Sarah Holmes-Carne, Principal of Kenton School is standing proudly in front of a wall of alumni posters in the corridor next to her office. On the wall of fame there are human rights activists, Olympic athletes, lawyers, Oxford graduates, musicians and actors.
“Aren’t they amazing?!” she says enthusiastically. “I always tell my students, this isn’t my school, its theirs. I am just lucky enough to work here.
I didn’t always want to be a teacher. I was a Forces child and I was unsettled until I went to secondary school in Middlesbrough. I was the first person in my family to go to university but when I got to Leicester University it was a real eye-opener for me. Everyone else was far more advanced than me and benefitted from a much more rounded education. I think that was a pivotal moment.”
After university Sarah went into Geology but felt unfulfilled. It was only when she went back into higher education to do a Masters in Geology and Micropalaeontology and spent nine months at Pennsylvania State University as an Environmental Educator that the penny dropped.
“I was 25/26 at the time and I rang my Dad and just said I know what I want to do. I want to teach. I spent two years in secondary school with my old teachers, before moving to schools that had complex challenges, which is where I found my moral purpose. I am absolutely convinced (and have seen first-hand) that education is the key to social mobility.”
Sarah took over the top job at Kenton School in 2016 after an eight-year stint as deputy head and she is determined to change perceptions.
“We are not on a journey to Ofsted outstanding. We are on a journey to world class”, she says without hesitation.
“We need to equip our students with the skills to compete on a global scale and put the North East on the map. Our students have the talent, the personality and the work ethic to go far in any company and it’s our job to instil in them the aspiration that they are world class- which they are.”
So how is she going about achieving this? “It hasn’t been easy. I started the job in 2016 and was hit with an Ofsted report that threw up some concerns.
In addition to introducing a full and seamless curriculum and solid staff training, the school has also introduced a careers service which Sarah describes as ‘really really amazing’. But most important perhaps is the opportunity for students to shape their own school through democratic processes such as school council.
“The pride our students have in the school is, in my opinion, nothing short of amazing. We cast a vote about what uniform they wanted to wear. I was rooting for an overcoat with an embroidered logo and guess what they chose? A blazer like an independent school. They wanted to feel part of something.”
And now she’s tackling perceptions with a new student recruitment campaign aimed at raising awareness with parents in the area. “The perception that some parents have of our school is wildly different from the experience of our students, which is what our new campaign is all about. Our students are really going places, from top tier universities, medical school and law school to far flung places like Dubai and South Carolina and they are successful on stage, screen and even in Westminster. They are our greatest advocates and we find that once someone comes here, more than likely their siblings and relatives follow.
We interviewed a cross-section of our students in Year 7 and Year 13 and the main words that came out of the interviews were ‘support’, ‘family’ and ‘community’. That was probably my proudest moment. The only question I ever ask myself is ‘would this be good enough for my children?’ And if the answer is no, it’s not good enough for Kenton.” But she’s not alone in her mission. “We are part of a multi-academy trust and we are lucky to have a great support system. We have an exceptional board of trustees from within education and the private sector, allowing us to tap into knowhow across a range of subjects. We welcomed a new CEO in 2021 whose experience spanning decades is already making a significant difference to our operational strategy.
Students get one chance at a world-class education and they have every right to demand that from us. We have created an environment where students are heard and its normal to be aspirational and successful. And when I say we, I mean them. After all, it’s their school.”