Educational innovator working wonders in Swindon & Wiltshire

Ian Mean
Director of Business West Gloucestershire | Business West
8th October 2018

Nick Capstick, chief executive of the Swindon-based White Horse Federation of 28 schools is a man with a mission to develop a new style of curriculum with employability of young people at its heart. 

Expelled from school with no O-Levels or A-Levels, Nick does not on paper appear to have the skills of an education supremo.

That would be to totally misjudge him.

He has an OBE for delivering excellence in education, and has a passion to make a difference for our young people that is infectious.

In over 50 years as a national newspaper reporter and regional editor, I have interviewed many educationalists. I can honestly say that Nick Capstick is probably the most radical and truly motivational.

“The curriculum must reflect the students and our ambitions for the students”, he tells me in a wide ranging interview.

“We also have to recognise those kids have every right to be employable, and employable in maybe a different way than the grammar school kids.

“So, the whole point of the raison d’etre that I want to do is to reframe how we see certain schools, certain kids and also give a value-added to maybe some of the other routes into work.

 “Some of these other routes to work are phenomenally successful in terms of apprenticeships and a whole host of other things - to get kids as successful as their academic peers.

“It will also actually add more value to UK plc because of the practical nature of what they do and what it means is that we need to change the whole equilibrium of everything being bound into purely academic qualifications.

“So, we have just had GCSEs come out and A-Levels and it’s really amazing. We all talk about the new grades 4 to 9 and the benchmark now is four for a standard pass and five for a good pass.”

He is posing some pertinent questions about the large number of students performing poorly in these exams.

“Thirty three per cent of the kids who took GCSEs only got 1-3. So, are we saying that those 33% have no value? And have no worth? Are they ever to be unemployed, not in education or not in training?

“How do we pre-dispose those kids who may not get what academia sees as a good pass - how do we get them the pre-requisite skills, attributes and understanding to be employable?

“How do we make sure that even they haven’t got a GCSE in English and maths they have the fundamental elements of English and maths that will make them employable?

“I had no O-Levels at all.”

Yes, he is something of an evangelist by his own admission. But Nick Capstick is truly passionate in trying to put forward his vision of an education system that really does focus on employability.

“I was one of these kids who was presumably quite bright because I have now got three degrees and a PhD.

“But I was bored - they didn’t know how to engage me. There is something about how do we change the equilibrium in education?

“That’s why the curriculum I wanted to design - the model I wanted to design - is different.

He tells me it’s also based on some work by a NASA scientist.

“We need to get people to recalibrate their view of education.”

The NASA scientist was employed to look at the creativity and ingenuity of astronauts.

“He went on to do a study of 1600 kids from when they were five. Ninety five per cent off those kids had a creative aptitude for genius. But by the time they had got to the age of 10 that had gone down to 15% and 5% to be creative at the age of 15.

“So, if UK plc needs the engineers and the computer programmers of the future there is something about how we crush that five year old - 95 per cent being creative geniuses down to 5 per cent by the time they are 15. The reason for it is  the school curriculum.

“It doesn’t take into account two types of thinking - convergent thinking and divergent thinking.

“The Bill Gates’s of the world and Apple - they really rely on divergent thinkers - people who think in a very creative, lateral way.

“Convergent thinkers are those that put the brakes on everything. In school, what we tend to do is to give a kid a problem but you have got five minutes to do it. You have got six minutes to do it - as a result, the convergent part of your brain nips and says we have got to go for the most logical or easiest route.

“Therefore, all that creative genius we knock out of our kids from five with 95 percent being genius to just 5 percent at 15.

“If that is the case, why is the curriculum, not bound to give those who are not going to be academically convergent but those who could be in landscape gardening by being divergence seekers-or engineers who could think up solutions that a convergent academic thinker could not think about. 

“If we do that, we then need to start to embroil our kids in the opportunities for them to show that vocational aptitude they might have.”

But how is he going to achieve his ideal curriculum?

It seems to me you have got to convince a lot of people stuck in their ways about how we teach our children?

“We have industry and commerce and local employers saying we don’t get the raw material that we need. We have 33% of our kids who don’t get a 1-3 rather than a 4 plus - there is a disconnect there.

“So, rather than just pigeon holing kids when they come into school we start looking at the potential of kids.

“If we started with my curriculum and we would start to give them access to employability and a whole range of other vocational training.”

How are you going to transfer your vision to people who are actually going to make it work?

“So, what every school in the White Horse Federation now has to do is to create a 100 day plan. The 100 day plan basically looks at the four pivotal points within a child’s career.

“The first pivotal point is the end of early learning when they are in reception. That’s when we take a benchmark to say: this is what your attainment level is. Then at the end of Year 1 we look at their phonics work and then Year 2, and so on.

“So, the idea behind this 100 day plan is 100 days between September and December where every single child is identified in this group.

“Then we do another 100 day plan from January through to exam season whether it’s secondary or primary school. And every faculty and every teacher needs to know how you are going to migrate some of these kids. So, there are two 100 day plans a year.

“Every faculty needs to know who this group of kids are. I might be in this group for maths, in this group for English and I might be somewhere between for science.

“The idea is how do we create momentum all the time to get me from, here to here.

“So, there is something about what we can do in school to change that curriculum, and there is something that we can do about the curriculum for social capital is massively important. 

“It is about how do we get that resilience - that self-belonging, that feeling of community worth. How do we ensure that we are in a position whereby those kids actually feel valued because a lot of these kids don’t have ambitions - they don’t have ambitious parents. 

“We have a school where there are third and fourth generation unemployed families. How do you tell our kids you are going to do well in school today because you are going to get a great job?

“They might turn round and say: my parents haven’t had a great job, my grandparents haven’t had a great job.

“So, if we continue with that dialogue, we can’t create aspirational kids and parents. What we can do is to start to give them experience and exposure to a vocational world. Some parents will really relish it and some will rail against it.”

It’s not surprising that Whitehall is taking great interest in Nick’s thoughts on curriculum progression. I think he is spot-on in his thinking.

“This is a different way of thinking - it is quite radical,” he admits. ”I will be very honest with you - we will get some very academic schools railing against it because their success relies on keeping the majority of their kids above this water line.

Nick Capstick is very clear about the challenge: “We specialise in taking on extremely vulnerable schools and we have a good track record for it. We don’t change the name.

“Changing the name doesn’t matter - we don’t change the school uniform. We don’t change the livery of the school because that’s just literally putting a smokescreen in front but what we do change is the quality of teaching and learning.

“What we do change is aspiration and belief and raising the bar of where those kids could go.”

He believes local business have a real role to play to encourage some of these young people to become high flying employees with them.

“But we can only give those kids the experience they need for business in a vocational setting”, says Nick.

“If you were to talk to most teachers about motor engineering or manufacturing, they would have the idea you come home with oil in your fingernails so how could they ever lift and promote the idea of what working in that branch of the motor industry is?

“I have just got a lad who started as brewer at Arkell's Brewery - he is not actually a brewer, he is a scientist. He has a first from Cambridge in bio-chemical sciences but he is called a brewer. He just had two taster days there.

“So, it is how we change the perception of schools but also of employers.”

He believes we will have to create a model of a few companies with the school and then together build that model. I agree.

“This isn’t just about being embroiled in the world of work - it is about value.

“Look at most of the kids who are anti-social and don’t engage - they have been told they have very little value. As a result of this, they don’t put anything back - why would I?

I find Nick’s analysis that around a third of young people with low marks at GCSE O-Level end up being under-valued by employers as quite shocking.

“So, 33 % of kids who took their GCSEs got 1-3 which are not valued by industry and you now have thousands of kids who don’t have a route.

“Modern day apprenticeships which take you up to degree level are going to become as elitist as Oxford or Cambridge. It is about creating employable youngsters.

“If we were able to identify quite early on certain natural skills and aptitudes we wouldn’t want to pigeon hole those kids - you are going to be a farmer in five years’ time but it might be we could understand they might be a farmer.

“If schools can work with local industry to find out what their natural skills could be - it is not about academic skills, it is about natural skills which are fit for purpose. Want to be a plumber - you have got to be able to estimate.”

Personally, I believe we need local work experience charters with firms signing up to partner local schools by providing consistent world of work experience that is both valuable and motivational.

“A work experience charter would actually require kids to work. One of the things we find when kids come back from work experience is, say they want to be a plumber and we asked them what they did for two weeks and they tell us: I sorted washers out.

“What I think we need here is a psychological contract of reciprocation. We in education are tired of the world of work saying we don’t produce kids that they can use. 

“But it is partly through our own ignorance because we do not know what you want. If you are not helping us, we can’t shape that work experience.”

I ask him why we don’t see here the culture for aspiration and learning that is bred in Germany and the Scandanavian countries where the formal curriculum does not always start off until the age of seven?

“Up until the age of seven, their love of learning and their exploration of the world creates an innate aspiration to understand it better. I have spent time outside, I have created things and I have built things.”

He insists that his vision is that no youngster goes beyond age related expectations. 

“So, as a year 7 teacher I don’t get my feelgood factor by saying that my kids are doing Year 8 work. Otherwise, we are always playing catch-up rather than keep-up.”

Why don’t we adopt that German/Scandanavian system?

“We still have Victorian infrastructures within our school system over here. We haven’t modernised.

“I was given the opportunity about seven years ago to design and build the first academy in Swindon. I agreed to do that only if we could have a design input. 

“If you look at most schools being built at the moment they are being built around the infrastructure of Victorian schools - they all have a school hall and they all have classrooms. But that was then and we are 200 years further on now so at this school up to the age of eight, these kids do not go to a classroom.

“From being four until the age of seven or eight, they work communally and collegiately with each other in big open spaces - then when they get to seven, eight and nine - years 3 and 4 - we put them into boxes because I want those kids to have traditional learning behaviours. 

“When they get to year five and six they go back into a big cavernous room. If you go into the world of industry and commerce, there aren’t many small offices.

“So, the idea is that you create a love of learning and an understanding of the world. Then you pigeon hole them for just two years into learning behaviours and disciplines but before they actually do their SATS they come out for two years and they work in something called the Village Green. It is literally a whole range of learning areas within the school.

“We were the first school in the country to get an outstanding from opening.”

Nick Capstick’s White Horse Federation now has 28 schools across four hubs -a Gloucester hub, a Swindon hub, a Wiltshire hub and an Oxford/Reading hub. Soon, there will 34 schools - a doubling in 12 months.

They are designed to have primary, secondary and special schools in every single hub. 

“It means that you have a beautiful invitation to learn”, Nick tells me.

“Each of those sectors offers something to the other. The intention is to have 40-50 schools with four hubs with about twelve schools in each.

“And each of the four hubs buts against another hub so if they can’t solve a situation you have got kissing cousins - using the family analogy - not very far away.

“So, we have our immediate family, and an extended family - the hubs around you and the virtual family - all the schools in the White Horse Federation. They are the sources of inspiration and development learning from each other.

“We say no to recruiting more schools than we say yes to. We are often asked to take on broken schools - we rarely take on good or outstanding schools.

“Last year we doubled in size - I almost over employ. You must grow capacity before you grow volume. Our vision and our values are all about taking on vulnerable schools - growing capacity before we grow volume.

“We aim for great outcomes for great kids and the message is delivered with passion. Our vision is very important-to create an exceptional learning community for not just for our kids but for our staff and parents. I want our schools to be at the heart of their communities.”Nick Capstick had never been a head before and came into a primary school in Swindon that was going to close. He developed it from 230 pupils then into 700 now - turning a failing school it into an outstanding school. 

This is a primary school where 89% of the pupils did not speak English as their first language-there are 43 different languages spoken there in the most deprived area of Swindon. But now there is a waiting list of around 90 pupils a year such is its success.

“So, the idea that anyone telling me that children can’t be educated is rubbish.”

What’s your secret?, I ask.

“Passion and a belief. If you worked for me and told me that a kid can’t do something you are probably not going to belong in this world.”

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