Andria Zafirakou teaches at Alperton Community School, a secondary school academy in the inner city borough of Brent. It’s no easy task. Brent is one of the most ethnically diverse places in the country and 130 languages are spoken in its schools. Pupils come from some of the poorest families in Britain, many sharing one house with five other families and others exposed to gang violence in the London borough with the third highest murder rate in the UK. Children arrive at the school with limited skills and already feel isolated from staff and each other, making engaging with them all the more difficult and all the more vital.
The odds were stacked against her succeeding, but Andria defied them. Working as an art and textiles teacher and as a member of the senior leadership team tasked with earning the trust of her pupils and their families to better understand the complex lives they’ve come from, she redesigned the curriculum across all subjects from scratch while carefully working alongside other teachers so that it resonates with her pupils. She helped a music teacher launch a Somali school choir and she created alternative timetables to allow girls-only sports that would not offend some of the more conservative communities, leading the girls’ cricket team to win the McKenzie Cup.
Learning the basics of many of the 35 languages represented in Alperton’s pupil population, including Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi, Nigerian and Ghanaian, Andria has been able to reach out to her once marginalised students to earn their trust and, crucially, establish relationships with their parents, many of whom do not speak English. Andria has gone against the grain, taking the time to understand her pupils’ lives beyond school by visiting their homes, riding with them on the bus and standing at the school gates with police officers to welcome pupils as they arrive at the start of the school day.
Thanks to her efforts, Alperton is now in the top 1 to 5% of the country in terms of qualifications and accreditations. This as a colossal achievement given how low the students’ starting points were and how rapidly they progressed during their five to seven years at the school – a point recognised by the national inspection team.
Introducing real life situations in maths classes helped Alperton’s maths department win the TES 2017 maths team of the year. In her own art classes, Andria has introduced partnerships with the Coulthard Institute and the Japanese Koo Stark Project ‘Kintsugi’, as well as working with an ‘Artist in Residence’ (Armando Alemdar) to creatively redesign the art curriculum in otder to promote inspiration and help pupils confront and cope with the responsibilities of their complex home circumstances. As a result, Alperton has been awarded specialist school status in visual arts.
By getting her pupils to open up about their home lives, she found that some were being forced to play truant to cook meals in the allocated time slot they were permitted to use their shared home kitchen. Others could not participate in extracurricular activities after school because they had to collect their brothers and sisters from other schools. Some had to do their homework in their bathroom because it was the only quiet place in their crowded homes. Learning this allowed Andria to organise additional provision within the school day and at weekends to give pupils booster lessons, give them access to computers and a quiet place to do homework, as well as time to participate in extracurricular activities. One of her greatest innovations was to bring local police officers, mental health workers and teachers to the school table to discuss pupils from a 360 degree viewpoint, enabling everyone involved in their lives to work together to help them succeed.
Andria says the thing she is most proud of is when her students go on to university, take art and design courses, gaining employment in industry, or seting up their own businesses. The odds were never in their favour, but with Andria in their corner, they have gone on to achieve great things and so has the school. Andria’s determination to move beyond an identikit school curriculum has seen Alperton awarded the Institute of Education’s Professional Development Platinum Mark, an honour fewer than 10 British schools have ever achieved.