Leadership - Try the Ramsay recipe for a successful school

Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay's tough-love approach to failing restaurants has all the right ingredients for school improvement

Gordon Ramsay is all over my school. The fingerprints of the craggy celebrity chef with a fondness for expletives are everywhere. And this is a good thing. Without Ramsay, my school would not be the excellent institution it is today.

He is not here physically, I should stress. Never has been. Indeed, he has probably never heard of me, nor the school. But his influence is huge. This is because I believe that when it comes to school improvement, you would do well to shun the thousands of books and step-by-step guides out there and instead listen to Ramsay. Or, more specifically, watch a few episodes of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares.

For those not familiar with the format, it works like this: Ramsay goes into failing restaurants and attempts to turn them around. On the first day, he samples the menu. Often, it's quite long, with many choices and different cuisines. Next, he assesses the staff and their strengths and weaknesses. Then he quizzes the customers and those who opt to eat elsewhere, before heading into the local community to check out the competition. Finally, he changes the environment. He might, for example, paint the restaurant white to create a brighter, more inviting space. And his interventions almost always work: restaurants are bubbling with success before the credits roll.

It isn't a huge leap from this template to a model for school improvement. And here is how it works.

Dish of the day

The menu is the curriculum. Schools suffer in the same way as restaurants when the offering is muddled, irrelevant or lacks focus on what is wanted and needed. Schools should look at the number and range of subjects on offer and rationalise them. At my school, Passmores Academy in Essex, there was a time when we were teaching certain subjects because we had the staff to do so and not necessarily because those subjects were right for students.

We have now moved away from this model, streamlining the subjects on offer to best fit the pupils and what they want to achieve. This has given us the opportunity to extend the number of contact hours we have with students - for example, increasing the time given to option subjects at GCSE by about 25 per cent. This has greatly improved the quality and depth of the learning experience.

But the confusion can go beyond subject choice and include how a menu is delivered. Taking the set-menu approach of a three-part lesson tied to the standard 60-minute time slot is restrictive and monotonous for pupils and teachers.

We have changed this in a few ways, but the most powerful - and disruptive - was altering the timetable. We now have a 10-day timetable, with six days of five 60-minute lessons, three days of three 100-minute lessons and one day with one 300- minute lesson. This forces teachers to adopt new strategies and takes them out of their comfort zone, which is fantastic for enabling self-reflection and challenge.

How we tackled the menu at Passmores is not necessarily the lesson here. The key message is that by looking at what you are offering and making brave decisions to shake everyone out of entrenched habits, you can have a big impact.

Staff assessment

Ramsay is a shouter. He goes into a kitchen and asserts himself as the boss. He doesn't mince his words and if he is sacking the head chef, he does so loudly and publicly.

I'm not advocating this approach, but what we can take from Ramsay is that the focus on people is key to a business - both its failure and success. This is not about sacking people and searching the country for replacements. Instead, it is about developing the skills you already have in your school and making sure they are used effectively.

This can be done in a variety of ways. The first is wholeschool coaching. At Passmores, every member of staff - teachers, caretakers, learning support assistants and me - is coached by a colleague. The objective is to empower people and give them the skills to make good choices, by asking the right questions about what they do and how they are doing it.

Roll this out and staff gain confidence, because they have a sounding board, support worker and professional mirror on hand at all times. They spot where they are weak and improve; they realise where a hidden skill could be of more use.

Another great idea - which has been put into practice at many schools - is a bottom-up approach to CPD. To achieve this, we have five pedagogy leaders who are transforming the school. They roll out new ideas, assist teachers' development, help to produce a pedagogy newsletter and website and run a teaching and learning magazine, of which the staff are very proud.

And just as Ramsay can turn the girl who washes the dishes into the matre d', look for your own hidden gems. Make internal promotions if the right candidate is there, giving teachers opportunities to shine by spreading responsibility across the school.

The customer is always right

By customers, Ramsay means not just the people who eat at the restaurant but also those who choose not to. Talking to the latter can make for uncomfortable listening, but it often proves extremely productive.

And so it would be for schools. Going to primaries and asking to speak to parents who are sending their children to schools other than your own is invaluable. I did this and the parents were more than happy to tell me their thoughts.

Surprisingly, they seemed more focused on things such as the school's community profile than inspection reports. For example, they raised the fact that we weren't represented in the local media and didn't appear often enough in the Harlow Star newspaper - we tackled this in a fairly extreme way by going on national television in Educating Essex. Some simple issues were also highlighted, such as the way our students behaved outside the school gates and the image they projected, which is a problem for most schools. We took steps to address this, too.

It is also important to talk to local businesses. The vast majority of our young people will probably find employment in the area where they were educated. We need to be aware of what local opportunities are available, and to make connections that are useful for pupils.

Current "customers" should not be forgotten. Canvass the opinions of students and parents and empower them by taking their views on board. Student and parent councils are one of the best ways of doing this.

Keeping up appearances

Ramsay generally de-clutters the failing restaurant, making it bright and clean and creating an atmosphere that customers will appreciate. The classroom and school environment is just as important as a restaurant's ambience in determining how people will feel and act. Budgets are obviously tight, but ensuring that your school is always clean and tidy, fixing broken elements, encouraging teachers to use display spaces and giving the place a fresh coat of paint once in a while are all minor gestures that can have a huge impact. If money does become available, prioritise areas with the highest footfall.

So there you have it. No doubt you were dubious at the start of this article as to how a celebrity chef could transform a school. I hope you can now see that Ramsay's solution to kitchen nightmares is a fantastic template for improving not just nightmare schools but all schools.

Vic Goddard is principal of Passmores Academy in Essex. This is an edited version of a chapter in his book The Best Job in the World, which is published by the Independent Thinking Press, priced at pound;14.99

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