Salisbury born Sam Johnston is delighted he’s been appointed as the new principal of Avon Valley College – not least because “It feels nice to be coming home, back to my roots.”
But Sam who lives in Winchester with his wife, Amber and their two children Finley, just six months old and Stella, aged four, is a man of steely determination.
For while he enjoys endurance, trekking and ‘Tough Guy’ events, he’s also a great believer in ‘tough love’ in school.
Avon Valley College (AVC) may be his first principalship but Sam, currently vice principal (behaviour & inclusion) at Sandown Bay Academy on the Isle of Wight, has very clear ideas about the future.
“I chose to apply to Avon Valley College because I understand this school and I understand what needs to be done. I believe the staff here are ready for change, ready to believe in something new,” he explains.
“I want this school to be the school that everyone knows, working with other schools.
“This is the first secondary school in Salisbury Plain Academies and in a few years’ time there will be others. I want this school to live by its values – when people visit this school I want them to feel the prospectus, I want the words in our brochure to really mean something.
“If it does, then this school will be distinct,” he says, adding: “Trust is the key, when people see what you said you were going to do happens, or they see that you’re trying they will trust you, and they’ll trust the school and that’s the point when people and communities give back and support you.”
Sam attended secondary school in Lymington before his family moved to the midlands where he completed his secondary education. Later studying music at The University of Sheffield, he became interested in teaching – while his father was a head teacher at a Worcestershire school.
Having completed his PGCE at the London Institute of Education, his first full-time appointment was at Torquay School (now Torquay Community College) but wanting to gain experience in teaching A-level, he moved to Banbury School.
And then fate intervened. In 2003, he met his American wife to be and moved to the United States, living there for five years
Working in Washington DC and Texas in public, independent and charter schools, he also found the time to complete a MEd at Jones International University in Colorado.
Returning to this country he joined the Future Leaders Programme. The DfE initiative for aspiring head teachers is an accelerated programme for those who have the potential to become a school leader but lack experience in leadership.
The next three and a half years saw him working at Charter Academy in Portsmouth, part of the Ark Academy Trust. “This was a rapidly improving school and I worked with some remarkable leaders who showed me how rapid school improvement is really achieved,” he explains.
“The school improvement programme was modelled on the London Challenge initiative – good work ethos, working hard, no excuses, routines and expectation and not making allowances… in short ‘tough love’,” he says.
But he maintains it’s important to ‘sweat the small stuff’, such as ties tied properly, shirts tucked in, proper shoes etc. These changes in behaviour can lead to a big culture change. “Once these small changes are established, other things fall into place and these standards become the new norm,” he says.
And in time, he says, that leads to a critical tipping point. “Once staff, students and parents understand these standards are here to stay, belief in the school increases, you get applications from teachers who’ve heard about the school and want to teach here, students and parents see what the future looks like for the school, and it will become known to aspiring leaders who want to be part of the school’s journey.
“I’m looking forward to working with students, staff and the community of Salisbury Plain – there’s a bright and exciting future ahead for Avon Valley College.”
Sam takes up his new position on September 1st but parents and prospective students can meet him at AVC’s Open Event on the 11th July.