The Conversation - The Starfish philosophy

Headteacher Stephen Capper (left) tells Trevor Averre-Beeson how a story about a boy on a beach inspires daily him to pull his school out of special measures

Trevor Averre-Beeson

What made you become a teacher, Stephen?

I had some great teachers when I was at school who motivated and inspired me. The school itself, however, represented much that was wrong with education at that time. I felt very early on that all children deserve the very best education, the very best opportunities - and that made me want to join the profession.

So when did you first know that you would become a head?

My experiences in teaching have uniquely prepared me for what I'm doing now. I loved teaching English, and when I moved from Leicester to take up a head of department post in Essex, that was as much as I ever thought I'd want to do. But I worked for a great head, Sue Anderson, who gave me such a varied range of experiences that leadership seemed a natural move to make.

When it came, the move was to Little Ilford School in Newham, east London, in 1996, where I found inspirational leaders at all levels. So when I moved to Sawyers Hall College in Essex as a deputy in 2002, I felt well prepared for what lay ahead.

And what happened then?

What I couldn't have known then was that the school was about to embark on a far from magical journey. I'm the fourth head in six years. Clearly, such rapid changes had left the school feeling fragile. In 2006, we went into special measures. The then head left and I took over on an acting basis in 2007, and permanently this term.

That must have been a very difficult period? What pulled you through?

It was difficult, but I'm a very optimistic individual. I firmly believe that you get out what you put in, and no matter how daunting the task that lies ahead, every day you have to do at least one thing that makes a difference. If everyone does that, then you're on the road to transforming the school.

That's an admirable philosophy. Have you shared it with staff and pupils?

It's our core value. The basis is the starfish story. I first heard it in Newham and now it is everywhere in my school, including - as you can see - on my lapel.

The basic story is that a boy stood on a beach one day trying to put millions of starfish back in the sea after a storm. A wise old man walked past and told the boy it was a hopeless task, that he would never get them all back and could make no difference; they would die in the baking sun. The boy's reply was to throw the nearest starfish as far as he could into the sea saying, "Well, I made a difference to that one."

That's become my philosophy and I've made it the school's too. I've retold that story to staff and pupils many times. I gave all the staff a starfish lapel badge when we got out of special measures, and everywhere you turn you'll see staff and pupils putting the philosophy into action.

It not only symbolises that we can all make a difference and that every journey begins with small steps, but it is also a unifying belief that helps us share a common understanding.

It has given us a vision, hope, motivation and the confidence to enable the school to work together to make a difference.

What would you say to other heads in your position?

Find one good thing every day, never give up hope, be optimistic and stand your ground. I wrote to the local paper when we were put on the National Challenge list, and I sought out Ed Balls at the end of a conference. I wanted to tell everyone that we deserved better than being named and shamed, and that we would fight to get off that list.

This year, our GCSE results went up to 52 per cent and are the best we've had in six years - and we will go further, I'm sure. Our English and maths passes have risen from 21 per cent in 2006 to 29 per cent in 2008. We are always improving. But that's it, really - one step at a time. Be relentless, have fun, fight for what you believe in, tell anyone who will listen - and make a difference.

Stephen Capper is head of Sawyers Hall College in Essex, which was declared a National Challenge school in July 2008.

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Trevor Averre-Beeson

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