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Friends should tell it like it is

Assertive governors have helped a head transform a once-failing school. Martin Whittaker reports

Name Nicholas Chamberlaine technology college, Bedworth, Warwickshire School type 11-18 community comprehensive

Proportion of children entitled to free school meals

12 per cent

Improved results Small improvement from 29 per cent of students gaining five Cs or better at GCSE in 1999, to 32 per cent in 2003

Four years ago Nicholas Chamberlaine school was failing. The Office for Standards in Education placed the school in special measures after a damning inspection report highlighted key issues, including weak leadership and management, unsatisfactory teaching and poor pupil behaviour.

It was a wake-up call for the school's governors - they were criticised for failing to give appropriate leadership. Their work was hampered by lack of information and they were not assertive enough in demanding it, said inspectors.

Since then, Nicholas Chamberlaine in Warwickshire has been undergoing a quiet revolution. It came out of special measures in March last year and since September has had technology college status.

Earlier this year it received an achievement award and it is now oversubscribed. And it has just led a successful bid to lead 15 Warwickshire schools in a Networked Learning Community, where teachers share innovative approaches in the classroom.

Lesley King, the headteacher who was brought in to turn the school around, puts the improvement down to hard work by staff and governors.

In particular, the school's governing body has managed to reinvent itself by changing its membership, by tightening up on training and by heavily involving its members in the day-to-day life of the school.

"It had certainly lost its way," says Mrs King. "While I think the support of governors is vital, their critical function is equally as important.

They had lost that role because they had become out of touch with what was going on in the school."

Nicholas Chamberlaine is an 11 to 18 comprehensive in Bedworth, a former mining town near Coventry.

The area has significantly fewer children from high social class households than the national average, though only 12 per cent of the school's pupils are eligible for free school meals - below the national average.

GCSE results have shown a slight improvement, but are still below national averages. In 1999 29 per cent achieve five or more grades A* to C. This year the figure was 32 per cent.

Its key stage 3 Sats results have shown more marked improvement. In English more than one in three students gained level 6 or higher this year, and its maths and science Sats results are the best in the school's history.

Lesley King was brought in from another school as acting head a fortnight before the 1999 inspection - and ended up staying. One of her first tasks was to tackle student discipline, with zero tolerance on swearing at members of staff, bullying and racism.

Huge changes were made to the teaching staff and senior management team.

The school has had a 75 per cent staff turnover, though numbers are now stable. This September the staffroom was full.

Every fortnight the school holds evening training sessions which are voluntary for everyone except newly-qualified teachers. A prefect system was introduced and students are trained in how to deal with responsibility.

The school has also developed a number of initiatives designed to raise student achievement and self-esteem. Year 8 students go on courses to boost leadership skills. And there is a programme for gifted and talented pupils linked to the National Space Centre in Leicester.

Central to the development of the school has been a transformation of the governing body. When the school was placed in special measures, the local education authority initially appointed four new governors.

Over the next 18 months the body's composition changed as members of the old guard resigned. Now only two of the original members are still there.

Governors held meetings for parents after every monitoring visit by inspectors, and the school put out newsletters to spread the word on progress. And they took steps to become much more involved in the management of the school.

Links were established between individual governors and the managers of each department. They now liaise regularly with the school's 15 departments, come in to watch teaching, attend department meetings and are involved in reviews.

Mrs King says this has strengthened governors' knowledge of the school as well as raising their profile. "It would be wonderful if every governor knew every single thing going on in the school. But there's just too much going on. We have tried to make the governor's job manageable.

"It's given each department a critical eye. It's so useful to have someone outside the school to come in and talk, and sometimes to see things that we don't see."

Link governors visit the school every term and fill in feedback forms on their visit, with positive comments and questions. This feedback then goes back to the head and senior management team for discussion.

Governors are also assigned to key issues in the school's improvement plan, and have to report back to the governing body on progress in those issues.

David Craddick, clerk to the governors at Nicholas Chamberlaine since January 2000, says the governing body is now a very different animal from that criticised by Ofsted.

"They used to come for a meeting and they left, and there was almost no dialogue, whereas now, it's very much a professional meeting. The governors ask serious, deep questions about the school. They receive the reports, they get everything on time, but they will also question the head or senior members of staff. And we record in the minutes of meetings the questions governors raise."

Lesley King says: "I have seen an increase in the number of questions the governors are asking, and they are more searching questions. But at the end of the day the governors have the same thing at heart as I have, and that's the success of the school.

"I don't get it right all the time, and it's important that there's that check and that balance. Sometimes I will say you have really made me think about that. But that is the role of the governors. It's not to support the head - that's too chummy. They have to be a critical friend."

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