Once a humble design technology teacher in Sunderland, Nick Hurn reveals the truth of his schools’ growth and development…
Nick Hurn has become somewhat of a rallying voice for leaders with RAAC-affected schools – appearing across the national media demanding his pupils get a better deal.
Four of his 47 academies at the Bishop Wilkinson Catholic Education Trust have been found to have the dangerous, crumbly material.
The chief executive has enquired about potentially reintroducing lockdown-style teacher assessed grades for impacted children, who he believes shouldn’t be “disadvantaged through this unprecedented situation”. His question has fallen on deaf ears.
But in a bid to convince exam boards, the 62-year-old has commissioned Durham University academics to examine the extent to which his pupils’ education has been rocked by the disruption.
“They will make a prediction on what outcomes will be,” Hurn says. “I don’t want to be coming back in September saying ‘we were right all along but nothing was done about it’.”
‘Well, you’re a DT teacher’
Hurn’s academy trust is one of England’s largest. But more than 40 years ago a career in education hadn’t crossed his mind. He wanted to make jewellery.
Following a six-month stint working as a binman, he gained a design technology and silversmithing degree in Manchester. It was only on the advice of friends that he decided to secure teaching qualifications “just in case” a path into his dream job didn’t emerge.
Now, perched on a chair inside his office, Hurn quips he’s “still waiting” to become a jeweller. The trust boss runs his schools from a room that stands at the end of a corridor lined with glass walls.
The rest of the building, located on a Sunderland business park, is filled with his 48-strong central team and meeting rooms containing 100-inch TVs. Hurn’s surrounds are a far cry from those he was in when he started teaching.
His first role came as a design technology teacher in Sunderland. He later moved to another high school in the area, where he was made head of DT. But he says “it wasn’t easy to break into the senior leadership” team.
“They [DT teachers] are down the pecking order behind maths, science and English. It was said to me unofficially ‘well, you’re a DT teacher’. I had loads of rejections for deputy head jobs.”
Leadership at sink school
Hurn finally made the leap into leadership in 1999 when he arrived at St Edmund Campion in Gateshead. However, he believes he was only given an interview “because the competition wasn’t very strong – it was a sink school, and nobody wanted to go there”.
It only took on 100 pupils a year. The building was “dilapidated” and riddled with asbestos. Metal fences lined the site’s perimeter to prevent thugs from entering. To cap things off, at the end of each day, members of staff stationed outside the school gates would be pelted with eggs.
“The local yobs used to meet in the shop just outside and when we went out for gate duty, they’d throw eggs at the staff. We used to get the police down regularly to manage them. It was really intimidating.”
After his boss left in 2002, Hurn was drafted into the role of acting headteacher. St Edmund Campion then joined forces with Sir Thomas More Catholic School, also in Gateshead, to launch a federation. Hurn was placed under the wing of experienced leader Mike Zaragga – who moved into an executive headteacher position.
“I learned so much from him as he turned the Edmund Campion around, got the discipline right, teaching right. I learned how to run a school [and] manage unions and awkward staff [from him].”
St Edmund Campion’s fortunes improved further when it relocated to a newly built complex a quarter of a mile away – removing the housing estates problem – and rebadged as Cardinal Hume Catholic School. It soon saw an uptick in pupil numbers. Its decrepit former home, meanwhile, was flattened.
‘People looked at the worst examples’
Nine years later, Cardinal Hume became one of the founding members of the Trinity Trust, which consisted of six other academies. Hurn juggled the roles of headteacher and CEO following the conversion.
In his spare time, he was sitting on the northeast headteacher board. His appointment to the group in 2014 gave him an up-close view of Michael Gove’s turbocharged academy revolution, which had kickstarted four years earlier.
He was “involved in lots of decisions” surrounding the formation of trusts and rubbed shoulders with the chief executives of numerous large chains.
The experience stood him in good stead for what was to come. In 2019, the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle unveiled plans for its schools to convert to academy status.
They were to join one of four newly formed trusts, of which Bishop Wilkinson was one, “whether people wanted it or not”. Any pre-existing academy chains in the diocese were to be dissolved.
The naysayers “looked at the worst examples of trusts and thought that’s what it’d be like for them” and that “all their autonomy would be wiped out”. A target of making 156 schools take the plunge by 2022 was set.
Trust’s rapid schools expansion
Documents released by the diocese argued that its model would ensure every one of its primaries and secondaries “has its place” and will not “be left isolated or vulnerable”. Their “uniqueness… is celebrated and the unique contribution of each is recognised and appreciated”.
Hurn believes the size of his central team – which he describes as “larger than most” – aided the trust’s rapid expansion. The “difficulty” he had “was matching the required expansion of our services and team with the income”.
Because academisation had been dictated to them by the diocese, CEOs did not “have a choice to say ‘we’re not taking you’”. This meant Hurn took over the reins of “financially stable [schools] as well as the ones that aren’t”.
“Taking so many on in such a short space of time meant we couldn’t do in-depth due diligence at every school. We’re doing that now as we go along, [so] we’re finding things out now and doing things retrospectively,” he continues. “We’ve got to focus our efforts on the schools that need help – and we have been doing that.”
One of the main issues the trust has encountered has been from small primary schools – generally with fewer than 100 pupils on roll – whose “staff costs are just far too high”. Hurn is considering “reallocating” surplus employees to parts of the trust “where there are gaps”.
“We can have, say, a SENCO who works across six small schools, rather than one in every school. You’re not actually making them redundant then, you’re getting them to do the same job on the same money.”
‘Beefed up’ central team
Bishop Wilkinson’s accounts show it funds its central services by collecting between 0 and 5 per cent of each of its schools’ budgets. Hurn says this flexibility allows the trust to make sure it does not take a top slice from schools in financial difficulty “until we are able to stabilise them, which can take a year or two”.
Heads have agreed that reserves can be pooled and used by the trust “if or when necessary” to support an ailing academy. “That’s an informal agreement, but do we need to make something more formal further down the line? Possibly.”
There is just one school left to join the trust. This has allowed Hurn to “beef up” his standards and school improvement teams by employing “some real experts in [primary] maths and literacy” along with two former HMIs.
His secondaries have decided “they’ll work together on a shared maths approach”. An “all-through languages plan” for his academies is also in development.
Hurn says this means “if a school does French in a [feeder] primary, then the secondary will also do French”. Similar programmes are being worked on for his academies’ English, geography and maths curriculums.
“One of the benefits of our model is we have every single primary feeder school in our trust,” Hurn says. “You’re starting at a real advantage, and you can do an all-through plan that’s going to be effective and efficient.”
However, since the government ramped up its RAAC policy at the end of August, much of Hurn’s attention has been on mitigating the problem. For his three worst-affected schools, alternative accommodation has been found “for all of the children” – ending a “long, drawn-out, painful” process which has taken weeks to finalise.
‘Kids at schools have one chance at exams’
One primary is holding lessons in an old community centre, while another has moved classes to a former business centre. At St Leonard’s Catholic School in Durham, pupils have been provided rooms by a local college. Others have been using eight makeshift classes in the school’s sports hall.
Hurn hopes temporary structures built on St Leonard’s playing fields will be ready to use in the new year, allowing all his youngsters to return to the site. The Durham academics are expected to publish their findings by the new year, after conducting interviews with pupils and teachers, calculating missed lesson time and analysing key stage 4 and 5 mock exam grades.
“If the research comes back and says nothing’s been that badly affected, so be it – I’ll just get on with it and suck it up. But I suspect it won’t. There needs to be some sort of acknowledgement [impact RAAC has had] and action taken.
“These children have one chance to get their results – in five years’ time no one’s going to be saying ‘oh well, your results aren’t that good, but you were affected by RAAC, weren’t you?’. It will all be forgotten about.”