Archant Norfolk 2015
The new principal of a Norwich academy says she wants to put a turbulent few years in the past and forge stronger links with the community.
The Hewett Academy has consistently made headlines in recent years, in its former life as the Hewett School, during its controversial academisation and in the two years since it joined the Inspiration Trust.
It is a school which is held dear by many in Norwich - at one point it was one of the biggest in Norfolk, with a pupil roll of 2,000, but its numbers have fallen in almost every of the last 20 years, with 486 pupils as of May.
Exam results have fluctuated, dropping to a low in 2009/10 and jumping by 20 percentage points year-on-year this summer.
But with resentment remaining in some corners, new principal Rebecca Handley-Kirk, who started in September, said she’s keen to start afresh and make the community a “big family”.
Having trained in Norfolk, she has taught in Watford, Lowestoft and at the trust’s Jane Austen College in Norwich, before taking up her first headship at its Sir Isaac Newton Sixth Form.
She admits taking the lead at Hewett is a big step - but said she is determinedly optimistic about the challenge ahead.
“It’s very exciting - it’s a great chance to give the students what they need, to raise aspirations, particularly for disadvantaged students, and to really bring the community back into the school,” she said.
“It is early days but it’s going really well - we’ve raised what we expect of students and they are really enjoying it. We’ve raised the bar for behaviour, and are instilling an expectation that students should be learning and challenging themselves at all times.”
The Hewett’s last visit from watchdog Ofsted was in 2014, when, as a maintained school, it was put into special measures.
It is yet to receive a visit since it academised in September 2015, but Miss Handley-Kirk said she was “100pc” confident they were on the path to a turnaround - and said a key to that was forging strong links with the community.
The school faced criticism for what parents felt was a lack of transparency during talks over it becoming an academy, and Miss Handley-Kirk said she wanted that to change.
“We want to show off what we have going on here - we need to make sure the local community hears that and knows what’s happening,” she said.
“The students are proud to be here and we are proud of what’s going on - it’s just a case of shouting about it. I really want to bring the community into the school and I am very confident we are now on a good path.”
Alongside that goal, she said, is increasing the number of students in the lower years, engaging nearby primary schools and continuing to improve results.
This summer’s GCSE results saw 54pc of students achieve a level four - roughly a C - or above in English and maths.
Though a little over one in two, the figure is a noticeable jump on last year’s 34pc equivalent.
“The students worked so hard for those results and we did know they were coming – our staff have been fantastic, which really paid off on the day,” she said. “It’s created a culture of pride here.”
But an area in which numbers need to rise is its roll. Figures from April showed that 76pc of its 180 places for its year seven intake were empty, with only 43 filled.
Questions have, in the past, been raised over its viability, but, when the figures emerged, former principal Tom Leverage said he was “convinced” the school, which the government says has a capacity of 1,493 was moving towards higher numbers, something Miss Handley-Kirk seconded.
Looking forward, she said sport would continue to be a focus for the school, but that there were no plans to move towards sports specialism status.
And on work so far, the principal said new parental advisory meetings, student ambassadors and improvements to the school buildings had been on the list of priorities.
She said: “I think we are on our journey, and Tom started us off on that. I know that coming out of hard times it’s been difficult to feel like a big family again but I really feel like that’s where we are now. We are really proud of what we are doing – we want the community to be involved. We want to look to the future and push towards that, rather than keep looking back.”
Concerns over land
A concern which has persisted is the future of the academy’s expansive site.
During academisation, what would happen to the land - which is now home to the new Wherry School - was a key debate, with fears parts would be sold off and a fight by campaigners to see it transferred to the local authority.
Since then, the trust has opened a curriculum centre on the school’s south site and will base its new teacher training scheme there.
In October a new sports hall on Hewett’s 50-acre campus - replacing its current smaller sports hall - was approved, for the use of a handful of trust schools. The trust will use government grant funding for Jane Austen College, one of its other city schools, for the project.
It saw some - including Norwich city councillor Mike Sands - question whether it was a precursor to consolidating further trust schools on site.
When we asked the trust whether they had plans to move other schools onto the Hewett site in future, they gave a simple answer - no.
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