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The Conversation: Challenging schools

In just two years Joan McVittie changed a notorious north London secondary from purgatory to paragon. She tells Geoff Barton how she brought about the transformation

Q: So how did you find yourself appointed to White Hart Lane?

A: In 2000, I was appointed headteacher at a school in Leytonstone. The previous head had changed the school from undersubscribed to popular, but results were still poor - with only around 34 per cent gaining five GCSE A*-C grades. Six years later, with results at 58 per cent and a good team, I had a call from headhunters in London.

I had a vision that my next school would be in a leafy suburb, and was invited to such a school. But I ended up walking out of the interview because I felt the kids were so privileged that there wasn't much I could do to make a difference.

That local authority rang me the following week and asked me to visit a school where the pupils weren't privileged - and that's how I ended up at White Hart Lane.

Q: What was the school like when you arrived?

A: White Hart Lane had been at the bottom of the London league tables for a decade, during which time there had been six headteachers.

When I arrived in January 2006, the school was in turmoil: behaviour was dreadful; attendance of pupils and staff was poor; there were financial irregularities; and a large number of agency staff.

I brought in the auditors, who produced what the borough's director of finance called the "worst report he had ever seen". We are still working through the issues that this report brought up.

However, the school council was desperate to change the local perception of the school and worked to change the uniform, the school name and the logo, while at the same time putting pressure on their peers to improve behaviour.

There were also a significant number of staff in the school who were keen to work for change.

Q: And now?

A: Two years on, we have a new name - Woodside High School - results have improved from 17 to 40 per cent A*-C grades at GCSE, and pupils have pride in their school. There is a terrific team of staff who work their socks off, and local perception is changing too.

Q: Looking back, what do you think were the critical things you did that started the turnaround?

A: I made my expectations clear to pupils regarding behaviour and achievement. We also developed pupil voice in the school.

I took on five Teach First graduates and made a number of substantive appointments of staff who had been in acting posts for several years, which increased confidence.

I drew in support from my network of headteacher colleagues. And when the local union was calling strikes, I asked Acas, the conciliation service, for support.

Q: That sounds pretty grim. What was the worst moment in those early days? And what was the first sign that you were turning things around?

A: Worst moment: the briefing at the start of one school day when a member of staff attempted to undermine me by giving a public resignation. He was shouting and banging on a desk. I explained to him that it wasn't appropriate action at a briefing, but he continued to shout. I explained that he ought to have a professional conversation with me in private. He continued to shout, so I closed down the briefing.

First signs that things were turning around? Improvement in results after two terms, the pupils taking pride in the new uniform, and 100 per cent of pupils coming in wearing it in September 2006.

We made our first appointment of an advanced skills teacher and I knew, through a briefing, that the staff were behind me.

We still have the odd wild day, so we are very aware that improvements are fragile and that there's still lots to do. But some nights I can actually get home before 9pm.

Joan McVittie is headteacher of Woodside High School in Haringey, north London

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds.

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