Vijita Patel

principal, Swiss Cottage School

Autonomy is respected in other professions but teaching has a ‘done-to’ model

Vijita Patel has led Swiss Cottage School, a local authority special needs school in Camden, through multiple ‘outstanding’ Ofsted outcomes and even entertained visitors from the World Bank. She tells Jess Staufenberg about empowering staff around a research-focused model

Anyone who takes an interest in special needs education will have heard of Swiss Cottage School.

One of the last institutions constructed under New Labour’s ‘Building Schools for the Future’ programme, the £24 million building in north London is an impressive complex of modernist architecture, taking around 240 pupils from early years through to sixth form.

It is also one of only eight schools in the country graded Ofsted ‘outstanding’ six times in a row.

Perhaps even more unusual is that this school – which receives international visitors each year, hosts national events and until recently was a teaching school – is not an academy.

Sat in Camden, a borough with almost no academies, Swiss Cottage School has arguably become one of the best-known names among local authority schools.

The leader of the school since 2016 is Vijita Patel, who first came as vice principal in 2012. Two of the top Ofsted ratings have been under Patel and her team.

They are due another inspection very soon and, as we chat, a member of staff actually knocks on the office window and mouths “No phone call”.

Of course, as Patel points out, Ofsted judgments are only “moments in time”. She explains that if there is one reason the school has kept Ofsted’s top grade since 2007, it is because staff continually analyse what they do, never staying still.

“We don’t just continue to do what was working in that last Ofsted that got ‘outstanding’ and apply it again,” says Patel. “We don’t coast. It means our provision is a different version of itself each year… A big part of that is our reflective enquiry and research.”

The school’s full name is actually Swiss Cottage School Research and Development Centre.

Swiss Cottage School computer generated image

It was a teaching school from 2012 until 2020, and research was a required element of the teaching school initiative (until it was scrapped and replaced with scaled-back ‘teaching school hubs’). It means the buildings came with a dedicated research area on the fourth floor for hosting events and workshops with academics, experts and staff.

Patel herself comes from a family with an academic background, and a strong interest in science and technology.

Her parents are from a small town in Gujarat in west India, and her mum “shattered constructs” for women by studying economics at college. Her father, meanwhile, landed a top scholarship to study aerospace engineering in the United States during the years of the space race.

They relocated first to Illinois, where Patel was born, and then to Florida, where her dad had a job near the NASA Kennedy Space Center.

Patel with her family during her childhood in Florida

Here there was a small but thriving South Asian community – but the family had to contend with judgment too. “My father came just as the civil rights movement was settling,” explains Patel. “They were trying to work out where he would go in the university, because segregation laws were being undone.”

Patel and her two younger sisters soon learned crucial lessons around the importance of inclusion. Patel’s parents taught their daughters: “Don’t judge their judgment of you. There’s something that’s leading them to that.”

Instead, says Patel, her parents urged her to ask: “What are the values and virtues that are going to anchor us?” She credits this with her interest in special needs education, enabling those learners who others might make a “rough judgment” about.

With her younger sisters Amrita and Sareeka

After high school, Patel studied a four-year bachelor teacher training degree at the University of Central Florida, including an entire year dedicated to neuroscience. It is a far cry from a one-year PGCE, or being placed straight on to a school-centred teaching training course, as with many of today’s trainees.

“That year I did really deepened the science of learning about pedagogy,” nods Patel.

The shorter training period in England means a learning culture in every school is even more important, she continues. “It’s about helping them clarify their education philosophy because that’s coming through the school, not a longer training period.”

Here we come to one of Patel’s driving forces – developing the autonomy of her staff. She doesn’t seem interested in laying down a school-wide philosophy that everyone must sign up to.

“In many other professions, autonomy is so respected. Our teachers have such a done-to model,” she says firmly in her calm, Floridian lilt. “If we could get away from that narrative, and let teachers embrace their passions and expertise…”

Patel’s aim is for “staff to pose the questions they are answering. It’s not something top down. If there are 30 teachers, there are 30 sets of curious ideas about what they could do in their classrooms.”

Inspectors noticed the approach in 2017: “You listen to the views and research ideas of staff, and empower them to investigate and try out new ideas.”

Developing the educational philosophies of staff is behind the huge number of research projects and international visits that go on.

The school is working with an engineering robotics lab at UCL, with researchers who are “moving the design of wheelchairs to the next phase”, according to Patel.

The researchers are particularly accounting for the equipment some students require, which could have a huge impact on pupils’ “independence and sense of self and dignity”, she explains.

UCL researchers are working with the school to redesign wheelchairs

Teachers have worked with Barry Carpenter, a SEND expert and now professor of mental health in education at Oxford Brookes University, on developing a book club for pupils who might be unable to read text.

This included pilots in “accessible text that’s graphic heavy”, and now staff involved have rolled the innovative book club model out in their classrooms.

The list goes on: the school feeds back on the ‘Evidence for Learning’ assessment model, which enables teachers to capture learning moments in the classroom for curriculum tracking, and to send to parents whose children might be unable to explain what they did at school that week.

The school has contributed towards the pedagogical ideas behind the model, says Patel.

Similarly, the school feeds into Peter Hyman’s ‘Rethinking Assessment’ group, which is developing a learner portfolio-style assessment model. Patel is hopeful these broader assessment proposals will suit both children with and without additional needs better than the current exams model.

Additionally, the school is working with the Centre for Educational Neuroscience at UCL and Birkbeck to “take the outcomes of research, which can be quite academic, and find out how that will go into the frontline in schools,” says Patel.

All this draws visitors from far and wide: the Middle East, north Africa, United Arab Emirates, Singapore and across Europe.

An education minister from Qatar meets the schools pupils

Jaime Saavedra, head of education at the World Bank, has visited, driven by his organisation’s research, which shows that of 58 million children not in primary education globally, one third have a disability.

“We hear of them grappling with a reality we just don’t have,” says Patel of some of her visitors. At the same time, their concerns are similar to hers. “They have the same questions on inclusion and how to get pupils into employment.”

Patel, like others, clearly regrets the loss of designation as a teaching school and the £40,000 a year that supported the work. The school is now a partner to the closest hub, a mainstream United Learning academy in west London.

Patel speaking at a House of Commons event on system improvement in September 2021

“It was a best practice model I emphasise quite a lot to those international delegations, as much as it’s not there now.” She adds: “We’ve kept it going but without the funding.”

 It’s particularly tough given insufficient government income. “All our reserves are getting eaten up,” says Patel.

The sense of instability is also worsened by the constant churn in ministers. The sector has had nine education secretaries in 10 years. “I wonder what their induction process is?” Patel muses. “In school, we would do that so carefully even if there’s a change of a teacher.”

So, ministers should be in no doubt that, despite its world-beating reputation, top schools such as this one need proper consistency and funding more than they need to hang onto Ofsted’s top grade.

“Are they going to show a commitment to staying in the role?” Patel asks of those now in post.

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One comment

  1. The school’s philosophy echos that of many innovative teachers and local authority advisors in the 1960s and 1970s, development and collaboration were at the heart of a revolution. We laughed naively at the French schools that that were reputedly subject to a highly centralised and controlled system only to find that despite tremendous initiatives like the MEP, our politicians put it about that teachers couldn’t be trusted and thus with OFSTED, levels, SATs and a silo structured National Curriculum begun a 40 plus retrograde journey for uk education. As a result we have a workforce ill educated and ill equipped for the 21st Century.