'First among equals' has kicked down the doors

Trust school pioneer Paul Kelley explains his bold vision for the future to Elaine Williams

Heads who like to think they're the approachable type, in touch with staff and pupils, will boast of having an open-door policy. But few, if any, have no door at all. Apart from Dr Paul Kelley that is, head of Monkseaton community high in Whitley Bay, Tyne and Wear. He has no door and no office, and works at a desk among his pupils in the school's learning centre, a glass pyramid with state-of-the art information technology.

It is surprising that a man who gained a doctorate for his study of William Wordsworth should be at the forefront of scientific and technological advancement in schools. Dr Kelley has kept up with progress in neuroscience and has spent the past three years reviewing research into how to create the best learning environment for pupils. Perhaps his interest in the Romantics comes out in his obvious bent for social equality. In a school that prides itself on using technology to reduce paperwork, he sees no need for an office, preferring to mingle with staff and students as a "first among equals".

"There is no convincing evidence that individuals are personally responsible for changing an organisation," he said. "Everybody makes a contribution. The best thing I do as head is recognise other people's talents."

David Reynolds, professor of leadership and school effectiveness at Exeter university, calls Dr Kelley "a lateral kind of guy, a real one-off". He is a free-thinking intellectual, very different from the managerial heads that have grown up under new Labour.

Professor Reynolds particularly admires the way Dr Kelley has harnessed technology to promote children's well-being, their health, happiness and all-round achievement; indeed, that is why the professor has agreed to team up with him to become chairman of the first trust in the country to run a maintained school.

Monkseaton is the first school in the country to apply to be governed by an Innovations Trust that includes Microsoft Education UK, consultants Tribal Education and North Tyneside council. It aims to create, share and test "new ways to improve the achievement, well-being and aspirations of all young people".

Perhaps it takes an American, someone from outside these shores, to bring a different culture into a school. Dr Kelley, 58, was born in California and his education has encompassed the study of science at the University of California, Berkeley, and ultimately a PhD on Wordsworth at Hull university. Along the way, he studied for an arts degree with the Open University (OU). Always an innovator, he was a founding editor of the Cambridge School Shakespeare series, which broke new ground in linking the study of text and performance.

But it was Dr Kelley's studies at the OU that had the greatest influence on his vision for schools. From his first experiences as a student there, he admired the OU's use of various media and the quality of its structures to support learners wherever they are, and he has maintained close contact with the university.

He was instrumental in setting up the Young Applicants in Schools and College programme with the OU - a scheme for bright sixth-formers to study undergraduate modules. Some 170 students at Monkseaton have now studied with the OU in this way since 1996. Monkseaton is now piloting degree-awarding apprenticeships and some students are employed by the school as network development officers, work that is accredited by the OU towards an ICT foundation degree.

Perhaps also because he is an American, Dr Kelly felt comfortable in taking on the British establishment. He courted controversy in 2000 when he criticised Magdalen College, Oxford, for rejecting his pupil, Laura Spence, who wanted to study medicine there and already had a place on a scholarship to Harvard. He could do it, he said, because he knows "for a fact" that Harvard is harder to get into.

It may be surprising that someone with his global background and outlook should settle in Whitley Bay, a seaside resort on Tyneside. But he has grown to love its landscape and community. Professor Reynolds says it is typical of the man: "He is building the place up so it can compete internationally - so that Monkseaton can contribute to the world," he said.

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