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Karate chop and change

A head who treats his school like a pound;5m business is achieving results, writes Martin Whittaker

Peter Patchett, head of the Mandeville school, likes to look after his staff. New teachers from overseas talk of him putting them up until they find somewhere to live, and driving them to letting agencies and furniture auctions.

Then there's the induction. New recruits receive coaching and group support from a management consultant in their first few months.

And the school tries to make professional development fun. In-service training days have included pig roasts and pantomime, heads of department have team-bonded at a swish management training centre and students have learnt how to break wooden boards with their bare hands.

If this sounds more corporate than collegiate, that's because Mr Patchett regards the students as customers and learning as the school's product.

Rather than looking to the education world for inspiration on school leadership, he has looked to successful businesses such as Tesco.

His maverick approach seems to work. The Mandeville school is a non-selective secondary on a deprived housing estate in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, with 1,008 students. The proportion eligible for free school meals is above average.

Five years ago, the school was failing and was placed in special measures by the Office for Standards in Education - in 2000 just 14 per cent of pupils gained a grade C or above at GCSE.

Today it is the county's most improved school and is oversubscribed. GCSE results are better, although still below average - last summer 35 per cent of pupils gained five or more grades A*-C. On reinspection in January, Ofsted described the Mandeville as "a school with ambition".

One of the first things Mr Patchett did on arriving seven years ago was to work on the school's image. In an area dominated by grammar and independent schools, parents were shunning the Mandeville.

He encouraged good publicity in the regional press and forged links with businesses. He even job-swapped for a day with the manager of his local Tesco and was impressed by what he saw.

"I wanted my middle managers to learn about how people in business actually manage large sums of money, are accountable and take responsibility on their shoulders for that work," he says. "That approach was what I wanted to bring into the school."

He looked at traditional professional development and the leadership training offered by the National College for School Leadership, but decided it wasn't enough. Instead, he decided to go private, bringing in consultants from industry.

The school cut back on sending staff out on courses, but built its own conference centre to deliver training on site, subsidising it by letting it out to businesses.

Professional development is now done by management training companies such as Studyflex, whose clients include phone company NTL.

All at Mandeville have had a taste of leadership training, including students and governors.

Coach and former teacher Peter Thorp says: "I think the biggest thing we have found is the increase in self-esteem that we can give to teachers, much more so than in business because people are used to these practices in business."

Awards are regularly given to staff, including one for Teacher of the Week.

Mr Thorp has also run motivation workshops in which he invites students on stage to karate-chop a three-quarter-inch-thick wooden board suspended between two cement blocks.

"I say, 'Some of you will leave here having done something you never thought you could achieve when you walked in,' he says. "It's getting into this no-fear zone, over the line, out of your comfort zone."

The school also has a rigorous lesson observation programme.

"I know every teacher in the school - exactly what their strengths and weaknesses are," he says.

The Mandeville has embraced workforce reform, giving every teacher a laptop and reducing paperwork.

Mr Patchett says management training has helped the school to retain good teachers by creating a good working environment.

Peter Thorp runs an induction programme for new recruits. For their first three months he runs group and confidential one-to-one sessions in which they can talk about any insecurities they may have about the job. He also helps them plan for their future.

Rebecca Weitz, who teaches RE and citizenship, arrived from Canada to take up her first post in September.

"I have friends who came here to teach," she says. "Some of them have left England, and some have remained in difficult schools. No one has had the support in terms of new teachers in a new country that we have had here.

You wouldn't get that in Canada."

But isn't this support expensive? The induction programme cost pound;10,000 for 12 new teachers - more cost-effective than losing good people, says Mr Patchett.

He adds: "In terms of financial turnover, we are a pound;5 million a year business. What pound;5m a year business doesn't look after its staff and have a training and development function? None that's successful."


Name: The Mandeville school.

School type: 11-18 community school

Proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals: Above average

Improved results: From 14 per cent of pupils gaining grade C or above at GCSE in 2000 to 35 per cent in 2004

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