Gossip. What office or staffroom would be without it? Yet it's often destructive, the stuff that distracts and undermines. At Swiss Cottage school in Camden, north London, gossip - the sort where one colleague idly bad-mouths another - is off limits. If there's criticism to be made, it is made straight to the person concerned and, if necessary, to a third party who can help resolve the conflict. Headteacher Kay Bedford works on the premise that "if you don't say it straight, you'll show it crooked".
"If you say one thing and think another, that will come out eventually," she says. "Similarly, if we ask staff to do something they know is impossible, they have to say it can't be done. Then we talk about why. People must not say they can do something when they know they can't. That's no use to me or the pupils. These children have difficult enough lives without being burdened by our squabbles."
Staff at this special school attribute Kay Bedford's straight talking to the fact that she's Australian and immune to the British affliction of beating about the bush. There's undoubtedly something in that; her upfront style has a distinctly antipodean feel. But this culture of plain speaking goes hand in hand with support and encouragement.
This drive for openness has more to do with Kay Bedford's aspirations for the school than her nationality. The 52-year-old passionately believes that staff attitudes to each other and pupils are pivotal to success, to making school a place where children and staff are happily focused on the core of teaching and learning.
There is plenty of evidence of this success. Pupils, aged two to 16, have a vast range of difficulties, from the physical to the emotional and behavioural, from Duchenne muscular dystrophy to emotional vulnerability and autism. But at Swiss Cottage these pupils are stimulated, safe and cared for. All are statemented for learning difficulties.
At its most recent inspection Ofsted praised the school as excellent. It said "very good relationships" provide "an emotionally secure environment in which pupils can learn effectively". Energy and commitment from staff was "exceptionally high" and a "significant factor in rapid improvement and success".
Much of the credit for this must go to Investors in People, a standard the school gained two years ago. Kay Bedford has recently been appointed an ambassador for the programme and is unequivocal about the benefits, especially for staff development. "Investors in People enables you to focus on what makes a difference to your school," she says. "For us, a key factor has been the development of behaviour guidelines for staff and pupils."
Investors has enabled managers to give staff the support to live and breathe those guidelines: to say it straight, not show it crooked; to express feelings appropriately; to disentangle the issue from the person; never to moan without defining the problem and looking for a solution; to presume honourable motives behind decisions; to forgive and let go; to make agreements that one intends and is able to keep; to enjoy the company of colleagues; to recognise the stress they can be under; to praise individual and shared success.
Investors in People was created more than a decade ago. The initiative came from the UK's leading businesses to provide a framework to help companies compete and succeed through improved "people performance". But what is good for business has also been seen as good for schools. Around 35 per cent of primary and secondary schools now have the standard, a 10 per cent increase on last year. At a time when teacher recruitment and retention is at the top of every school's agenda, a programme that focuses on staff motivation has become increasingly attractive.
Kay Bedford says the Investors standard guided the school through a difficult period. In 1996 a management consultant, John Yates, had been helping senior management to concentrate on developing staff, build up induction, improve lines of communication and secure proper feedback. "All of that is key to what management should be focusing on. But when you are under pressure or there is a crisis with a child it's easy to lose the focus," she says. After working with the school for about a year, John Yates recommended that it apply for Investors in People recognition.
"Investors helps you to retain staff by focusing on their welfare, training and support - and that's crucial," says Kay Bedford. "Staff are in a powerful position these days; they can cherry-pick. We see our teachers and classroom support staff as the key providers. The rest of us are there to support them in their work."
The school occupies a group of buildings close to Hampstead Theatre and uses the performing arts to build pupils' confidence and self-esteem. It has a vibrant atmosphere, full of artwork and the sound of children singing or making music. The morning I visit, a group of Year 8 and 9 children is busy creating the music for an opera. Two years ago Swiss Cottage was included on the Department for Education and Employment's list of "most successful schools" and became a beacon school for leadership, people management, behaviour management, special needs and continuing professional development. Parents beg the school to find their child a place. Teachers and support assistants constantly ask about staff vacancies. In a city suffering acute teacher shortages such interest is rare.
But it was not always thus. Indeed, Investors has served to focus hearts and minds through a turbulent history. The school opened in 1995 under Kay Bedford's headship following the amalgamation of a school for pupils with physical disabilities with another for those with moderate learning difficulties. One of the schools had plummeting rolls and was in a poor state after a damning local authority inspection report.
On day one of her headship Kay Bedford gathered staff and her two deputies, Gill Collins and Maisie Sammon, to draw up the relationship guidelines; determined thereafter to implement them as key to the school's future health.
"We encouraged upward feedback," says Gill Collins. "If people were not happy we expected them to come to see us, not to moan, but to try to resolve problems, to be solution-focused." Maisie Sammon says staff moved from being divided to being the "best team I have ever worked with. Everything is upfront here; that is respectful. It is disrespectful to have a view and not to tell people."
Kay Bedford says: "If you have good relations, you can concentrate on other things. If you don't, people will subvert and undermine what you are trying to do." All of this rubs off on pupils, who appreciate the openness. Omair Kushtiwala, 15, says "the staff are like your friends, like your family".
Ahmed Musa, 16, praises staff for bringing out the best in pupils. "They treat us as equals. If we have a problem they don't just tell us what to do, they help us to help ourselves."
Janine McKenzie, 15, says pupils are well informed about what is happening in school. "They give us a lot of information. If someone is leaving they tell us about it."
Even now, the behaviour guidelines come up as a regular item at meetings, constantly being worked on. Kay Bedford says: "Staff will come and say, 'I'm really worried about so and so'. And I will say, 'So how are you going to present it to them?' If they are scared of somebody's reaction I will get them to practise what they are going to say. I ask, 'What's the worst thing that can happen?' and the answer is often that the person will be upset. 'What's the best?' That he or she will change. So I say, 'Let's go for it'.
"Senior managers here won't do it for staff. Too much is dumped on management in schools. But we will support them to do it for themselves."
An enormous amount of staff development, a key requirement of the Investors standard, underpins these guidelines. The school opened with 78 children and now takes in 136 with an ever-widening range of needs. Demands on staff expertise and resourcefulness are huge and require considerable collaboration between teachers and support staff, the medical team, physios, and occupational and speech therapists.
Staff facilities are constantly upgraded. An outdoor area to the staffroom was recently refurbished and now has a patio, barbecue, chairs and tables. Staff parties are a regular event. One of the 30 support assistants is an expert DJ, and dancing has become an extra-curricular staff speciality.
Another, Joe West, was a football coach with a local authority play service before he came to Swiss Cottage. Now he is head of PE and games as a non-qualified teacher. The school, which recognises his inspirational qualities and vision for the subject, is helping him to gain a teaching qualification. "The atmosphere here is wonderful," he says. "Everybody's contribution is valued and no one is afraid to ask for things. That's important because these children react quickly to the mood of a place. A lot of them have very difficult lives. It wouldn't take much for them to feel unsafe and uncomfortable."
Carolin Oliver, a nursery support assistant, says the behaviour policy is "very much something that everybody takes on. You do see it in action. Teacher stress and frustration often come out in anger towards children, but that doesn't happen here." Far from resenting the no-secrets approach, staff value honesty of communication at all levels and have nominated Kay Bedford for the National Teaching Awards' Headteacher of the Year.
Sandra Garrett came to Swiss Cottage as a volunteer in the nursery four years ago and was offered a job as a support assistant. Since then she has been supported through a Masters degree in special needs and has gone on to create special provision in school for a group of children with complex needs related to autism. "The school will use the best of what you can do," she says, "but it is not one of those jobs where you give and give and get nothing in return. If you do a good job you get recognition for it."