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The man creating a school that's in a class of its own

The new University of Birmingham School is not a free school or academy - it's in a category of its own as the first secondary university training school in the UK. Principal Mike Roden tells Hannah Hiles about the challenge of building the school.

Principal of the University of Birmingham School Michael Roden
New principal of the newly formed University of Birmingham School Mike Roden

Most new head teachers inherit policies, practices and people, but Mike Roden is busy getting to grips with the logistics of setting up a new school from scratch.

The 54-year-old, who lives in Sutton Coldfield, has been at the helm of the University of Birmingham School for less than four weeks. He’s already met with the Department for Education, started looking at the curriculum, staffing and technology and set the admissions policy for the flagship training school.

Formerly the head teacher at King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Boys in Kings Heath – one of the UK’s top selective state grammars – Mr Roden is known as one of the country’s most outstanding school leaders, even being added to society bible Who’s Who in 2010.

But he came from a modest South Yorkshire background where he and his twin brother Martin were the first in their family to do A levels, never mind go to university. His parents had followed traditional expectations by becoming a steel worker and a housewife, but they always encouraged their children to aim high.

The “inspirational” teachers at Swinton Comprehensive School in Rotherham captured Mr Roden’s attention and he was a keen student and sportsman, although he admits to cheekily swapping classes with his identical twin on occasion.

A self-confessed “anorak”, he experienced a defining moment while researching a sixth form essay on soil structure, sparking an enduring interest in soil which has seen him bring home samples from around the world.

“The kids at Camp Hill all knew about it,” says Mr Roden, who has three adult children. “There were all sorts of cartoons about it in the school magazine.

“It became a joke but I really believe in finding something you are interested in and going with it. I don’t believe the education system should be one size fits all. It should be about helping people to discover new interests. Who knows, taking a child to see the CBSO might absolutely transform their life.”

He met his wife Alison, who nows teaches hearing impaired children, at university in Manchester and the couple moved to Birmingham when she got a job in the city.

Mr Roden’s first teaching job was at King Edward’s School, and he spent a total of 26 years working within the King Edward’s Foundation, as well as five years at Bristol Grammar School.

“KES was the first school I applied to,” he says. “I walked down the drive on a foggy day wearing my twin brother’s suit and had no idea what was coming.

“There were 150 applicants for the job but I fitted the bill as I could teach geography and games.”

His roles within selective grammar schools and the private school sector mean he has faced different challenges to his state counterparts, but says he plans to appoint colleagues in his new venture who have complementary experience. “It will be CV gold for any teacher,” he says.

And Mr Roden has something of a blank sheet in front of him in terms of shaping the new school, which will be a free non-selective state school in a purpose-built building on the university’s Selly Oak site.

Work started on the buildings three weeks ago and it is scheduled to be completed two weeks before the school opens in September next year, welcoming pupils in Year 7 and Year 12, before growing to its full capacity of 1,150 students over five years.

It will take pupils from a number of areas across Birmingham, helping to meet the anticipated shortfall in secondary school places and reflecting the diversity of the city.

There will be close links with the university, including guest lectures, mentoring opportunities and use of the sports facilities, and crucially, it will be a centre for teacher training, ongoing teacher education and research which will inform national policy and practice. But that doesn’t mean that pupils will be “guinea pigs” for unqualified staff.

“It will be a training school for teachers, not an experimental school for children,” says Mr Roden. “Classes will be taught by qualified teachers with trainees learning their craft alongside them.

“Good teachers need to be wise and exercise judgment, and I can now select my own. If it all goes wrong it will be my fault,

“They chose me because of my track record of outstanding performance in education, but I have always been so fortunate with the people I have worked with and for. I’m interested in risk-taking and innovation - part of why I took this job – but this isn’t a ship that’s going to sink; it’s a ship that will lead the fleet.”

Most of all, Mr Roden said he wants to see the school help all children achieve their potential.

He said: “Don’t feel this school isn’t for you, no matter what your background. I come from a modest background and I feel so fortunate. If it’s the school for me, it’s got to be the school for you.

“The value of an education is not how much money you earn, it’s what impact you make on the lives of others. I really believe that. These pupils will be creating history.”

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