Sally Brooks is the Executive Principal of Fulham Cross Academy, based in West London. Over the past two years Sally and her team have been working to turn Fulham Cross into a STEM specialist school. IO caught up with Sally to learn about what exactly that means and the process which has taken place.

IO: Can you tell me the story of how you became a STEM specialised school?

Sally Brooks: Roughly 10 years ago Fulham Cross Girls’ School and Henry Compton merged but it was clear because of the reputation of Henry Crompton that the school needed a change of direction. Shortly after the merger another boys school opened in close proximity with new facilities and our numbers started to plummet. At that point the Executive Principal left and I became Executive Principal.

We decided we didn’t want to become part of a huge academy chain and it was clear from our parents that there was a real need for a community school that served our students and reached out into the local community to offer something a bit different.

We came up with a few ideas, one being a focus on art and the other was STEM. With Imperial College opening their new campus on White City, it seemed a real opportunity to do that.

I went to a STEM education day at the Wellcome Museum in London and I saw that other boroughs were a step ahead of us, in terms of STEM, and there were some really innovative schools paving the way for forward-thinking education. Many of those schools were really helpful and they sat down with us and discussed what had worked for them and the challenges they had experienced along the way.

We were in a fortunate position financially in that we had a decent reserve so we could go for it, but in a very clear and strategic way.

IO: What stage are you at in the process now?

SB: We spent last year selling the new school to our community and this is the first year that it has been properly up and running; however, the pandemic has not allowed us to do as much as we would have wanted to.

What we have been able to do during the pandemic is train more of our staff in our new offer and change our curriculum. For example, in the sixth form we didn’t previously offer STEM A-Levels and we now have the full suite of Sciences and we are now offering engineering at sixth form and Key Stage 4.

IO: What are the things you are doing now as a STEM school that you weren’t previously?

SB: One of the things that we do is we have a STEM afternoon on a Monday for everyone where the students rotate around different activities that wouldn’t necessarily be part of the everyday curriculum. For example, building robots and coding or designing a golf course!

Because of the pandemic we haven’t been able to do that in the way we would have wanted but what we have been able to do is latch onto as many things virtually as we can. So, for example, Imperial College has been great and we have done lots of things with them, especially in science, where their medical students have been delivering topics to years 10 and 12.

IO: There is a lot of talk about a skills gap between what is taught in schools and the skills employers are increasingly recruiting for. What is your perspective on that?

SB: Education as a whole is going to have to shift. We are still bound by the specifications that the exam board gives us. That is why the STEM afternoons are so important as it enables us to do education in a different way. For example, to do maths GCSE you have to know about fractions and trigonometry and decimals. But what you don’t have to know is what a mortgage is, what renting entails or which bank accounts are good. Through the STEM afternoons we are trying to teach financial management to empower our students to be active and informed citizens. We are trying to give them all of the basic skills whilst also trying to keep on top of modern innovations without resourcing something which quite quickly becomes out of date.

Generally, we are really focussed on how we build innovation and problem-solving into what we do with the students so that by the time they get to year 10 it isn’t just all about focussing on exams. We find that the resilience and independence to learning wanes when students get closer to exams and they can get quite needy and spoon-fed so again we are trying to build resilience around that.

IO: How do you think the school will change post pandemic?

SB: I don’t think any school will be the same after the pandemic. We are talking to staff at the moment about what aspects we want to keep from what we have learnt during the pandemic. Previously, children travelled to us to teach them in our classrooms. During the pandemic, we had to travel to them and in some ways this worked really well, therefore going forward, I think there will be a hybrid model – it minimises disruption and allows our students and teachers more time in the classrooms.

The pandemic has led us to become a completely Google School. What is great about that is it is so accessible and it’s free. I can do a Google revision meet on a Sunday from my house and they can all join me! Be it on a phone, iPad or laptop. It stops me having to travel into school on a weekend and only half the class turns up. I did one last Sunday and the whole class was there. The quality of the feedback we can give them now is far more personal and much quicker – allowing both the teachers and students more time to focus on studies and being part of our wonderful community school.

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