Gwyn ap Harri

October 9, 2021

No Excuses

No excuses

I saw High Tech High in 2012 and I knew I had to create a similar school in the UK, then I visited Expeditionary Learning schools and knew I could. Two years later, XP opened in Doncaster, UK.

Like us, HTH & EL gets many visitors a year, and I wonder why there aren’t more schools like HTH & EL in the world. How can you see those schools and then not replicate it?

I hear that the problem with XP is scale. It’s ok to create one good school, but how does it go to scale? Hmm… yeah, it will ultimately fail because it can’t go to ‘scale’. You see, it’s a small school and therefore can’t be replicated at scale.

This, like a lot of other things I hear, is bollocks. We have a natural propensity to look at the state of things now, and believe things will never change. We also have a natural propensity to assume everything was always like this, and always was, straight after something has changed. Do you even remember when we all started recycling? I don’t…

What I do know is that before, only the hippies recycled and we all laughed at them. Now we all do it.

I think this phenomena is something to do with ‘owning the narrative’. Things have to fit our own successful narrative, or unsuccessful one, but it can’t sound unsuccessful.

So if something new comes along and it looks, smells and sounds good, we have to have a reason why we are not part of it or doing it. We make excuses.

We used to say XP was a ‘small’ school. Now we say it is ‘deliberately sized’. True, it is much smaller than most other secondary schools in the UK, but probably similar to a lot of privately funded schools. It’s definitely similar to a primary school size.

And there’s the rub. Most of the time, these excuses become ‘memes’, and get shared like a virus and accepted quickly. We can’t all do XP because it can’t scale. It’s much too small for a secondary school. It’s frustrating because these memes obviously are blatantly not true.

We have a network of primary schools all across the UK. They receive less money per pupil than secondary students. Yet they exist at scale and are a similar size to XP.

We have shown how you can scale locally by creating another small school right next to XP, called XP East. We could continue doing this on our patch of land in Doncaster if we wanted / were allowed.

We’ve now created a new school in Gateshead which is exactly the same model.

We get asked how we would turn a big secondary school into an XP school, and while our favoured route would be to bulldoze it, and build new smaller schools that actually work, there are many models of splitting big schools internally into smaller ‘schools within schools’.

Yes, our school is financially viable. In fact, we pay for Outward Bound, Duke of Edinburgh and ALL the fieldwork our students experience, and ALL the experts that come into the school. All our staff have Apple devices paid for, including our learning coaches (teaching assistants). All our students have iPads. I can show you the spreadsheets.

Then it comes to demographics. To say we have a random lottery admissions process, and anyone who lives in Doncaster can apply, is not enough to convince people that we don’t have an unfair advantage. The differences are apparently ‘nuanced’. Well, I look at numbers to see the truth, and these are the numbers as of 9th October 2021:

We have 32.4% Pupil Premium students (The average is 34% locally and 16% nationally) with 17.6% Free School Meals - so we’re pretty much bang on average for Doncaster and twice as high compared with the rest of the country for deprivation.

We have 22% Special Educational Needs students (The average is 11% locally and 12% nationally) with 3.2% students with Education Health Care Plans (1.8% locally, 1.7% nationally), so we have about twice as many high needs students. 

We have 6.4% Looked After Children, which is almost six times the local and national average of 1.2%.

We have 8% of students who have English as an Additional Language.

Finally, XP has taken three times more permanently excluded students from other schools than any other as a proportion through the local Fair Access Panel. XP hasn’t permanently excluded a single student in the last seven years.

While we know there are other schools in more difficult contexts, including some primary schools in our Trust, and most definitely some Expeditionary Learning schools in the USA, I personally couldn’t say that XP is only successful because of our context. But others will. I have heard that it’s not necessarily our demographics, but that ‘our parents are different’.

The truth is, to create and run a school like XP takes guts. It’s very different from most other schools. This takes courage, which means taking risks.

It has taken a lot of working out. A hell of a lot of design, and inevitably some failure and reiteration. It’s hard work and you have to put the hours in.

And with differences, comes complexities, especially because our norms are different. We are solving different problems to most schools, and there are not many people who know how to do things the way we do, so we have to grow our own.

These are the real excuses; too scary, too hard and too complicated. And these excuses are fine. It’s not for everyone and there’s no shame in that.

All the rest… bull. crap.

So this is what we’re working on right now. We are lowering the barriers by codifying and simplifying what we do, and we are working with partners like Edge to help disseminate our practices. We are an open source school, and anyone can take anything from us to adopt and adapt - except for our name.

Watch this space.