Inspirational headteacher Phil receives OBE at Buckingham Palace

A former headteacher who transformed life opportunities for thousands of North East children received her OBE from the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace today.

Phil Marshall – most recently Executive Principal at Excelsior Academy – collected her award for services to education.

The honour recognised a teaching career spanning 38 years at schools in Darlington, Sunderland and Newcastle before Mrs Marshall retired in December 2015.

She is still contributing her expertise to help pupils realise their full potential as education director for the Laidlaw Schools Trust, supporting Excelsior and the trust’s other academies Thomas Walling and Atkinson Road Primaries, both in Newcastle, and Academy 360 in Sunderland.

Mrs Marshall celebrated her award with her family who travelled with her to London and reflected on her teaching career.

“This is a great honour, a very exciting day and a fantastic tribute to the children, staff, parents and governors of Newcastle’s Excelsior Academy, Laidlaw Schools Trust and our sponsor Irvine Laidlaw,” she said.

“I would like also to thank the staff, governors and pupils of Sandhill View School, Sunderland and Monkwearmouth School in Sunderland for their support during my time as headteacher of those schools, as well as Longfield School in Darlington where I was a deputy headteacher.

“Being a teacher and then a headteacher is an enormous privilege – I have enjoyed working with thousands of truly inspirational children and so many dedicated staff members during my 40 years’ career in education.”

Laidlaw Schools Trust Sponsor Lord Laidlaw said: “The award of an OBE to Phil for her services to education is fitting national recognition of her outstanding leadership and dedication shown throughout her career.

“Under her leadership, Excelsior Academy has become one of the top 200 most improved state secondary schools in the UK and one of the highest performing secondary schools or academies in the North East for attainment and progress.

“More pupils than ever before left Excelsior’s sixth form college this summer to attend the university of their choice and it’s fair to say that Phil and her staff at Excelsior have transformed exam results for pupils in the local area as well as their career and life opportunities.”

Mrs Marshall spent 19 years as a headteacher. As head of both Sandhill View and Monkwearmouth secondary schools in Sunderland, both improved dramatically under her leadership.

Les Misérables – magnifique!

Excelsior Academy’s Les Misérables cast

Standing ovations, rave reviews and audiences moved to tears.

Excelsior Academy’s production of the West End blockbuster Les Misérables has been hailed a huge success by everyone privileged to see it play out over two nights.

The cast of 45 pupils under the musical direction of Michael Davison and the multi-talented production team brought the house down with their performances of the story of life and love in 19th Century France.

The young cast – some of which had never set foot on a stage before – delivered stunning performances of the smash hit show which has played to 70 million people across the globe.

Les Misérables: School Edition was the most ambitious production ever attempted by Excelsior Academy.

It’s massive stage set, multiple costume changes, relentless pacing and pressure it places on its young cast to act and sing their way through nearly three hours of intense plot, made their triumph all the more spectacular.

Michael said: “Les Misérables demonstrates that if you constantly have high expectations and stretch and challenge our pupils, then just look at what they are capable of achieving.

“The music is a very, very difficult score, it’s very hard to learn, everything is sung all the way through, it’s an opera really and every line delivered in the show has to be timed critically with the music.

“I felt extremely proud. When I went back stage after the performances and congratulated the cast, I was overwhelmed with emotion.

“We have produced this in 14 weeks which is incredible. It’s worth every minute of it when you see what they delivered. They have produced something which is outstanding and astonishing which they can take with them into the rest of their lives.

“How many children can say they have performed in Les Mis? They are our first dramatic performances where we have had a full standing ovation from the audience – people were standing and clapping before the performance had even ended.”

Michael paid special tribute to stage director Holly Knox, who shared his initial vision of bringing Les Misérables to Excelsior and to vocal coach Michelle Tufnell who moulded the raw talent, turning young performers into stage stars.

Milan Kroka, who played lead character, hero and ex-convict Jean Valjean, said: “We put in three days of practice every week and came in during the holidays too.

“We don’t normally do this, we are just used to singing pop songs. We had to act and sing but I knew we had a phenomenal cast who could do this.

“The response was so emotional. The scenes where we were supposed to cry, that wasn’t fake crying, those were real tears. Before this show, I never thought of doing theatre, but now it’s definitely becoming a thought of doing theatre as a career when I’m older.”

Sarah Lamb, who played the tragic and heroic Eponine, said: “It was amazing, it was a show that I never thought I’d cry at but at the end I was sobbing my heart out.

“When you got on the stage, the audience applauding and their vibe was amazing. It made me want to act even more. I’d never heard of Les Mis and now we have done it.”

Robbie Landreth, who played the comedic, cruel and wretched landlord M. Thénardier, had barely set foot on a stage before his Les Mis bow.

“People say I’m a comedic actor and I don’t find it difficult as I’m in my element,” he said. “It was absolutely surreal the feedback we got. I’d seen the show before, the film and I wasn’t sure if they were going to like me as the character or not.

“But all today I’ve just been getting praise off everyone. They said I had them in creases! I’ve taken a lot more confidence and people skills; before the show I wouldn’t perform in front of anyone but now it’s given me the confidence to talk to more people around school.”

Craig Taylor, Excelsior Academy Executive Principal, said: “I had the great pleasure and privilege to see the magnificent production of Les Misérables.

“Like everyone else who was lucky enough to be there, I was absolutely blown away by the quality and professionalism of the performance.

“Already, I have been inundated with messages of praise and congratulations from other audience members – governors, councillors, all of whom were amazed that a school production could be so good.

“The performing arts team are to be congratulated for having the courage and faith in the pupils to mount such an ambitious and challenging show – it really was outstanding.”

Les Misérables cast: Milan Kroka, Caitlin Howey, Christian Walton, Charlotte Carney-Harrop, Sorin Petru, Melissa Corbett, Robbie Landreth, Morgan Hardy, Sarah Lamb, Dylan Garrett, Dylan Yearnshire.

James Robson, Angelica Akika, Jemima Kimvula, Lara Garrett, Allana Gomes, Kira Thomson, Courtney Todd, Chelsea Cleminson, Megan Greener, Niomi Nesbitt, Sophie Watson, Kerry Cather, Matthew Schofield, Rainbird Primary, Sommer Hannon, Kerrie Anderson, Kaitlin Iceton, Oscar McKiddie, Elga Negana, Lucy Todd.

Production Team: Michael Davison, Holly Knox, Michelle Tufnell, Dermott Mullin, Radafina Petleshkova, Ruth Mulligan, Anthony Carville, Andy Davison, Deon Krishnan, Tracey Kelly, Jen Buck and Vasile Tocila. Technical team and set up: The Undefined Group. Costumes and props: Spotlight Productions.

Sponsors: Capita, Stagecoach and Lookers with many thanks also to the Community Foundation for their donation towards the show.

Former teacher Jane appointed Chief Executive at Laidlaw Schools Trust

New Laidlaw Schools Trust Chief Executive Jane Spence

The newly-appointed chief executive of a leading trust of North East schools will use her teaching experience and understanding of local communities to help ensure pupils are supported to reach their full potential.

Gateshead-born Jane Spence spent ten years teaching biology and psychology at Newcastle and Sunderland Colleges.

She made the move into the Civil Service to work for the Department for Education, most recently as the Head of New Academies working to the Regional Schools Commissioner for the North.

As the new Chief Executive of the Laidlaw Schools Trust (LST), Jane will work with head teachers at the trust’s four academies – Excelsior Academy, Thomas Walling Primary and Atkinson Road Primary, all Newcastle, and Academy 360 in Sunderland – to continue raising educational standards and pupil aspiration.

“I’ve worked closely with Excelsior and the Laidlaw Schools Trust in the past,” said Jane.

“I became a trustee for the LST and that has been brilliant experience which has allowed me to work very closely with the academies to help shape and support them.

“As chief executive, I see myself being in our schools, working with head teachers, and staff – I would like get to know the schools really well because otherwise how can you influence, how can you help, how can you share and support?

“My job is to ensure that the Laidlaw Schools Trust is adding real value, making sure that what happens at the centre in the trust is supporting the schools to raise standards and do the very best for all our children.”

As head of new academies for the regional schools commissioner, Jane helped schools convert to become academies – in an area covering from Cumbria and Northumberland down to North Yorkshire.

“I wanted a fresh challenge in my career, to do another job where I feel I can make a real difference,” said Jane.

“So I’ve come full circle. I started off teaching in the west end of Newcastle, teaching at Newcastle College then at Sunderland College, moving on and now back in education working in these same communities.

“I taught health sciences, biology and psychology. I really loved all of that, working with young people and helping them to achieve, to move on to jobs and into university was an amazingly rewarding job.

“It is about making sure that whatever we have got at LST is supporting our schools – so that we can make sure that maths is great across all of our schools, English is great across all of our schools and that children are allowed to reach their potential whatever their interest and talent.

“It is important that whichever school a child goes to within our trust, they get the best possible deal.”

The Laidlaw Schools Trust was founded by Lord Laidlaw, an internationally successful businessman and entrepreneur, to help the life chances of young people and their communities.

Peter Fair OBE, LST Chair, said: “The Laidlaw Schools Trust is delighted to welcome Jane as our new chief executive.

”Her understanding of the trust and its schools working to the Regional Schools Commissioner and deep knowledge of the education sector, makes her ideally suited to lead the trust’s work in ensuring our pupils and students are given the best possible education.”

Future leader Jasmin selected for top national course

Future teaching leader Jasmin Jobe

High-flying Excelsior Academy English teacher Jasmin Jobe is one of the top 100 brightest young teaching stars in the country chosen for a prestigious future leaders course.

Jasmin will enrol on the national SSAT Leadership Legacy project for a year, developing her skills by learning from outstanding education leaders, school visits and tapping into new teaching networks.

She will learn how the very best in schools and multi-trust academies across the UK are driving forward pupil learning at a time of huge challenge for the education sector.

Excelsior Academy Executive Principal Craig Taylor nominated Jasmin for the SSAT project, supported by Collingwood School Principal Mick Connolly and Excelsior’s Director of English Louise Old.

Jasmin aims to introduce what she learns on the SSAT project into her everyday teaching and Excelsior network.

She is part of the Excelsior-wide Action Research project looking at how the gap in educational attainment can be closed between white British learners and EAL learners.

“I think the SSAT project will give me a great insight into what is happening in education at the moment,” said Jasmin, who is in her third year teaching at Excelsior.

“For my own career prospects it will help me learn what I’m capable of, it will be great for self-confidence and to converse with people with the same sort of ideas and outlook.”

Jasmin will begin the legacy project in May as one of 100 young teachers identified by SSAT as “high-potential future leaders.”

The SSAT website says: “We’re passionate about a school-led system that helps drive social mobility, and we hope that this opportunity will help accelerate development of the broad range of skills these bright, motivated and passionate individuals will need as they progress in their careers.”

Jasmin added: “I was really surprised to be selected. What I do here is what everyone else does so it’s not like I’m anything special.

“I’m really excited to get this opportunity though. I love it at Excelsior, it’s a really diverse school, a special school in the way that they approach welfare, behaviour, teaching and learning.

“The pupils are always at the forefront of what we do and the staff are made to feel valued and well looked after.”

Craig said: “Excelsior has a well-established and productive partnership with the SSAT and this is just one example amongst many illustrating how that partnership can impact positively on Excelsior staff development.

“Jasmin’s successful selection is a credit to the quality of her work and a source of pride for the Excelsior team.”

SSAT is the country’s leading network for schools, students and teachers.

It helps teachers to inquire, inspire, innovate and impact through a programme of research and reflection.

Jasmin’s project selection further strengthens the close bonds between Excelsior Academy and SSAT.

Assistant Principals Tracey Kelly, Sara Reed, Saraah Nijaila and Hannah Dabbs led a workshop on cascading continuous professional learning to teachers at SSAT’s national conference late last year.

And Excelsior Academy played host to 50 leaders from schools across the North East at SSAT’s regional conference in January to discuss the hot topics impacting the education sector.

Author’s epic escape to freedom life story inspires Excelsior pupils

Author Gulwali Passarlay with Excelsior pupils Shakira Begum, Tessy Idemudia, Sarah Lamb and Madina Mangal

The incredible story of one man’s escape from the terror of life in war-torn Afghanistan captivated Excelsior Academy students in a presentation on World Book Day.

Gulwali Passarlay’s life-threatening journey to freedom from his Afghan home to his eventual arrival in Britain is the subject of a heart-rending biography ‘The Lightless Sky.’

He told Excelsior students of how his mother, fearing for his safety and that of his brother Hazrat, arranged for them to leave their village and seek sanctuary in the West.

Gulwali’s father and grandfather were killed in a shoot-out with US troops having been suspected of hiding weapons for the Taliban.

As a 12-year-old boy, he found himself pressured by the Taliban who wanted him and his brother to become freedom fighters, while the US forces were keen to recruit them as spies.

He and his brother were separated and Gulwali battled his way across Europe, escaping the clutches of human traffickers, to eventually arrive in England – where his brother had made it to – via the infamous ‘Calais Jungle’ asylum seekers camp.

After arriving in the UK, his ordeal was not over. Gulwali had to convince a sceptical Home Office of the authenticity of his flight to freedom.

He eventually settled and studied politics at Manchester University, campaigning for social justice and was chosen as an Olympic Torch bearer for the London 2012 Games.

Gulwali visited Excelsior to tell his epic life story through the academy’s programme with New Writing North.

New Writing North’s ‘Read Regional’ campaign celebrates northern authors by taking writers like Gulwali out on the road to events where they talk about their prose and the stories behind them.

Gulwali told pupils of his early education in Afghanistan: “School for me was a place of peace – one thing that can’t be taken away from you is knowledge.

“We had to hide from rocket attacks and we lived in constant fear of being killed, it was terrible to grow up in a war zone.

“The reason I tell my story is to make people realise how fortunate and lucky they are not to go through what I went through and to be grateful for what they have.

“We are lucky and fortunate and we should share our privileges.”

Joanna Fleet, Senior Development Leader for English at Key Stage 3, said: “Gulwali’s life story is incredibly powerful and moving and made a real impact on everyone at Excelsior Academy who heard it.

“It is fitting that such a powerful story was told on World Book Day. Gulwali’s book ‘The Lightless Sky’ shows the power of literature to bring to life people’s lives in such a vivid way.”