Take me down to the garden city

A new school in a new city demands a new way of thinking. We spoke to Joanne Wilkinson-Tabi, headteacher at a soon-to-open primary school in the garden city of Ebbsfleet, about her leadership strategy for the school – and what it means for the city around it

In November 2019 a group of parents, keen to secure places for their children at a brand new school, were invited to meet with the headteacher at an informal cheese and wine evening, whereby said headteacher – Joanne Wilkinson-Tabi – was able to express her innovative vision for Ebbsfleet Green Primary School. One of nine schools in the Maritime Academy Trust, the school will serve the brand new garden city community of Ebbsfleet in Kent, where 400 homes have been built and occupied so far.

The event, in November, saw Joanne discussing with parents how Ebbsfleet Green Primary will align to the needs of its community, as the innovative Maritime curriculum will be adapted to reflect Ebbsfleet’s unique garden city status. Maritime’s child-led learning, thematic approach to education aims to challenge pupils to find solutions to real-world issues, as well as ensuring Ebbsfleet Green’s children achieve to the best of their abilities.

Joanne has a proven track record in raising children’s attainment and ensuring all pupils are supported to reach their full potential; her experience with the trust has equipped her with the expertise and teaching and learning practices to make Ebbsfleet Green Primary one of the top schools in Kent.

After 17 years at Greenacres – also a Maritime school – suffice it to say Joanne was thrilled to be appointed head of Ebbsfleet Green. “I can’t wait to get to know my new community and discover the talents of local children,” she says. “I am as passionate about learning today as I was when I first began teaching over 25 years ago, and I’m eager to make Ebbsfleet Green the number one choice for local families.”

Since being appointed, Joanne has actually led two events – one being that November parent meet-and-greet and one being a teddy bear’s picnic a short while before that. The cheese and wine night, in particular, was extremely relaxed and informal. “We hosted it in a show home, so it was almost like people coming round for a house party!” Joanne says. “The parents were very interested in two things; one was the entrepreneurial curriculum and the other was the community, since this is a new neighbourhood. They wanted to know what my vision is and what opportunities this being a garden city might bring. We will have an interim curriculum because of the school being built around us, and it would be a missed opportunity if we didn’t, so the curriculum will be very much built around architecture, design and what a garden city could look like.

“There will be lots of opportunities for what we call ‘the big outcome’, where you bring together all of your learning and share it with the wider community, so we will be inviting parents and carers along to a number of events in the first year. That’s my plan.”

Fostering mental strength

As Ebbsfleet is a garden city, social responsibility and being eco-conscious will certainly be a long-term focus for the education of the pupils at Joanne’s school – and key to this is concentrating on teamwork. Joanne and the Maritime Trust are deeply passionate about the concept of fostering mental strength from a young age as a foundation for future success, and this includes positive collaboration.

“Life skills and soft skills come into social responsibility as well, but the more you work collaboratively, and build a sense of belonging – both individually and as part of a team – the more you grow in confidence; you develop better communication, you’re able to work well with others and recognise your own strengths while utilising the strengths of others,” says Joanne.

Ensuring that children are prepared for the modern world – far beyond school – is a top priority for Ebbsfleet Green, and Maritime more broadly. Primary school is the foundation of a child’s education so, while it may seem early, it’s high on Joanne’s agenda to focus on that concept of mental strength right from the beginning.

“On top of knowledge, which underpins absolutely everything we do, we have other skill sets,” she explains. “So we have functional skill sets and we have life skill sets. Functional skill sets are around physical manipulation of tools, which is anything from being able to tie your own shoelaces to being able to draw a table or a graph – and this ties in with the life skills as well, because anything affecting your confidence can have a knock-on impact, and maybe stops children from reaching their potential.

“The other type of functional skills is about being able to categorise information, to be able to use technology effectively and to be able to use meta-cognitive skills. We’ve put this all under the heading of ‘functional skills’. Life skills are inner confidence, self esteem, having strategies to cope when life is tough and also having outer confidence, which is being able to express yourself, ask for help, learn from others, articulate your learning and know what you’re an expert in.”

The meta-cognitive skills are especially important because Maritime feels that, if children aren’t self-regulating their learning by the time they leave primary school, they’ll find secondary and further education more challenging. “You have to know where your own strengths are, and what to do when you find things difficult,” Joanne says.

“It’s about understanding the language of learning and how you can learn, and other specific strategies you can teach children, at primary level, that will stay with them throughout their lives. It’s not just about them hitting a certain level at primary school – it’s about them being prepared for lifelong learning. Mental strength is a major part of that because children then gain the protective factors – the life skills, functional skills and knowledge – required to be the making of them long-term.”

Joanne describes wellbeing and mental strength as “the key to survival”, and they’re things that staff also need to practice in order to better communicate their importance with children. “Teaching is a highly pressurised profession, and life is challenging but, if you have inner strength, it’ll see you through those challenges – we make sure staff are equipped with this, too.”

A focus on behaviour

All of this feeds into a major drive towards improvement – and sustainability – of behaviour, which is an underpinning characteristic across all of the Maritime schools. Joanne believes that, if you get the PSHE right and have good relationships with the staff and the children, good behaviour comes with that. “It’s not an add-on; we don’t teach behaviour strategies separately from teaching and learning,” she explains. “Quite often, poor behaviour manifests itself because the strategies and toolkits aren’t in place for the children but, with our approach, good behaviour falls into place.

“We also have a system where all children start on green, every day, and then receive a series of colour-based warnings if they behave negatively. Really, it is our responsibility to do all we can, as practitioners, to ensure everything is in place to make sure the children stay on green. It’s very much a positive behaviour strategy, alongside high-quality teaching, to try to eliminate the potential for poor behaviour at the outset.”

Joanne is very much looking forward to taking up her role, officially, in the next academic year; her plan is in place and she has precisely the tools she needs, thanks to her long experience with Maritime, to make Ebbsfleet Green the crowning jewel of the new garden city.

“I’m sure there will be challenges, but I’m prepared for them,” she says. “I’m not going to be worrying about things before I need to, so I am really very excited about the new challenge.”

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