Robert Lobatto has been the Headmaster of King Alfred School, a progressive, child-centred, co-ed school in Golders Green, since Sept. 2015. He spent a large chunk of his career turning around struggling schools in the state sector.
Tell us more about your background.
I spent 25 years in the state system as a history teacher, head of humanities, deputy head and then executive head. I really enjoyed my career in the tough end of London schools: I always did well with Ofsted and managed to turn several schools around. In the last few years, however, I got very disillusioned with the state system and its disproportionate focus with progress data. The pressure meant decisions were starting to be driven by what was best for the school as opposed to what was best for the individual child. It wasn’t education as I understood it. I was mulling what to do outside of education when the King Alfred opportunity came up. It clearly offered a much more holistic, rounded philosophy of education. I was sold.
What has been your priority in the first year?
Really understanding the place. I’m not the sort of person to come in and immediately make lots of changes. I needed to understand the school before I started planning how to take it forward.
What is your vision?
I have a three-stage plan. First, I will tweak some of the things already here, introducing new structures and systems I used in the state system to strengthen how the school operates. In the second phase, I will focus on reinforcing the elements –-the teaching, the curriculum and the special ingredients– that are key to making us a world-class example of progressive education. Further down the line, we would like to influence the educational landscape more broadly. We are very counter-cultural at the moment because the culture is all around exams. When it swings back I am hoping we will be well positioned and those in authority will come to appreciate what we do.
What other skills differentiate you from a head that’s only ever been in the private sector?
I have got a lot of different experiences. The thing about working in the state system is that heads have been under a lot of pressure to improve their schools, and out of that has come a lot of creativity. And change happens faster because you don’t have any choice. There is also a lot of learning from other schools and other heads. You take really good management practice from any sector and apply it in schools. I worked with some great people. It was constant learning and hugely collaborative.
What are the “special ingredients” that contribute to KAS’ identity?
The “village project” is probably our best example. In Year 8, the kids camp here by the village green for a week and lead their own community. They have to build their own houses (which starts in the winter), plan their food and design their own activities (blacksmithing and star gazing for instance). We have worked hard recently to integrate the project with the everyday learning (which we call the bread and butter). So the students will use skills learnt in design technology to plan their building for instance. Similarly, when they are budgeting the food reserves, they may use Excel. What we are doing is giving real-life context to the skills they are learning. We are equally interested in academic progress and the social and emotional development (which we call personal attributes) of our pupils. Again that’s the difference with the state system, which would really only ever be concerned with the first as it’s the only thing that is measured. This school has always believed in both.
Do you think our definition of success, as a society, is too narrow?
What’s happened is that the education system has become misaligned to the needs of broader society. Employers want individuals with leadership, confidence and resilience but also team players. I know lots of schools talk about these qualities but what they do doesn’t really result in them. They may be good at producing the grades but education is more than grades. Getting resilience is not about having a lesson on resilience. It’s about these deeper experiences that you have and the kind of environment in which you are growing up. We do take the academic outcomes very seriously, and they are good, but for us it’s not enough by itself.
How academic a school are you?
Our value added is top 10% nationally. In terms of destinations, we do get some kids to Oxbridge [I went to Oxford myself so I know the good and bad – it’s not for every child]. We have kids going to all the places that you would expect including Oxbridge and Russell Group universities.
Recently we have been working on strengthening maths and science, refurbishing the labs and giving maths more curriculum time. We also do further maths at A levels. It was a bit of criticism from the parents: they didn’t think the science was as strong as the arts. That is changing. Yes, we do have a very strong reputation around the arts and humanities but I want that to be the case in all areas.
Do all parents cope well with the lack of exams?
What is interesting to me is the journey that the child and the parents take as they come through the school. They arrive in Reception and they’re enchanted with the site, the approach and the space. It is not a school where you leave your childhood at the gates. At break time the children charge around the place. It’s very free. Parents are very comfortable at that stage.
What then happens is that they see their friends’ children in other schools starting to get hours of homework, doing all these tests and they get a bit wobbly. In response we have strengthened the tracking of progress in the lower school. Still, we do it in a different way: we don’t really share the levels with the parents or the kids, but we know, as teachers, what the children need to do next in order to improve and develop.
Then the child transitions into the senior school. They’re really happy as they have had a much easier transition than their peers. But again, we don’t really do data in a big way until Year 10, so parents sometimes have another wobble in Year 8/Year 9 and stress about whether their kid is going to get the right GCSE grades etc. I have been much more proactive in talking to parents about what the journey is and how you do have to have a bit of faith in the school. You will get to the same point but the journey is different. But you do need to have a bit of courage, as a parent, to say I am going to accept this is slightly different. And if a parent doesn’t feel comfortable with that, then it’s not the right school.
No exams until Year 10. Why do you believe they shouldn’t take exams until this late?
It’s not that we are not assessing children, but we are doing it differently. Exams are just a method to assess where a child is and, in good practice, identify what they should do next. They should be part of a learning process. It’s not about piling pressure on kids in a high-stakes environment.
Now the children do need to be prepared for the exams they face in Year 11 but we build that up through the middle school years (7 to 9) and accelerate in Year 10 and 11. They do have proper preparation for their exams. It’s always about treading this line between our beliefs and what we think is right but also making sure all the kids are able to be successful in this external system, which we understand and embrace.
How do you deal with children at the top and bottom end of the spectrum?
We have very small classes. So the teachers know the children very well and at that scale I would really be upset if they didn’t. They can plan around those individual needs so there is sufficient challenge for the able, and scaffolding and support for those who need it. We’ve got a pretty big learning support department in both the lower and upper school. The challenge is all about not giving kids the answers, not teaching to the test. It’s about giving them the opportunity to be creative, to lead their own learning, giving them investigations or projects where they’ve got to really think.
What can you deal with in terms of SEN?
The child needs to be able to access the mainstream curriculum, with support. We have quite a number of kids with dyslexia here, more than I am used to. We are also looking at the kind of intervention we put in lower down the school because if some of those issues can be addressed earlier on, then the child can be more independent. The idea of support is to get rid of it, not to be dependent on it.
What makes a great headteacher?
There are many facets to being a head and the qualities needed partly depend on where the organisation is at a particular time. One of the things you need to be able to do is to be pretty self-aware and recognise what is required at this stage in the organisation’s development. The way I lead now is different from how I may lead in five years’ time. Having said that there are some general things: You need to have a vision of what you want the school to be like, you need to have good skills with different groups of people (parents, kids, staff, governors) and you need to be able to work constructively with those. You need to be inherently optimistic because you are shaping the next generation. Last you need to be pretty solid in your own beliefs so you are not swayed too easily. You give consistency to an organisation. People trust you because they may not agree with everything you do but they know you have listened, made a decision and are following through, but also that you may review it later down the line if needed.