Having transformed his inner-city primary, Greg Martin has bought a stately home in Sussex – and is preparing to turn it into a fully free state boarding school
We’re chatting poolside, which feels somewhat incongruous since this isn’t the Riviera or a spa hotel, but a primary school in Stockwell, one of the rougher districts of south London. Greg Martin, the school’s executive head, leans forward confidentially. ‘Look,’ he whispers, pointing to the door. ‘Here comes the middle class now.’
There’s a sudden inrush of boys and girls who seem familiar. Is it the Boden or the John Lewis catalogue they stepped out of? For sure, these children are not pupils at the Durand Academy. I have seen the photographs in the school office and mugged up on the demographic data: 40 per cent of Durand’s pupils live in overcrowded households, half qualify for free school meals and 95 per cent are from black or ethnic minority backgrounds.
These middle-class youngsters have come from their private prep schools for swimming lessons. Their parents pay for the privilege. Greg Martin takes their money and uses it to provide free swimming for the deprived children who attend his school. It is such simple transfers of resources from rich to poor, carried out without involving the state, which have been one secret of Durand’s success. As well as the pool, Martin has opened a private gym and health club and a restaurant, and developed one wing of his Victorian school buildings into luxury flats. Durand isn’t just a successful school; it’s a thriving business.
Some of the revenues from this activity have gone to reduce class sizes. Unlike most primaries, pupils at Durand are split into five streams. The cleverest are in classes of 20; the least able in classes as small as 12. In the 20 years since Martin arrived, Durand has gone from being a failing school to being rated by Ofsted as ‘outstanding’. It has also taken over another failing school nearby and is now, with more than 940 on the rolls, one of the largest primaries in the country.
Nowadays the business side is generating so much money that Martin can afford to be even more ambitious. If the Department for Education will let him, he plans to expand into secondary education. ‘I want to turn that block into a middle-school for the 11 to 13s,’ he says gesturing to a building on the far side of the playground. ‘And we’ve bought a £3 million country house in Sussex for the 13- to 18-year-olds.’ A country house in Sussex?
‘Yes, we’d bus them out at the beginning of the week and bus them back on Friday evening. Weekly boarding. Just imagine it: youngsters from Stockwell and Brixton being able to go to a boarding school in a period house set in 20 acres, getting the kind of education only the rich have at the moment.’
Martin says he has submitted his plan to ministers, asking for their approval in principle. I venture that now is perhaps not the best time to ask the government to approve anything that will cost money. ‘But that’s the beauty of it,’ he says. ‘It wouldn’t cost them a penny. The normal capitation fee plus the pupil premium would pay the costs of teaching and we’d cover the costs of boarding from the profits of our health club. It wouldn’t cost the government any extra and it wouldn’t cost parents anything at all. It would be the first genuinely free state boarding school.’
But why a boarding school? Isn’t that mimicking the independent sector for the sake of it? Martin replies that what has led him towards the boarding option is frustration at what happens to so many of his pupils once they leave Durand. ‘We get them up to a really high standard here,’ he says, ‘but then they go to a comprehensive that puts them out on the street at three in the afternoon. What do teenagers do alone in the afternoon round here? It’s certainly not their homework. They encounter drugs and get into trouble. Before long they’ve fallen off the cliff academically.’
Martin accepts that boarding school is not for everyone, but says sequestering pupils in the country, away from problems at home and the temptations of the streets, is just what many of the youngsters in this neighbourhood need. Parents seem to agree. The school has run consultations and the weekly boarding plan has won an enthusiastic thumbs up.
A few years ago, Martin’s scheme might have seemed impossibly far-fetched, but the coalition government’s apparent openness to innovations such as free schools has given him new heart. Another development that has put a glint in his eye and a spring in his step was winning academy status in September under the fast-track procedure for outstanding schools. ‘We’ve spent 15 years or more trying to escape from our local authority,’ he says, ‘and now we’re finally free. The feeling of liberation is exhilarating.’ Surely there must be something Lambeth Council did that he misses? He affects to think hard, before declaring with a laugh, ‘No. Nothing. Honestly, nothing at all.’
Martin is scornful of the education advisers the council used to send round. ‘Someone who was probably only an adviser because they were useless at actually teaching would show up knowing next to nothing about us or our situation and tell us how to run the school. We’d listen politely and think… no thanks. It was all a total waste of time and money.’ But what about its role in co-ordinating special needs, so often cited by defenders of local authorities’ part in education? ‘Unimpressive. Sometimes they’d spend so many months keeping parents waiting for a special needs statement I’d begin to wonder whether they were being deliberately obstructive. And then, when they’d finally got there they’d offer a few hours of extra teacher support. Big deal. We can do that ourselves.’
I ask how much extra money Durand will get now it is free of Lambeth’s control. ‘Six hundred pounds per pupil. That’s more than half a million pounds for a school our size. Don’t listen to people who say academies are taking money from other schools. Money that Lambeth was holding back to cover bureaucracy is now being used for the purpose for which it was intended: educating children.’
Walking around the school and visiting classrooms, it is striking, despite its high standards, how ordinary Durand seems. There is no sign of excessive regimentation or any of the North Korean-style chanting of improving maxims that one often finds in schools run by so-called ‘superheads’. Martin appears not to be fostering a personality cult. To say that he is self-deprecating might be to overstate it, but while seeing the importance of leadership, he doesn’t fool himself that high standards are simply a function of the head’s charisma or willpower. It is the quality of teaching in the classroom, he insists, that really matters.
This week Michael Gove chose Durand Academy as the venue from which to launch his education White Paper. He must think they are doing something right. Yet Durand has been picketed by the teachers’ unions and is frequently bad-mouthed by the education establishment. Why?
‘Many teachers believe that the relationship between social deprivation and low educational attainment is a determining one,’ Martin explains. ‘But I have never accepted that and I never will. Social problems are real enough, but teachers shouldn’t use them as an excuse for their own failures. At Durand we’ve taken a school population that ticks every deprivation box on the list and consistently produced above-average attainment. We’ve blown away their big excuse. Of course they hate us!’
As a former grammar-school boy himself, Greg Martin fully un
derstands the potential good schools can have in kick-starting social mobility. Over two decades he has helped bring about a quiet revolution in primary schooling in his little corner of south London, but until he can see those gains safeguarded and amplified through the secondary system, he will consider his life’s work only half-done.