- Benjamin Mortimer, Hackney Citizen, Tuesday 13th October 2015
The blogging headteacher
Ken Warman, once upon a time, used to answer the phone at British Rail and help travellers with timetable enquiries. He was looking for a break between serious study at university and taking up what he felt was his vocation. "I knew once I went into teaching I'd take it seriously and not want to do anything that'd get in the way," he recalls.
Ken Warman, head of BSix college in Clapton.
A few decades later, and having turned around two faltering sixth-forms along the way, he is now into his 10th year as principal at BSix, Clapton's multi-disciplinary, multi-level sixth-form college. He was named Principal of the Year by the Learning and Skills Improvement Service in 2012, the same year that his college won an Innovation award from the Times Educational Supplement. The trophies, along with many others, are displayed in a huge glass case in the foyer of the college, past which, after morning break on a September Tuesday, stream all 1,600 of BSix's students, raucously but determinedly making their way back to their classes.
You can tell they're BSix students because each and every one of them is wearing a sky-blue lanyard round their necks, scanning themselves through the turnstiles. Pretty much everyone under 20 in Clapton on a weekday morning is wearing one, which is a fillip to Warman. "That tells you something about the feeling towards the college and its reputation; people are proud to wear it and it's not an embarrassment you take off the minute you get out of the building."
The lanyards are part of what Warman continually refers to as "the way we do things round here", the culture of his college and the ways it's possible to make improvements and "shift behaviour" by getting consistent and sensible messages across to people about the way things need to be. It's a recurrent theme in his entertaining official blog on the BSix website, covering everything from how to transform a library from a noisy IT suite into a pin-drop quiet study space (with reference to the Communist Party of Great Britain's 14th Congress Report, It Can Be Done) to reflections on the life and death of Chilean dissident Victor Jara and what Alex Ferguson has to say about links between education and sport. The blog is another thing Warman takes very seriously.
"If you're leading an institution people need to know where you're coming from," he explains. "So the purpose of the blog is so that people have some sense of what drives me and what I'm thinking. And also reflecting on changes in the college and how you can achieve things; and sometimes just prompting interest. If in 20 years' time a student decides they want to research something because they read it on there then that's job done really."
The way they do things round BSix, which has been praised by Ofsted and studied by international educationalists for its high degree of ethnic and social integration, goes deep into the philosophy of the school. Most sixth-forms focus on 'advanced' or 'level 3' qualifications, such as A-Levels and some Btechs (though in practice most privilege A-Levels). At BSix, while all students are 16 or older, it's possible to start at the other end of the scale with 'entry' and level 1 courses such as functional skills and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), or study a subject at GCSE level ('level 2'). Some students begin with ESOL at 17 and leave with an A-Level aged 21. This structure is available at only a handful of institutions nationwide."
Warman has a firm belief in this model. "We have parity of esteem between qualifications and between students," he says. "So it doesn't matter whether you're in the progression department which specialises in entry level, level 1 and ESOL, or whether you're doing A-levels and applying to Oxbridge, there's a sense that the young people and the qualifications they acquire have equal value. The assumption is that everybody can learn and that everybody is educable."
It's a resolve that will be useful in the months ahead, as funding to post-16 education is cut further and a new Government spending review into FE colleges and sixth-forms is launched. In a recent survey, more than a third of college heads said they were seriously concerned their institutions may even have to shut down in the next five years. Is Warman among them? "I don't think so. The reduction in funding is going to be a real challenge, we're going to have to expand student numbers and reduce costs, but we've got to be thinking ahead all the time.
"My complete and utter concern is to protect the classroom and the student experience. So everything we can do to protect teaching, teachers and the student experience we'll do whatever we can."
Visit the the Principal's Blog here