Not even the loos are bog-standard

Esther Leach

Esther Leach meets a head in the vanguard of reform

Dame Jean Else, head of Whalley Range high school for girls in Manchester and Estelle Morris's former PE teacher, is precisely the type of head that the Government expects to spearhead its reforms.

As a member of the Excellence in Cities national focus group, the 49-year-old has been at the forefront of building partnerships with neighbouring schools and working to share good teaching practice and expertise.

"We have employed mentors and built link zones that provide a base for teachers to share information about gifted children and other students who need support."

The school is also ahead of its peers in information technology which the Government's key stage 3 strategy aims to improve. "We have facilities that are second to none and committed trained staff to ensure students are equipped for the modern workplace."

The Government has not spelled out the criteria that will be used to decide which schools are successful enough to opt out of parts of the national curriculum and offer more flexible pay and conditions.But by many measures, Whalley Range looks to be a likely candidate.

Dame Jean had resisted a move to specialist status ("it's a big debate I've had with Estelle") on the grounds that no one area of the curriculum should be prioritised. But she now plans to apply in the new category of "business and enterprise".

The school has not always been so successful. When Dame Jean arrived, seven years ago, the inspection report was scarcely encouraging. She said: "It said assemblies could be more dignified ... it meant that girls in assembly would scream and shout. It didn't put me off ... I wanted a chance to put my own stamp on something.

"We hit the headlines for truancy after six weeks of me being here. I went on a recruitment drive for pupils, raised the profile of the school. There were only 92 students in that first year out of a 257 capacity.

"In that first year we increased attendance from 73 to 91 per cent , we brought the school alive. How? I asked the kids what they wanted.

"They wanted better food. They were allowed out at lunch-time and never came back. They wanted teachers to stop shouting at them. They wanted something to do."

She is also improving the environment: there's an air of excitement in the purple-painted corridors.

"You must go to the loos," she said. "I've had them redecorated. I like to do a bit to shock." The staff toilets are painted gold and cream, with stylish fretwork cubicles and potted palms. Not to be outdone, the pupils' loos are lime-green and purple.

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Esther Leach

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