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This is a job for the time team

Help from the neighbours gave a new head the space he needed to transform his struggling school. Phil Revell reports

Finding the time. Finding the space to get on with the job. It's a problem faced by all headteachers. A study conducted last year by Pricewaterhouse Coopers revealed that heads work longer hours than their counterparts in industry and commerce. At schools in special measures, the problem is even more acute, as many leaders have discovered to their cost.

Yet Ian McGinn found the time he needed to transform his school, making sure he walked every inch of the building, developing relationships with individual pupils and supporting teachers as he went. "I was everywhere," he recalls of his first months at Montgomery school in Canterbury. "It was important to establish a high presence, a high profile."

This was the first full-time headship for Mr McGinn, a former "roving deputy head" sent to help turn around Kent's failing schools. He was able to spend the valuable time "on the corridors and in the classrooms" because a chunk of the head's workload was lifted from his shoulders. Inspired by a similar approach to a failing school in Wigan, Kent's education department organised a team of three local headteachers to run Mr McGinn's budget, write his timetable and recruit his staff, each paid for one day a week. "They said, 'This is your curriculum for next year'," says Mr McGinn.

The team was led by Keith Rumblo, head of St George's school in Broadstairs, and included Jill Key, head of Northfleet school for girls, and Keith Mileham, head of Laleham, a special school in Margate. Montgomery had been in special measures for nearly four years, and has struggled to remain viable. It lies just outside Canterbury, beyond the less fashionable end of the cathedral city. Kent maintains the 11-plus and a selective system, and parents have to put their children through a battery of tests and interviews in the race to put them into the most popular secondary schools. In the past, those who made no choice, or who were late off the mark, found their child being sent to Montgomery, which at one stage was enrolling children from 42 primary feeders.

It's a situation Mr McGinn is determined to change. "We've made massive progress," he says. "Next September, we expect to have a cohort of 100 coming into Year 7; this year we had 70." With 325 children currently on roll that represents a huge achievement.

Mr McGinn's background is in pastoral management, where his focus was always on behaviour. At Montgomery, he took the same back-to-basics approach. "The first thing to improve was pupil behaviour," he says. "The kids' eyes were on the floor, there was no spark, no trust; that's changed. I told the staff, 'I don't want you shouting at the kids; I want you to be firm, but I don't want you to shout'. And when I saw things I liked, I thanked people."

This is all straight off page one of the management handbook: walking the walk. But at Montgomery, Mr McGinn had time to do it. He acknowledges that the project worked because the four heads built a successful working relationship. And his inexperience as a head may have been a key factor in making the project work, he says. "I was prepared to ask for help, to say 'I don't know about that'."

In 2001, when Mr McGinn joined the school, inspectors told him there had been "limited progress on all key issues". "But limited became reasonable and reasonable became good," says Mr McGinn.

Montgomery came out of special measures in November 2002. Inspectors hesitated as they wanted to be sure the school could stand alone without the support of the team. It can: since September, Mr McGinn has reclaimed control over his staffing, curriculum and budget. Mr Rumblo is delighted to have been part of the transformation. "This was a challenge," he says. "And in the early days it demanded a lot of my time. But I'm convinced this is the kind of collaboration that will help schools in challenging circumstances."

Mr Rumblo and the other heads will continue to support the school, but it's Mr McGinn's party now. And his task may be made easier by the demographics of the area. Kent could never afford to close Montgomery because there are too few schools in the area. New house building will mean more parents looking for places, and in the future they may be happier to send their children to Mr McGinn's school. "We can continue to improve," he says. "Year 10 girls are now doing netball after school. It doesn't sound a lot, but it's a huge step forward; it represents a massive change in attitude."

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