Corby Business Academy headteacher 'no longer willing to put up with glass ceilings'
The head of a Corby school has promised to raise aspirations among youngsters in the town after a productive first year at the helm.
In an exclusive interview with the Northants Telegraph, former professional footballer Simon Underwood said that he believes huge strides have been made since two lukewarm Ofsted inspections at the school.
He took on the tough headteacher role at the academy in late 2018 following an Ofsted rating that demanded improvement at the school.
In April last year, another inspection said that although positive improvements had been made since Mr Underwood's appointment, more needed to be done for the school to obtain a 'good' rating.
Brunel Univeristy graduate Mr Underwood, who was born and bred in Northamptonshire, said: "The inspection was fair and it tallied with our self-evaluation. They were impressed with the new structures we'd put in place and our leadership and management."
When he left school at 16, Mr Underwood believed he had a professional football career ahead of him. But two years later after his club Northampton Town went into administration he ended up back in education doing A-levels - although he has played for countless semi-professional and amateur teams since then including Kettering Town and Rushden and Diamonds. He only recently hung up his boots at the age of 46.
Nowadays, with the support of an understanding wife, he's up at 5.20am every day and in school by 7.15am. He rarely leaves before 7.30pm.
He says key to improving the academy, which was opened a decade ago by then Prime Minister Gordon Brown, has been raising expectations.
Mr Underwood said: "We've done work to improve attitudes and aspirations. Our students couldn't always see their own potential or career pathways of their own. We've introduced more careers guidance and had many, many guest speakers including ex-students who have shared their positive stories.
"Last year our first student ever to get into Cambridge went off to study psychology and behavioural science which was an incredibly proud moment for us."
Not only was Chantal McLaren the first person in her school to go to Cambridge, she was the first person in her family to go to university.
The school on the Priors Hall estate also sent 26 per cent of its university entrants to prestigious Russell Group establishments last year.
Corby has traditionally had low rates of students going on to higher education and it is an issue that all the town's schools are currently tackling. The town's social mobility is among the worst in the country.
"No longer am I willing to put up with glass ceilings," said Mr Underwood.
"Our students should be meeting and exceeding their capabilities.
"We know that many of our students want to go into trades or industry, so we make sure we have pathways that reflect that.
"But we want them to go into those trades with the skills and belief that they can go an own their own business in that trade.
"Our business studies GCSE results were brilliant last year. We're proud of that.
"For several years we were below our published admission number (PAN). But in the past couple of years we're seeing that we are first choice for more people.
"I believe the perception is shifting. Both the number of applications and the number of people putting us as first preference is increasing. In-year applications have also gone up.
"I think the community believes in us. We'll be working very, very hard for the children here in the coming years."
Mr Underwood, who was educated at Weston Favell Upper School in Northampton, said he is proud that the rate of exclusions is reducing.
"I think the new standards that we've introduced since 2018 are really coming to fruition. Not only are exclusions going down term by term, we are seeing less repeat offenders. Integration back into school is also better."
The school hit the headlines last year after it was revealed that the school day was to be shortened. An academy spokeswoman initially said that the decision was made to save money - but Mr Underwood said that it will allow teachers to ensure lessons are more 'impactful'.
"The main reason for the decision was to offer a better curriculum," he said.
"We now have five lessons in the day and these lessons are far more impactful. Instead of having 75-minute lessons we have gone to 60-minute lessons.
"It's also allowed us to open up our after school activities. Every faculty and every member of staff runs at least one session per week.
"We have a real mix of academic and enrichment activities. There's a STEM club run by computer science as well as sport and leisure activities."
And Mr Underwood hasn't had a single complaint about the after-school hours from staff, who he says have embraced the task.
The school struggled with GCSE results in recent years - with just 29 per cent of pupils gaining above grade five in English and Maths at GCSE against an England average of 43 per cent. The school's progress 8 score - which measures progress from the end of primary to the end of secondary - was also below average.
"We were always going to struggle on that score and we take it with a pinch of salt because figures from our unit are included. We were not going to just offer a curriculum that helped ramp up our progress 9 score - that's not what we're about," said Mr Underwood.
He said that the school is aiming to build on the success of its highly-regarded 'unit' - a 75-place special educational needs facility in the school that provides places for children who have a huge range of different needs.
"I think we're the most inclusive school in Corby," said Mr Underwood, who saved the life of a drowning toddler back in 2014.
"I worked in a special school for 12 years. I have a huge affinity with SEN provision and there's no doubt in my mind that we have an outstanding provision here.
"We're starting to integrate mainstream and the unit more than we ever have before.
"It's the morally correct thing to do."
Staff turnover has also historically been a big issue at the school, with high levels. Mr Underwood said that just three members of the 80-strong staff left at Christmas, which is lower than expected turnover.
"Our recruitment and retention is now much better. We have new members of staff starting this month and people want to be here."