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Bring vision to bear

A determined head pulled his deaf school out of special measures

Even when you know that what you are doing is the right thing, being in special measures can be the loneliest place on earth for any headteacher.

Doncaster School for the Deaf hit rock bottom last year, 170 years after its foundation. This handsomely built institution, fronting Doncaster racecourse, once housed 300 deaf children.

When David Muir, 41, was taken on as head in 2005, the school had no more than 30 on roll, many with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, and it was just about to be dropped into special measures.

Things were as bad as they could get. Staff were demoralised, the curriculum was poor, achievement and expectations low, there were no assessment systems and behaviour was explosive - with tables and chairs sent flying and physical restraint of pupils commonplace.

Trustees of the school, which is non-maintained and residential, had a choice: close it or turn it around. Mr Muir, who had a track record as a visionary and effective head for deaf children, was initially brought in as a consultant but rapidly appointed to headship over an acting head, a decision that caused the governing body and half the staff to resign.

Mr Muir immediately set about finding governors who supported high-quality special education for deaf pupils, and hired staff from his former school, a maintained deaf school in West Yorkshire, which he had improved but which was closing down.

One of those teachers, Linette France, profoundly deaf herself and appointed literacy coordinator, was recently honoured in the Teaching Awards for her inspirational work in special education.

Mr Muir knew he had to change the ethos. But, initially, things got worse rather than better: staff morale sank even lower and the number of exclusions went up.

"I was asking staff and students to work in a way to which they were diametrically opposed," Mr Muir says.

This approach involved giving students choices and time out, introducing a "respect agenda", discouraging the use of restraint, introducing clear, transparent processes, and putting British Sign Language on an equal footing with English to promote self-esteem and raise standards.

Mr Muir held fast and behaviour started to improve significantly. The school was taken out of special measures after three-and-a-half terms, a rapid turnaround. However, there were many times when Mr Muir doubted himself.

"Every day was about keeping the faith," he says. "As a non-maintained school, we had no backing from the local authority. It was a very lonely place to be. I had no doubts that what I was doing would work, but it was a question of when."

Surviving under pressure

Maintain a clear vision. Passionate conviction will help you.

Put yourself in other people's shoes. Recognise that staff are having a difficult time and put in support.

Explain that it is systems that are at fault, not individuals.

Create a people-friendly environment where staff and students feel respected.

Approach difficult situations with an open mind, not with preconceived labels.

Find people you can talk to.

Recognise that teachers have home lives - don't expect them to stay back for meetings every day just because of special measures.

Put your family life first - that will help you to put work problems in perspective.

Be tough when necessary, persuasive mostly.

Keep faith and begin every day afresh.

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