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Fifteen ways to keep afloat

Have faith. Don't despair. Kate Myers offers strategies for avoiding that sinking feeling

We hear a lot these days about failing schools, ailing schools, schools in trouble, however you define them. There are a variety of reasons for their difficulties and there is no one remedy to solve all problems. But having observed a few troubled schools, it seems to me that there are some common strategies that can be adopted and adapted to most situations and some pitfalls to be prepared for. I offer these strategies below, not as a blueprint but to save energy and angst and to avoid the need to reinvent the wheel:

1. Paramount in any attempts to bring about change and improvement, it is crucial that key people - especially the headteacher - hang on to the belief that things can get better. Even when this is not immediately apparent - in the middle of coping with setbacks - they must still retain that faith.

2. Establish with as many interested parties as possible - staff, students, parents, governors, the local community - what the school should look like and be like in five years' time.

3. Collect information to confirm the present position (for example, test results, attendance and exclusion figures, all compared with intake information plus student, staff and parent surveys). By collecting these at regular intervals, you can begin to demonstrate improvement, however small.

4. Remember that in the short term things may get worse before they get better: concerned parents, for instance, may take their children elsewhere with the result that exam results get worse.

5. Determine what is feasible and realistic considering available human and physical resources. Then work backwards and develop short term plans (this termthis yearthree years' time). Work out the costs, who is responsible for what, who should be involved, who should report to whom, who should evaluate the results and how.

6. Make contact with and visit other schools that have been in similar situations.

7. Ensure early initiatives are successful. This might affect what you tackle first. A common start is to introduce a policy on uniform or change the existing one. This is a popular move probably because, as well as signalling a new beginning, it conveys a house-style and encourages a common identity and allegiance to the institution. If a wide range of stakeholders, particularly the students, are involved in decisions about design and colour they are more likely to wear the new uniform.

8. Behaviour has to be addressed early on to ensure that teaching and learning can take place. A behaviour policy should be discussed by all staff and students and, once agreed, it is vital that everyone involved adheres to it.

9. However, it is also important that considerable attention is paid to what is happening in the classroom so that students feel it is worth their while behaving.

10. Celebrate your successes. Almost all schools, however troubled, have some areas of success. Good practice can be shared and celebrated through peer observation and in-service training, publicised within the school and as widely as possible in the local community and media.

11. Be prepared for what Michael Fullan, a guru on the management of change, calls the implementation dip. Change is never straightforward. Things will still go wrong but this has to be acknowledged and confronted. Some schools in this situation seem to take two steps forward and one-and-a-half steps back. It is often difficult to recognise the good things that have happened when you are immersed in problems.

12. Be prepared for a long haul. Some things change overnight, but others can take considerable time.

13. Plans should be regularly evaluated but the course should not be changed unless there are exceptional reasons. On occasions it may be necessary to adapt because of unforeseen circumstances but, to avoid the demoralisation of all concerned, it is vital to see initiatives through.

14. Use whatever help is available but ensure that it is related to your plan and that there is a coherence in everything you do.

15. Throughout - and this is possibly the most difficult part -someone needs to try to see the wood for the trees. One symptom of troubled schools is the enormous amount of minutiae and individual problems that staff have to face every day. It is often difficult to step back from the immediate and see the whole. The local authority's advisory service, consultants and contacts in other schools can help.

* Dr Kate Myers is the course leader for the doctor of education programme at the Institute of Education, University of London.

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