Heads creating state of siege as route to success

On white working-class estates, they foster ‘us-against-the-rest’ havens where pupils can feel safe and succeed
14th November 2008, 12:00am


Heads creating state of siege as route to success


Schools that succeed against the odds in poor communities often do so by fostering an “us against the rest” siege mentality to forge a sense of unity among pupils and staff.

They tend to provide stable learning environments and have a low turnover of staff, and are often led by heads who grew up in disadvantaged areas. And the heads are supportive of both pupils and staff, but will not accept their students’ often chaotic home backgrounds as excuses for poor performance.

These are the key findings of a new report documenting the approaches taken by heads who have been successful in raising white working class pupils’ achievements.

One headteacher whose work is highlighted in the study described one of his strategies as coming from the “Alex Ferguson school of management,” after England’s most successful modern football manager.

Richard Schofield, head of Redbridge Community School in Southampton, said: “What Fergie has done has been to galvanise everyone at Manchester United into believing that the whole world is against them: the referees hate them, other fans hate them, and so on. It produces a mentality of, ‘we’ll show them’.

“With a school which serves, in our case, a largely white working class council estate, it is similar.

“We use any negative feelings that might generate to galvanise the staff and students into thinking,’ actually, we will show them what we can do.’”

The report was commissioned by the National College for School Leadership and the National Union of Teachers, amid concerns that underachievement by this group of pupils has not been given sufficient national attention.

The study by Manchester University academics sought conclusions from a literature review and from visits to five primary and six secondary schools where the performance of white working class pupils was better than average.

They found that there was no simple answer as to how such schools were succeeding. In fact, these respected school leaders were simply deploying approaches which had consistently been pinpointed as effective by research.

They tended to do so consistently and often “relentlessly”, and through adapting well-founded techniques to their schools’ needs.

The report found that most of the case study heads had grown up in working class communities, and had chosen to work within them.

They had a profound respect for the context they were working with, without being patronising.

They had high expectations, but were able to pass these on to staff and pupils in way that were seen “as evidence of care and concern”, rather than as “surveillance”, or the need constantly to guard against underperformance.

Staff were encouraged to be disciplined risk-takers, so long as they learned from any mistakes. And the heads were keen to delegate responsibility where they could.

Several schools had adopted a “grow-your-own policy” on recruitment, taking pride in developing the careers of their staff.

The report added that stability of learning for pupils appeared to be central. “The primary schools are absolutely dependable places with highly structured routines which iron out the peaks and troughs in pupils’ day-to-day turmoil,” it said. “The personal warmth with which that is done permeates the schools. The emotional and physical boundaries are safe; the schools are, for the pupils certainly and maybe for the staff, a haven.

“The secondary schools also use routine and dependability to powerful effect. The leaders make sure that the immediate environment is controlled and manipulated so that teaching and learning can be effective.”

Heads of secondary schools without a sixth form felt that this could be detrimental, as their pupils would face the uncertainty of a new learning environment at 16, and also lacked the positive role models that sixth-formers could provide.


One head mentioned anonymously in the Manchester University study said he has worked in schools serving deprived communities throughout his 20-year career.

“I’ve never worked in a school that hasn’t been like this,” he said. “No one’s ever let me into one of those leafy suburbs.”

At the start of his career, he ran a football club for his pupils on Saturday mornings, followed by a chess club in the afternoons.

He remains committed to this approach, running activities that keep the school hall full every lunchtime and in the evenings.

He wants to make his school a centre for its locality, encouraging community groups to use it for meetings. The latest initiative is a gardening club, which is attracting pupils, their parents and even their grandparents.

And he is convinced that after 17 years as head and the extent of his work with the community he is helping the school succeed.

“Engagement with the people is one of the key demands on me and I want to do it,” he said. “I’m outside in the playground most mornings to meet everyone, being the figurehead, I suppose.”

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