Fighting his corner

Mel Johnson hasn't always seen eye to eye with city hall since he took over Northcott, a special school that was once in the doldrums. Now Hull has proposed it for beacon status. Gerald Haigh reports

Northcott school in Hull is a special school for children who need a protective environment. Pupils' needs are many and varied - medical, emotional, sensory, speech and language - and there is a facility for children with autism. But as a visitor one is aware only of friendly and interested youngsters being well taught. Rooms are well equipped, and there is beautiful artwork everywhere.

But it wasn't always like that. When the head, Mel Johnson, arrived in January 1994, the task he faced was starkly defined when inspectors arrived a few months later. The report was truly daunting: achievement unsatisfactory in 57 percent of English lessons; teaching in 39 percent of lessons unsatisfactory or poor. And the building was in poor shape; the roof leaked and a covered way between blocks was used by drug-takers and vandals.

"I couldn't believe the conditions that teachers had to work in," says Mr Johnson, who was then Hull's special needs adviser. "Everything was third rate, not just second rate."

When inspectors called again in 1997, the report was quite different, saying: "The quality of teaching is high and ranges from sound to excellent." This was progress, and it continued. The school was inspected again in January. This time, the report said: "This is an excellent school which has continued to develop and improve."

But how was it done? Certainly, there were signals that if Northcott hadn't improved quickly, it would probably have been closed.

"A special school should only exist if it is out of the ordinary," says Mr Johnson. "We can't justify excluding pupils from their peers unless they are being offered something beyond the mainstream."

In the end, it seems much of the improvement came down to the determined leadership of a head with broad experience, including four years as an adviser. Mr Johnson describes his management style as "consultative but not collegiate. "Every view is considered but we don't always go in that direction," he says.

He believes heads must maintain a distance from the staffroom. "They have to know that you will, if necessary, start capability or disciplinary proceedings against staff" It's clear that he has fought some tough battles, but the 11 teachers who were at the school in 1994 are there still, along with some others who have arrived as the school has grown. As so often, it seems that able staff were waiting for strong leadership.

Planning and monitoring play a big part in running Northcott. There are tightly written policies for all areas of school life. Lesson planning is rigorous and closely monitored by the deputy head - and by Johnson himself, who also observes lessons. He believes that such close monitoring ensures a consistency in the quality of teaching, besides which it makes performance management easier.

"When the threshold assessor came, he commented that it was actually difficult for teachers not to get through the threshold - the systems were such that you couldn't fail to do what was necessary," he says.

It's a level of management guidance that some might see as restrictive. But Adrian Dowle, head of Years 10 and 11, doesn't think so.

"It's helped me to develop as a teacher, by giving me a strong base to start from," he says. "And it actually gives you more opportunities by highlighting the importance of planning and recording."

While the close monitoring gives teachers more to do, there are the sort of trade-offs that characterise schools with successful heads. The school has an "extra" teacher, who is first call for absence cover so that staff rarely lose their non-contact time. Meanwhile, the number of assistants has increased from 7 to 21. And there is the calm working atmosphere, which owes much to a clear behaviour policy. Resources have also improved in recent years - classrooms are well equipped with everything from electronic whiteboards and computers down to paper trimmers and pencil sharpeners. The physical environment is also to be envied, and a committed caretaking team has defeated the problems of vandalism and drug-taking with improved security measures and a better rapport with the local community. Of course, all this costs money - but Mel Johnson has proven to be adept at finding funds from a variety of local businesses, including a caravan club and several pubs.

The authority clearly expected improvement at Northcott when they appointed Mel Johnson . But they must have known that his agenda for the school wouldn't always coincide with its own strategy. And that is often how it has been.

"As head, you have a duty to your employers, but you also have to show the school and the parents that you will defend their interests," says Johnson.

"But I've never felt that I couldn't understand their point of view," he adds. "I know that the authority has its own considerable pressures."

And he is quick to praise the overall approach and the work of individuals.

"This school has thrived within Hull authority - and Simon Gardner, the deputy director, has been instrumental; and the special needs adviser is a critical friend who understands about special schools."

For his part, Simon Gardner understands the relationship between school and authority. "Mel will be looking at the balance within his school," he says. "We're looking at the balance overall. When a school quite rightly fights its corner and wins, it can place a big financial burden on a small authority like ours."

There is no doubt that Hull recognises Northcott's excellence; indeed, the authority has now put the school forward for beacon status. Simon Gardner says: "A weakness of our education system is in the sharing of good practice. We use the term like a mantra, but it doesn't always happen."

Overall, this relationship may best be described as creatively combative. I'm told that the two men go off-road cycling together, and one imagines that the same is true on those occasions, too.

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