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The Conversation: Transformation

How do you turn a failing school in a disadvantaged area into an environment where learning flourishes? Headteacher Madeleine Vigar explains what she did to Geoff Barton

Q: What did Castle Manor Upper School feel like when you came on interview for the headship?

A: The pupils seemed spirited, unkempt and boisterous. The staff were weary, apprehensive, but passionate. The building was tired and dusty. I remember being shown around by a senior member of staff and seeing pupils wearing a corrupted version of the uniform. But there was a heart to the school, with people wanting it to succeed and feel proud of itself again.

Q: Where did you begin?

A: Before taking up the post in September 2003, I spent three days talking and listening to staff and pupils. I learnt that, among staff, the biggest concern was pupil behaviour, and that many pupils felt disengaged. Castle Manor needed a shift back to a focus on young people, learning and achievement.

On my first day, I outlined my vision for the school and asked two Year 11 pupils to talk to the staff about their learning and aspirations. After they had spoken, I introduced what has become our theme tune: "What have you done today to make you feel proud?"

In the first half-term, six improvement strategies were instigated. These related to discipline, uniform, developing a school council, changing some of the vocabulary routinely used - such as "student", not "pupil" - making sure the leadership team was visible, and refurbishing a single staffroom.

Q: What were the first signs these strategies were making an impact?

A: The very first signs were parents and students complaining very publicly about the zero-tolerance approach to school uniform. This meant they were taking notice and that we could open conversations with them about what we began to call our expectations for learning.

The Year 11 boy whose father complained most bitterly about the new approach to uniform became the first chair of our student council and appeared in a local newspaper with me, wearing his uniform immaculately. Sometimes the press really does help.

Behaviour and attitudes improved, most noticeably when the whole school gathered for assemblies. Students gradually stopped jeering each other when we celebrated achievements. And a sense of collective pride emerged, which began to spill out into the classrooms and have a positive effect on the conditions for learning.

Q: Tony Blair suggested schools such as yours needed middle-class children to attend in order to create a virtuous cycle of improvement. Ofsted recently described your school as good with outstanding features. Is this down to a change in the intake?

A: No, but the student roll is rising, as are exam results. Our strategies have raised aspirations. Catalysts for this have been the restructuring of student support systems, achieving business and enterprise specialist status and completely redesigning and personalising the curriculum.

Q: What has been the best moment for you personally in this project?

A: In December, an Ofsted inspector read us this section of her report: "Pastoral care is outstanding. Well-qualified and committed staff work tirelessly to ensure the best possible life chances for students."

Castle Manor is a work in progress and the best is yet to come. We have a great team - and they know there's still lots to be done.

Geoff Barton is head of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

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