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Improving schools: turning adversity to their advantage

Incredulity - it's a common in initial reaction at many of the primary and secondary schools deemed to be failing by the Office for Standards in Education.

For staff, governors and parents at the 2 per cent of schools viewed as requiring "special measures", there is not just shame at being labelled a failure. There is also anger and frustration at not having fully "read the runes" about the school's welfare.

Now, however, four years after OFSTED's initiation, there is a new consensus emerging among teachers, the inspectorate and researchers on why some schools fail.

In turn it gives pointers on how they can achieve good progress in coming off special measures and where the future focus for improvement should be.

Schools are usually viewed as failing for a combination of factors: attainment is too low or pupils are not being stretched; there is widespread poor quality teaching; governing bodies are not functioning properly; school leadership is weak; and the school gives poor value for money.

In secondary schools there is likely to be an added problem of poor discipline and behaviour, perhaps coupled with low attendance and high exclusion levels.

For schools to make good progress rather than simply reaching the necessary "satisfactory" standard of education, the role of the head teacher is now acknowledged as crucial.

Peter Earley, a senior lecturer with the Management Development Centre at London's Institute of Education, said: "Initially you need someone as head who is strong but able to empower others to take on some leadership for themselves.

"It requires someone acting in a facilitative capacity who can spot the potential in others, pinpoint the winners and losers, and delegate responsibility."

In many cases heads have joined the failing schools just before or just after inspection.OFSTED's From Failure to Success, published in March as an overview on special measures and improvement, stated that in general the change of head gave "the impetus needed to develop and improve the quality of education".

Mary Barry, head of St Ann's Roman Catholic Primary School at Stocksbridge, South Yorkshire, is one such head.She has helped transform her 150-pupil school from failure to one viewed by OFSTED in January as giving a "good" education. The key, she believes, was teamwork, encouraging a "blame-free culture" and constantly uplifting morale.

Set on a hillside above the semi-rural steel town of Stocksbridge, more than 10 miles from Sheffield, the grant maintained school has a mixed, mainly Catholic catchment.

Mrs Barry, 45, who is in her first headship, said: "All schools need a leader who creates a team encompassing everybody, including the site supervisor and lunch-time assistants.

"When I arrived the staff wanted someone to lead them. I was more interested in saying 'Let's do this together'."

In less than two years St Ann's has gone from being a school with significant underachievement and variable teaching to one which is well-managed providing good education. Mrs Barry believes several factors have helped to achieve this.

She says the school's progress in better stretching pupils was helped by a well-written action plan drawn up by governors with the assistance of a diocesan adviser. A "collegiate" approach, involving all staff, in drawing up detailed work schemes for each year group and weekly checking of class quality were also important.

As was #163;5,000 from the Funding Agency for Schools, releasing teachers for training, and separate buying of training from Sheffield LEA.

Building a good rapport with the monitoring schools inspector, who visited termly as St Ann's worked to come off special measures, was a bonus.

Of the more than 400 schools in England judged to be failing since 1993, just over 60 per cent have been primaries; around 18 per cent are secondaries and a similar number are special schools. Of the 50 or so failing schools so far "restored to health", three-quarters are primaries and one in six are secondaries.

Although turning around a secondary and a primary is likened to the difference between moving an oil tanker and a sailing dinghy, there are similar principles involved. Heads, backed by researchers, highlight the importance of governing bodies in overseeing good progress.

Mr Earley says: "Governors can have a key role in such schools, but in a monitoring role not an inspecting one; it's about asking questions of staff, collecting information and finding out what's going on."

Often governors have seen their role as mainly ceremonial, and radical changes to their organisation are needed to assist good progress in a failing school.

Such changes, involving a committee framework covering all aspects of school life, were established at Tamarside Community College, a 1,270-pupil comprehensive in Plymouth, Devon.

It was put on special measures after an inspection three years ago found poor standards and attendance, a high proportion of unsatisfactory teaching and ineffective leadership and governing body. It came off measures in March.

In common with many other new heads at failing schools, Rod Owen, 51, saw his role as "re-establishing and stabilising" the school. "Staff were walking around with 'failure' stamped all over them," he recalls.

Apart from the necessity of better monitoring, evaluation and targeting of standards - universal in most schools - he had to change Tamarside's ethos. After consulting pupils and parents, a behaviour code was drawn up. Then a blitz on truancy was mounted, now backed by a #163;135,000 Department for Education and Employment grant. A reward system pupils for doing good work was adopted.

Mr Owen cites these as common approaches used by schools in similar positions. But of his overall philosophy he said: "Nothing breeds success like success. Instead of failing you have got to give people confidence so that the school regains its own agenda."

At OFSTED, they see it similarly. "Know what has got to be done, know how you are going to do it and have the will to do it," suggested a senior official.

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