Gwyn ap Harri

chief design officer, XP School Trust

Why do we have big schools where kids are anonymous?

Gwyn ap Harri, chief design officer at XP School Trust, exploded onto the scene in 2014 with his tiny secondary school, where children don’t wear uniform and are in ‘crews’ rather than tutor groups. Now with eight schools up and running, Jess Staufenberg finds out how ap Harri is expanding his anti-orthodoxy model across the country

Gwyn ap Harri must have the best name in education. The full extension is Gwynfor Dafydd ap Rhun ap Harri. His father was Welsh, and the name literally means Gwyn, who is the son of Rhun, who is the son of Harri. It’s an unusual name, and it suits this quite unusual school leader.

Schools Week met ap Harri before, at XP School in Doncaster a few years ago. The school’s 2017 ‘outstanding’ Ofsted report, and distinctive ideas (kids don’t wear uniform, do ‘expeditions’, or projects, and belong to ‘crews’ rather than tutor groups) has garnered a fan following among progressives as an antidote to schools with strict behaviour policies and traditional curriculums.

But the question then was: could ap Harri scale it up? The most radical thing about the trust is the small (or ‘deliberately sized’, as he calls them) secondaries. All three have fewer than 300 students. In his blog, he states with characteristic bluntness that the idea that the model is not scalable is “bollocks”.

Since then, the trust has expanded to include one infant and four primary schools, added XP Gateshead secondary in the north-east – its first school outside Doncaster – and two new free schools are in the pipeline (but he can’t say where).

Last week, I visited the good-graded Green Top primary in Doncaster, which joined XP in 2017. Ap Harri’s own children attended when it was ‘requires improvement’.

But it was the idea of secondary school that dismayed their father, prompting him to set up his own – XP School – for his two sons instead.

“The conventional model is for secondary schools to look down on primary schools, but it should be the other way around. Primary school practice is amazing.”

Ap Harri with his wife Kate and sons Jac and Dylan

The problem with secondaries

Ap Harri has two big issues with secondaries. First, he says creativity is squeezed out. “I knew my kids wouldn’t get into trouble and they’d do their exams. But there’s a cost, and the cost is the creativity of our kids. I don’t want my kids to pay that.”

Second, many secondaries set (or allocate to streams) their students. The US school which inspired the XP model back in 2012 – High Tech High in California – bans streaming children. Doing so “groups kids according to social demographics”, ap Harri says. Primary school teachers manage to differentiate their lessons for different ability children, so why not secondary?

“I think it’s evil, but I don’t think secondary school teachers are evil,” he continues. “They don’t always know a better way.”

This is typically punchy language from the softly-spoken trust leader.

All this means Green Top primary doesn’t feel like a radically different primary school, probably because ap Harri already agrees with so much about the primary school model.

The children are in what looks like uniform (although he says it’s a loose dress code) – white polo shirt, darkish trousers, green jumper – and like many primaries the school is covered with displays of poetry, paintings and social change messages.

Year 6 pupils Lola, Ruby, Harrison and Ava show Schools Week around

The kindness ethos

What does strike me, however, is how kind the children are. I’ve been put in the care of four year 6s: Lola, Ava, Ruby and Harrison (and, for the first time ever, they’ve been sent off without a supervising adult). When we get to nursery, they all hug the tiniest ones. Ofsted inspectors have already noted the lack of bullying across XP schools (and the trust strapline is ‘Above All, Compassion’).

This ethos around kindness seems related to ap Harri’s philosophical suspicions about power and the abuse of power. He believes there are two types of leader: “Those who want power, and those who empower”. It’s about “conformity versus creativity”.

The intensity of his feelings on this might be explained by his background.

Aged 14, the young ap Harri was living alone. His dad had moved in with a girlfriend in London, and his older sister was often away. His mum had died when he was 18 months old.

As we speak, ap Harri chokes up. “I’m 51,” he says, “I should be over this.” He swallows and continues. “When I was 17, I found out that my mum killed herself.” It turned his world upside down.

Left without a guide, ap Harri turned to reading. “This sounds really weird, but I got my moral compass from comic books. They were the literature for working-class kids, because they were 8p.”

I got my moral compass from comic books

A particularly influential character was Judge Dredd, the violent lawmaker now of movie fame who oppresses society.

“This was about ordinary people triumphing over corrupt governments. Judge Dredd was a fascist, so I learned about fascism at eight years old.”

So, is he an anti-authoritarian?

Uniforms and isolation

“I wouldn’t say I’m anti [but] we had the privilege of a blank sheet of paper when we set up XP School,” he responds. However, he’s tweeted that pupils wearing uniform “looks dystopian”.

“Adults are forcing kids to look exactly the same,” ap Harri nods. Uniform “doesn’t fix bullying”, he continues, and poorer children can still be identified. “It’s all a myth.”

Instead, what is really dangerous for children from ap Harri’s perspective is the anonymity of schools, which uniforms can actually reinforce.

Ap Harri knows this well – his isolation as a teenager went almost unnoticed by his secondary school.

A classroom at Green Top primary school in Doncaster

Just one teacher, Brian Parkinson, broke protocol and invited ap Harri to live with him and his family in sixth form, enabling him to eventually study computer science. The same teacher later helped ap Harri get his first teaching job, at Hatfield High School in Doncaster.

I learned about fascism aged eight years old

“Teachers don’t normally do that,” ap Harri says, displaying real emotion. “I don’t think I would be here if he hadn’t offered.”

What about school leaders who believe their strict policies aren’t about power, but empowering children?

Ap Harri pauses. “I’ll think about that.”

Smaller schools

Perhaps he is quite similar in some ways to other very vocal, very mission-driven school leaders who just happen to be running very strict schools? “We’re good at branding,” he admits. “But I don’t see the relevance otherwise.”

Ap Harri’s deep commitment to small schools also now makes a lot of sense.

“I don’t understand why we have big schools where kids are anonymous, and can go for seven years and the adults don’t know them very well. What’s a killer of young people? Suicide,” he points out. “When adults don’t know kids, they can’t care about kids.”

The big question is, of course, how ap Harri has made this financially possible.

Not only does he dismiss the idea that small secondaries are unviable, he says the trust is “not facing a financial crisis”, even with energy costs increasing.

Three strategies enable this, he says.

First, a big waste of school money is “buying resources they don’t need or they’ve already got” (which sounds very Lord Agnew). “People don’t know what’s in the cupboard. Or the maths department gets a budget of £15,000, so they spend it.”

At XP, all departments must “justify why they want something”. In addition, every term there is a “degunge” – all resources are collected in one place and then re-distributed. Usually, there’s enough of everything, says ap Harri.

Second, schools waste money on bad technology and IT technicians. “They cripple the technology with logins and use big servers.” At XP trust, there are no IT technicians. All staff have an Apple laptop connected to the cloud, and nothing breaks, he claims.

Ap Hari outside his house converted from an old cinema in Doncaster

Finally – and here he pauses, weighing his words – “the biggest waste of money in schools is ineffective leadership”.

“Schools are paying tens of thousands of pounds for a person who has no impact on the kids. And everybody in those schools knows exactly who they are.”

Instead, XP trust just has the chief design officer – ap Harri’s role – the chief operating officer, then age phase leaders, crew leaders, and staff with responsibility for attendance, admissions, curriculum and so on. “There’s nobody sat in offices not connected with the kids.” It’s a powerful set of claims.

Of course, ap Hari’s trust – where his wife Kate is also a paid advisor – still has a lot to prove..

It has yet to take on an ‘inadequate’ school – all have been ‘good’ except one which was RI – the attainment data across the schools is average, and none of the secondaries is planning to trial the XP model at sixth form level apart from a small offer at XP East. The latter is also awaiting reinspection after ap Harri’s team successfully challenged an RI grade in February.

Meanwhile, with 360 pupils, Green Top primary is actually bigger than any of XP’s secondaries.

But ap Harri has his eye on the very top. Emphasising his Doncaster dialect, he declares: “We want to be best schools in’t world.”

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