I know a guy who can sort it

Can a successful secondary head lead a failing primary out of special measures? Tony McDonald found his skills transferred nicely, and believes it is a path other secondary heads could follow. Michael Duffy reports

Tony McDonald retired from headship this summer - for the third time in recent years. If retiring is a perfectable skill, the 63-year-old leader of Sacred Heart RC primary school in Henley on Thames has certainly had plenty of practice - having first hung up his headteacher hat five years ago, when he left the leadership post at a successful secondary school.

With a career entirely in secondary schools, Mr McDonald was not obviously qualified for a new life as a primary head. Yet Sacred Heart, the school he leaves behind after a three-year stint, is popular and successful, named this year as one of the most improved in the country.

When, as a result of this, Tony McDonald was invited to Number 10 to meet the Prime Minister, he took the opportunity to argue that there are other teachers like him - retiring secondary heads or even year heads in big secondaries, perhaps losing their posts in the new salary framework - who with minimal retraining might bring real strengths to the leadership of primary schools. Lord Adonis, under secretary of state for education, reportedly welcomed the idea and promised to act on it.

Tony McDonald's career did not kick off in education. After school in Lancashire (where his father, a rugby league professional, imparted a lifetime love of sport) he took a law degree at Sheffield. This, and the post of assistant town clerk of Goole it earned him, made marriage possible. His wife Joan was a primary school teacher; with the town clerk's approval, the young McDonald spent one afternoon a week at her school coaching footballers. "It was magic," he says. "They won the league cup twice - and I was hooked." In those days any degree was acceptable as a teaching qualification; within a year he was teaching RE, maths, science, French and games at a secondary modern school in Selby.

The die was cast. Though he went on to take a one-year advanced diploma in secondary education and enjoyed two deputy headships before landing his first headship in 1981, this first post shaped his convictions and style.

It taught him that confidence was at the heart of good teaching and that innovation triggered excitement in teachers and learners alike. At one stage, he taught science in French, with the blessing of both his head and of Sir Alex Clegg, West Riding's legendary education chief. It gave him an early model of effective headship - "ambitious, empowering, person-focused"

- and a willingness to challenge authority when it failed to meet these standards.

Above all, it confirmed for him the centrality of faith. All his teaching has been in Roman Catholic schools; he describes the three-way partnership of school, parents and community as its unshifting foundation. Mr McDonald viewed his second headship, begun in 1986, as the high point of his career.

It was at the St John Payne RC school in Chelmsford, soon widely recognised as a flagship comprehensive. His priorities were simple, to get the best out of every child and every teacher, and his style was direct and personal. "I had a wonderful management team. My job was to be out at the front, to pick up the crap wherever it was, to deal with the problems and make it possible for good teachers to teach well."

Every day, he saw the children into school. When he could, he met parents.

He never missed a PTA meeting. The school became a centre for the community ("we served the best Guinness in Essex") and the diocese, and resisted the lure ("the obscenity", he terms it) of grant-maintained status. But by the summer of 2001, he had decided that he'd reached the peak of what was attainable - and drew a well-earned line under his CV.

That would have been that, had a neighbouring education authority not approached him almost immediately. Southend - his home town - had an RC primary school that was predicted to fail its Ofsted. Behaviour was poor and standards low; there was no community input and no head in post. Would he give two terms to it, to help them pull it round?

As expected, Bournemouth Park school went into special measures by the end of the summer term 2001. Tony McDonald started there in September; his first objective, he says, was to raise staff morale. Was it an issue for him, that he had no primary experience? "No," he says, "nor should it have been. The qualities it needed were qualities that every head ought to have: the ability to create a climate, an ethos, where children want to learn and teachers are able to teach. These are transferable skills. What I had to do was straightforward: get the mothers involved, start assemblies, establish the rules, bring in the outside community."

There were surprises, Mr McDonald admits. Chief among them was the sudden loss of a many-tiered management team. "It was totally hands-on: clearing up if a boy pooed himself, arranging chairs in the hall, being available at weekends. Anything that needed doing was down to the head, and the closeness to the children was fantastic." Shortly after Mr McDonald retired from his stint as primary troubleshooter, leaving Bournemouth Park on a path out of special measures, governors at Sacred Heart in Henley, hearing about him on the diocesan grapevine, asked him to call. There had been no substantive head at Sacred Heart for over two years; standards and rolls were falling and middle-class parents had begun to abandon the school, which was by now physically deteriorating too. Would he apply? Henley is a lovely town, with house prices to match. Joan McDonald was a highly experienced teacher at key stage 2. If the governors would appoint her too, the McDonalds could afford to let their house in Essex and rent a temporary flat in Henley. The deal was done. In April 2003, husband and wife rolled up their sleeves and prepared for action.

Three years later, as the McDonalds depart, the effects are clear to see.

Scores at key stage 2 have leapt each year at Sacred Heart. In 2005, all 11 children in Year 6 achieved level 4 in English, maths and science; their value-added score was a heady 102.6. The school now is over-subscribed.

Lawns have been laid and gardens planted; a team of committed governors is raising pound;70,000 towards a new pre-school building.

If you stand in the playground at 8.30am, you glimpse some of how this happened. Tony McDonald has a word for every parent. There is praise for individual children ("her rugby's going to be fantastic!") and, discreetly, much business transacted: a volunteer recruited here for a painting job, there for transport or as a lunchtime helper. At 8.45am precisely, the children file silently into class. "It's run like a school," one parent says approvingly. Mr McDonald laughs. "In an age when there are no moral imperatives, children need a pterodactyl like me."

Joan McDonald's input has been invaluable, both at school and at home where, as informal director of studies, she could brief Tony on exactly where the children were in their learning and what progress they were making. Ultimately, leadership is about people, he insists. It's not about performance management or technology or classroom observation or courses: it is about order and trust and respect. "The first thing is relationships.

Unless they are right, no system will carry the improvement."

In Henley on Thames, his approach has worked. But is he right to argue that there are other secondary teachers with similar skills and experience who, with a little fast-track training, could do what he has done? There are a number of issues. Availability is one. According to the teacher organisations, most good pastoral heads and management post holders have already been assimilated on to the teaching and learning responsibilities scale: few are left on short-term protected salaries. Teaching skills are crucial. Tony McDonald admits to a "desperately steep" learning curve with younger children. "You very soon learn never to ask rhetorical questions,"

he says. His solution has been to teach only RE, and to do the considerable sport and extra-curricular work himself, but this is not an option available to all. For many secondary transferees, there would be an abiding problem of credibility.

Finally, there are the implications of the assertion that primary headship - and by extension, primary teaching - is "not a complicated business".

Many good heads and potential heads would question that. As one of them said, "the more we learn about learning, the more we learn how complex it is." Belatedly, we are coming to realise the extraordinary demands we make of primary and early years teachers. The suggestion that their secondary colleagues might master this with little more than fast-track NPQH might rankle.

But Steve Munby, director of the National College for School Leadership, doesn't rule it out. "I'm open to the notion of skills transference across the phases - provided it runs both ways, and is on a limited scale," he says. Tony McDonald agrees. "I'm not talking about a large scale policy shift," he says, "just about a handful of people with the right skills and attitudes. Get them into a good primary, let them see how it works, and if it turns them on, give them the training and incentives they need. 'Carpe Diem!' has been my motto. Seize the opportunity!"

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