‘You need a sense of pride to turn schools around’

At 31, Becks Boomer-Clark was thrown in at the deep end of school leadership. Now she's on a mission to ensure others don't sink

‘Could I make a difference? I’d never seen such chaos’

Becks Boomer-Clark recalls pulling into the car park of Oasis Academy Bristol for a job interview as vice principal.

It was 2008, and she had been inspired to join the “exciting” academy movement to transform the country’s most broken schools.

But she “couldn’t believe” her eyes when she realised staff and pupils had already gone home. It had just turned 3pm.

After a decade of decline, the school was the lowest performing in Bristol at a time when the city was, she says, the worst performing local authority in the country.

She contemplated heading home, too.

“I asked myself, can I be good enough to make the difference this school needs? I’d never seen such chaos,” she says. 

Boomer-Clark stayed and got the job. But a few months in, she told John Williams, the school’s founding principal, that she feared things were “getting worse”. At a parents’ open evening, only eight people had turned up.

It was their last face-to-face conversation. Williams died shortly afterwards from a heart attack.

Boomer-Clark, then 31, found herself unexpectedly becoming one of the country’s youngest secondary heads.

“Losing someone so tragically can either split apart an organisation, or galvanize it,” she reflects. Fortunately, the latter happened.

By 2010, the school was oversubscribed. Three years later it was rated ‘good’ by Ofsted.

The experience gave her a deep appreciation for the challenges leaders face, and it guides her vision as chief executive of Academies Enterprise Trust, one of the country’s largest MATs, to put professional development at the heart of what they do.

From a family of teachers

Boomer-Clark was the fourth generation of her family to teach. She inherited a strong work ethic from her teacher mum and naval officer dad.

She tells me it’s “probably best not to quantify” how many hours she worked a day, then or now, and admits she has “loose boundaries between work and life” because she is “fascinated” by education.

Boomer-Clark says she laid a framework of expectations incrementally at Oasis Academy Bristol, now renamed Oasis John Williams, adding new measures each week once others had been “nailed”.

But she says harnessing a “sense of pride” in the school was key to turning it around.

One of her successes was recruiting two “brilliantly talented choreographers” from Bristol hip hop dance troupe Dark Angels to join the staff.

“Dance became the heart of the school,” she says. “We had flash mobs. I felt cool!”

Boomer-Clark explains the “gender agnostic” dance genre helped tackle pupil misogyny – “suddenly, the coolest lads in the school were the dance guys”.

The academy chief executive is passionate about the power of extra-curricular activities to keep children motivated and says there’s an “urgent need” to boost such activities since the “wider life” in many schools is “yet to fully recover” since the Covid pandemic.

But she warns such change must not happen “in a way that’s entirely dependent upon the discretionary effort of a workforce already feeling battered. That requires us to think really differently about the model of school”. 

In it for the long run

Outside of education, Boomer-Clark’s big passion is running – part of her commute from Bath to the London offices of AET includes a 13km run.

She recently completed the London Marathon in three hours and 17 minutes.

Sport has been a constant theme in her life since her boarding school days.

After doing a degree at Birmingham University in history, sport and recreation studies, then a PE PGCE in Exeter, Boomer-Clark began her teaching career in “beautiful” Cornwall.

First sports day 1983

After a stint as head of year at Penwith Sixth Form College in Penzance, she launched a school sport partnerships across 72 schools in Devon, as part of a national initiative through the Youth Sport Trust.

The collaborative experience meant that in her next role at Oasis Academy Bristol she found it “natural” to work “cross phase” with two feeder primaries.

They became Oasis’s first geographical school cluster and Boomer-Clark became the trust’s national director of education.

Drawn to ‘big impact’ opportunities

Then in 2016, she became regional schools commissioner for the south west. Why the switch?

Becks in 1979

Boomer-Clark says she never had a career plan, but was simply “drawn to work opportunities where I could have a big impact”.

She had been encouraged to apply for the job by the then national commissioner, Sir David Carter, who told her “no one knows the south west better than you”.

She got an “invaluable” insight into how the Department for Education operates – including how academy orders were signed and how to engage directly with ministers – which means she now has a “mental roadmap” of the department to draw upon.

The job also taught her that “so much of the perception of accountability is psychological”, and that “actually, the DfE doesn’t exist to catch out schools”.

‘We’ve too readily replaced trust with accountability’

She adds:  “Very often, it’s not accountability per se but the fear of accountability [that’s the problem].

“We need to narrate ourselves into a more positive state. We’ve too readily replaced trust with accountability.”

During her time at the DfE, Boomer-Clark “called out” the need to plan for the “configuration of the sector”.

She worries about the risk of replacing “a system of insular, isolated, individual schools with a system of insular, isolated, individual trusts”, which is “arguably harder to break through”.

She’s also worried “we’ve got stuck in this place where the undertone behind so many conversations is growth”.

Boomer-Clark says she finds it “refreshingly liberating” that being the third biggest MAT in England, AET now doesn’t “need to grow”.

But she adds: “Our success is not derived from how big we are but from how effectively we enable brilliant people to do fantastic work.”

Back to the coalface

Knowing she was “never going to be a career civil servant” (she likes being “closer to the action”), Boomer-Clark was one of the many regional schools commissioners from that era who quit the role to return to the sector.

In 2017, she became director of secondary education at Ark to “grow and learn”, which made her “better equipped” to lead AET in 2021.

She joined AET while it was still on a turnaround trajectory, and one that had ruffled some feathers.

Her predecessor Julian Drinkall made headlines for overhauling local governance boards and banning “playground bully parents”.

Boomer-Clark brought the parents back in. She also invited councils to sit on their boards, which she rebranded as ‘academy councils’, telling me “local democratic accountability is really important”.

The plan was one driven from the centre of the trust, and Boomer-Clark says she learned you need to get leaders on the ground on board for such plans to succeed.

That belief in the power of school leadership is why AET has committed that every school leader has a personal £100,000 pot to dip into for their own development over five years.

After that, they can access a term’s professional sabbatical provided a successor is in place.

“You can have a strong, effective trust doing brilliant work, but if you’re an ineffective leader, you’ll have a weak school,” Boomer-Clark adds.

“Similarly, a brilliant leader will largely ignore a mediocre trust and probably run an excellent school.”

‘Innovation’

But she says the trust is “innovating” because “one of the biggest risks in the sector is over-standardisation… If you end up with a generation of school leaders that haven’t had the agency and space to really inhabit a leadership role, then eventually the sector will stop moving forwards.”

Under its AET490 plan, launched two years ago, the trust wants to ensure that by 2028, 90 percent of children are secure readers for their age, pass the phonics check, achieve the expected standard at key stage 2 SATs and get at least a grade four in English and maths GCSE.

This means achieving “a level of performance that’s never been matched in this country at scale, or in equivalence anywhere in the world, which is exciting,” Boomer-Clark says.

So far, it’s “going to plan”, and has “probably been the most significant galvanizing force across the organisation”, she adds.

The trust’s 2022-23 accounts show it is 12 percentage points above the national average at key stage two, and outperformed the national improvement rate compared to 2019 “several times over” at Key Stage 4.

AET has done “a lot of work on reading”, Boomer-Clark says, but improvements have been “more incremental than transformational”. She’s exploring ways to “accelerate that”.

Power of intelligence

Boomer-Clark is also looking at how AI can be harnessed. AET is, she says, Google’s largest education client in Europe, which gives the trust a “really strong strategic relationship”.

It has a team focused on developing AI in schools, piloting some Google capabilities directly with teachers.

New technology support officers “work alongside teachers” and support their use of technology for learning, as well as fixing devices.

AET is also “thinking increasingly about efficiencies and automated workflows” through AI.

As a leader, Boomer-Clark uses generative AI to monitor how she spends her time and configure her schedule to “optimise efficiency”.

“It has taught me there aren’t enough hours in the day!” she jokes.

But she’s wary of the pitfalls.

When using it for curriculum programmes, AET found AI “generates really clever presentations” that would take “hours if you were doing it manually”.

But “the real risk is that eventually everybody sees the same presentation, and you lose distinctiveness. Imagine if you’re a child and five hours of every day, you have the same approach… then we wonder why we’ve got an engagement problem.”

Risk of overload

Boomer-Clark is also concerned about the role of a headteacher being even tougher now than when she did the job.

Her wife is a secondary head, so she’s “reminded every day of the realities of school leadership”.

The “biggest challenge” for schools though is a “lack of access to special school spaces and the requirement increasing, particularly in our primary schools, to run informal equivalent provisions in mainstream schools”.

Boomer-Clark is also concerned about increasing use of “hugely expensive and variable” unregistered alternative provision.

The morphing of schools into the fourth emergency service amid public sector cuts is also “dangerous for us as professionals”, she adds.

She says: “We have to reclaim the joy of teaching and school leadership, and show you can have a life that’s rich and full.”

But she doesn’t lay the blame squarely on government. “We can own a lot of this as a sector. We have more agency than sometimes popular rhetoric would suggest. We need to speak into that.”

After being thrown in at the deep end back in Bristol, Boomer-Clark says very little phases her these days.

“When you’ve been in that situation so young, you can see that there’s always a route out,” she tells me.

“I genuinely believe you can find your route to success if you’ve got the right attitude, sense of perspective, and people around you to steer you and learn from.”

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