Varndean School

A Message from Lord Pickles and Lord Blunkett, followed by Varndean School's best practice article

The ability to listen and learn from one another has always been vital in parliament, in business and in most aspects of daily life. But at this particular moment in time, as national and global events continue to reiterate, it is uncommonly crucial that we forge new channels of communication and reinforce existing ones. The following article from Varndean School is an attempt to do just that. We would welcome your thoughts on this or any other Parliamentary Review article.

Blunkett signature Rt Hon The Lord David Blunkett
Pickles signature Rt Hon The Lord Eric Pickles

Highlighting best practice
The pastoral system is faultless”
– Parent
“It takes a village to raise a child”
– African proverb
Perched on the top of a hill, with the South Downs National
Park behind it and the City of Brighton and Hove in
front, Varndean School is a large, oversubscribed, 11-16
comprehensive school with a huge vision for success, something
that its head teacher, William Aristide-Deighan, discusses:
I became head teacher in January 2009 and set about establishing a new vision for
the school and its place in the wider community. Varndean maintained its Ofsted
“good” rating in October that year, but it soon became apparent that if it was to make
a significant difference to the lives of the young people, there needed to be achange.
Varndean did not enjoy a positive reputation in its Brighton catchment area.
Attendance and behaviour were problems for the school as was its poor performance
in admission preferences. On my arrival, only 269 families had put Varndean in
their top 3 school choices against a published admissions number of270.
We believed that if we could attract students behaving well and who were being
taught well improvements would come and, in turn, the school’s reputation would
improve. A wise head teacher said to me at the time that the hardest thing to change
would be reputation and that it would take five to seven years to do so. I decided to
ignore this for my own sanity but, on reflection, it turned out to be close to thetruth.
We realised that with more than 1,350 students on roll it was going to be difficult
to maximise the potential of every student and give them the kind of support they
deserved. It was possible for students to be invisible. A change in structure and ethos
was required if we were to become a truly successful school. In September 2012 we
introduced a new “smaller-schools” system, based on a theory by anthropologist
and psychologist RobinDunbar.
»Head teacher: William
»Founded in 1884
»Based in Brighton
»Type of school: Mixed
comprehensive secondary
school for students aged 11-
»No. of students: 1,336
»No. of teaching staff: 81
»No. of support staff: 70
»Pupil premium: 26 per cent
»SEN: 19 per cent
»EAL: 9 per cent
»School motto:
“Challenge and Pride”
Varndean School
The smaller-schools system aimed
at maximising the proven benefits
of implementing Dunbar’s theories
around the best number of people in a
“community” or “group” to maintain
optimum social relationships. We
translated this into the pastoral system
at the heart of the school. We believed
that by dividing the school into four
smaller communities we would be
able to build on the personal approach
that many of our families told us their
children miss when moving to large
secondary schools.
In order for this system to work we
needed to answer some key questions.
How would one “school” be different
to the other while upholding the
central Varndean School motto of
“Challenge and Pride”? How would
this play into our target market?
What policies and practices needed to
change for the four schools to support
improved behaviour, attendance, care
and most importantly, the quality of
teaching? Which prominent figure
would each school be modelled on?
New appointments were key. Four
deputy heads were appointed as
heads of school supported by a deputy
head of school and two support staff.
Each of the 4 school teams would be
responsible for a quarter of the school
population, that is, approximately 330
students, with 4 school-based staff and
a team of 10 tutors overseeingthem.
The whole school community was
involved in deciding after whom
each of the four schools should be
named. We wanted them to reflect the
diverse community that we serve and
our belief in equality, ambition and
kindness. We chose:
»Maya Angelou
»Bertrand Russell
»Alan Turing
»Ethel Ellis
It is important to emphasise that the
four schools structure is essentially
for pastoral purposes, ie the students’
social support and wellbeing. In
academic terms, Varndean is not a
federation of some sort, but rather a
single unit where classes are drawn
from all four “schools” and teachers
are deployed across all four.
Our well-established smaller-schools
system has been a great success. They
have grown as intimate, supportive
communities where students are
known and cared for. All four
schools have developed their own
strong identity and take pride in
how well they are doing. There is a
weekly assembly to celebrate success
and reflect on how to be the best
Our well-
schools system
has been a
great success
Highlighting best practice
With the four schools up and running
we continued to consider and adapt
to the varied needs of our students
coming through our good relationships
with our strong feeder primaries.
From the starting point of seeing
our new year 7s (new entrants) as
“gifts with gifts”, we extended the
four schools concept further into
four Specialist Schools for year 7.
With a choice of 20 or so courses
we sought to harness and deepen
their knowledge and understanding
in Key Stage 3 and develop greater
independence. It was important that
staff co-designed their courses with
students so that students could lead
and develop their passions. This was
adding to our unique selling point in
the community: namely of it being four
small schools, each the size of a small
primary school, and each with its own
head teacher.
To take this personalised approach
further, we established our special
curriculum that set out those activities
to which students were entitled. This
included trips and visits, training, The
Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, Brilliant
Club, Into University and enrichment
courses; the list was exhaustive.
We also invested in 300 musical
instruments. Every year7 student was
entitled to an instrument and lessons
free of charge. We were creating a
unique offer in the catchment area and
the city moregenerally.
The work of the four schools in
relation to behaviour and attendance
has been admittedly dogged, and
the same rigour was committed to in
progress meetings for the students in
their care. Teachers enthusiastically
worked together across our secondary
schools partnership of nine schools
and internally to improve teaching and
learning. Varndean teachers formed
“The Dangerous Teachers Club” and
met often (and secretly), during which
they shared their best strategies.
Ofsted arrived in July 2017 to find
that “Many aspects of school life
have moved into a higher gear,
from achievement to behaviour, and
pastoral care to the curriculum.”
Our total preferences had improved
from 269 to 1,089, with 354 being
The biggest change in the end was, as
predicted, reputation. It didn’t come
quickly, there were no magic bullets,
just an immovable and driven belief in
the possible, and the entitlement of
our students to expect the best. We
now believe that some areas of our
school are world class and we aim to
strive towards this for all students in
We were
creating a
unique offer in
the catchment
Each year 7 student is
entitled to an instrument
and lessons free of
Our smaller-school
system reflects the
diverse community that
we serve and our belief
in equality, ambition and

This article was sponsored by Varndean School. The Parliamentary Review is wholly funded by the representatives who write for it. The publication in which this article originally appeared contained the following foreword from Rt Hon Kwasi Kwarteng.

Rt Hon Kwasi Kwarteng's Foreword For The Parliamentary Review

By Rt Hon Kwasi Kwarteng

This year’s Parliamentary Review reflects on a tumultuous and extraordinary year, globally and nationally. As well as being an MP, I am a keen student of history, and I am conscious that 2020 would mark the end of an era. It will be remembered as the year in which we concluded Brexit negotiations and finally left the European Union. Above all, it will be remembered as the year of Covid-19.

In our fight against the pandemic, I am delighted that our vaccination programme is beginning to turn the tide – and I pay tribute to the British businesses, scientists and all those who have helped us to achieve this. But the virus has dealt enormous damage, and we now have a duty to rebuild our economy.

We must ensure that businesses are protected. We have made more than £350 billion available to that end, with grants, business rates relief and our furlough scheme supporting more than 11 million people and jobs in every corner of the country, maintaining livelihoods while easing the pressure on employers. The next step is to work with business to build back better and greener, putting the net zero carbon challenge at the heart of our recovery. This is a complex undertaking, but one which I hope will be recognised as a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Through the prime minister’s ten point plan for a green industrial revolution, we can level up every region of the UK, supporting 250,000 green jobs while we accelerate our progress towards net zero carbon emissions.

With our commitment to raise R&D spending to 2.4% of GDP and the creation of the Advanced Research & Invention Agency, we are empowering our fantastic researchers to take on groundbreaking research, delivering funding with flexibility and speed. With this approach, innovators will be able to work with our traditional industrial heartlands to explore new technologies, and design and manufacture the products on which the future will be built – ready for export around the globe.

And I believe trade will flourish. We are a leading nation in the fight against climate change. As the host of COP26 this year, we have an incredible opportunity to market our low-carbon products and expertise. Our departure from the EU gives us the chance to be a champion of truly global free trade; we have already signed trade deals with more than 60 countries around the world.

As we turn the page and leave 2020 behind, I am excited about the new chapter which Britain is now writing for itself, and for the opportunities which lie ahead of us.
Rt Hon Kwasi Kwarteng
Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy