An outstanding leader in education

James Eldon, principal at Manchester Academy, scooped the EB Leadership Award at the 2023 Education Business Awards, in recognition of his transformation of the school, which went from ‘inadequate’ in 2012 to ‘good’ three years later. We speak to James about his ethos and approach to leading a school

You won the EB Leadership Award at this year’s Education Business Awards, in recognition of your work turning around Manchester Academy. Please could you tell us what Manchester Academy was like when you began working there?

Manchester Academy faced challenges across the school following a period of leadership instability. There was a need to reestablish trust in the school within the community and make sure our students received an excellent offer. Our Trust , United Learning, gave us strong backing and this support meant that in the more challenging early days, we were able to demonstrate some important quick wins early on.

How were the problems exacerbated during the pandemic period?

In some ways the pandemic did heighten our problems, but our work to provide over 700 laptops, food parcels and internet connectivity established a powerful bond with our families. We were also one of the first state schools to provide a full online curriculum which helped mitigate some of the challenges our families faced during such a difficult time.

Please tell us about your approach to improving outcomes at Manchester Academy?

Our approach was simple – get great people in place across the Academy and prioritise great teaching. We took a tough line on behaviour but also listened to students so that we could meet their needs. For example, we have built a new 3g pitch, a new toilet block and a new fitness suite over the past two years following student demand. We push our students to ‘Make Manchester Magic’ – this means going beyond the everyday and we also have to live up to this high standard.
Please tell us a little about your past experience and how this has helped with your approach at Manchester?

I was a Head in Manchester before and led a transformation in my previous school, this gave me the belief that Manchester Academy would excel and also the knowledge that we would need a fantastic team of staff to achieve this, alongside support from our trust United Learning. I have been fortunate to work with great people who care and have huge belief in our students. Our transformation could only happen with this united team approach and I am very lucky and proud to be part of this collective.

There has been some backlash against Ofsted recently – what is your view on this? Do inspections need a reform?

The latest Ofsted framework is the best there has been but there can still be variability in the experience schools receive. We have been fortunate that we have had inspectors who recognise the complexity of our school and are thoughtful about context, it’s important that all schools receive this nuance.
What advice would you give to other teachers and heads  that are struggling?

Keep going! Get great support and push hard to get great people around you who share your values and ambition. Keep laughing and enjoying this wonderful job, even on the toughest days there will be little victorious green shoots emerging. Be relentlessly optimistic and model this energy but back it with high presence and a willingness to muck in and get involved!