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Relax, you're with friends

The school that plays together stays together, or so it seems at a Solihull secondary where the teachers get on so well that they attend relaxation classes, play in a band, and even go on holiday together. David Newnham reports.

In the school hall, the band is rocking and the audience is going wild. People shout and whoop to a Motown medley, then jump up and down to a succession of Bon Jovi numbers.

There's nothing strange about this, except that the 15 band members - guitarists, drummers, keyboard player, saxophonist and singers - are all teachers, and the teenage fans are their pupils.

But then this smudging of the traditional teacher-student relationship is far from unusual here. For this is Langley school, an 11-16 secondary in Solihull, West Midlands - an ordinary state school perhaps, but one with an extraordinary reputation.

Val Duffy-Cross, headteacher since last September, describes Langley as a holistic school. "When staff come here, it's as if they've found an oasis," she says. "There's an atmosphere of warmth, from staff to staff, from staff to child, from child to child, and child to staff. Walk around the school, and you will feel it."

It's largely thanks to this atmosphere of togetherness, she says, that Langley is fully staffed and expects to remain so. Indeed, when she came for her own interview last year, it was the atmosphere that drew her. "I felt it as I walked through the door," she says. "'I like this,' I thought. 'This is OK.'" Langley, which today has almost 1,000 pupils, opened in 1974. But it was in the 1980s, under the leadership of Anne James, that the school began to acquire a character all its own. Ms James introduced a markedly liberal regime, and her successor, Susan Orlik, continued in what had by then become the Langley way. Val Duffy-Cross isn't about to make sweeping changes.

Since taking up her post, the 52-year-old, who has a degree in international politics, has tried to reinforce the holistic ethos, through morning briefings, for instance ("they're therapeutic - full of laughter - a good opportunity for staff to come together"), and running relaxation classes for pupils and staff. And all the time she has been making new and surprising discoveries about what makes the school tick.

Take the Friday-night phenomenon, for example. "When people at most other schools are dying to get home," she says, "here, the staff rock band will be rehearsing; there will be staff badminton and staff playing football with Year 10 boys. I found it difficult to fathom when I arrived."

Most of the time, she says, the staff are doing something together, perhaps taking part in one of the many activities organised by the Langley social committee (chaired by Susan Davies, an individual needs teacher who describes herself as "fun-raiser").

Then there is the maths department holiday. "Shortly after I came here, someone told me the entire maths department of eight teachers goes on holiday together at half-term," says Ms Duffy-Cross. "Why? Because one of them has a house on the Isle of Wight, and they all get on so well together. You get companies who pay their staff to do that."

The maths department holiday (they're off to Spain this year), the rock band (there's a waiting list to join) and the countless other examples of clearly genuine camaraderie (staff regularly go hiking together before the start of term), are at the heart of what sets Langley apart, says Ms Duffy-Cross.

"They like each other and they see each other as whole people," she says. "And if the staff are whole people with rounded lives, it must follow that you have a rounded school."

It's a thought echoed by Gary Crooks, who teaches maths when he's not playing bass in the staff band. "Events such as the concert make the children see us in a different way," he says. "We're not these people who are hung up in a cupboard at the end of term, then dusted off again when needed. We actually have lives and can do things other than teach maths and English.

"And it's fun. It's a great stress-reliever on a Friday afternoon to go and make a lot of noise." Mr Crooks was redeployed to the school 14 years ago, and hasn't looked back. "It could have been difficult, coming to a school on redeployment," he says. "But not Langley. The head said, 'You're a Langley person.' There is definitely a type of staff who are Langley staff. You've got to have a sense of humour and be slightly insane, for a start."

"You've also got to be able to work hard," says Cheryl Wheeler, who, like many of the staff, came as a supply teacher and decided to stay. But she agrees with Year 11 head Anne Weston that, "it doesn't feel like hard work when you're having fun together".

They recall the time Ms Wheeler and her colleagues wowed the children by dressing as the Spice Girls for an end-of-term show ("I felt like a real pop star"), the time the staff put on a panto for the school ("that was quite a giggle"), and the time that Janet Tyler, head of maths, tried her luck as a trapeze artist in front of a crowd of children at a safari park ("she had such street cred with the kids for years after that", says Ms Wheeler).

When Ms Weston took 180 Year 9 children on a four-day trip to Paris one year, it wasn't just teachers and pupils who went, but secretarial staff and the school's site manager, too. "This is a staff that includes everybody," says Mr Crooks. "There's no hierarchy here - among adults or children."

Terry Clarke agrees. He has been at Langley since it opened and, as well as teaching, he manages the Dove House Theatre, a community performing arts centre attached to the school. "We're not better than the pupils," he says. "We're all working together and their skills are just as important as ours." Mr Clarke recently bumped into an ex-colleague, now a schools inspector, who told him: "You never know until you leave Langley that it's a unique school - everybody gets on." And he recalls the words of a teacher who had recently arrived from another local school: "There's one extra person in every classroom - it's called goodwill."

It's in the classroom that Val Duffy-Cross believes the goodwill and staff camaraderie translate into job satisfaction and more measurable forms of achievement. In 2001, 57 per cent of GCSE pupils got five A-C grades and she is confident the school will soon hit 60 per cent.

But she believes strongly that good exam results come from encouraging children to develop their creative as well as their analytical faculties. "When the children can see adults singing and performing, they know it's not just something children do, but that adults enjoy doing it, too. And it's that modelling process that is so powerful. So many schools fail to deliver the artistic side, but it's another aspect of what makes a fully functional human being. I don't want to produce dysfunctional intellectuals - it's no fun," she says.

There is genuine concern at Langley, Ms Duffy-Cross says, to raise achievement without exerting undue pressure, and a fear that there will be a price to pay for expecting today's children to progress at a continuous pace without let-up over many years. "We're all different," says the head. "But whatever you've got in you, let us bring it out, without destroying the child."

While each pupil at the school is set individual targets, the emphasis, she says, is on enabling rather than pushing. "How do we enablechildren to improve grades? We ask what it's like from the child's point of view. It's not about teachers working harder. It's about empowering children to access a part of themselves that they haven't accessed before, and reach levels they didn't know they could reach. It might sound corny, but I think that's a noble craft."

This sensitive approach to teaching, along with the staff rock band and the shared holidays, is an integral part of the Langley holistic equation. And it's clear, walking around the school, that the children appreciate the warm atmosphere. "It's really good here," one lad beams. "The teachers are so friendly."

Head of art Paula Hamilton explains how such a spiral of contentment, once set in motion, can draw in children and staff. "It's something you don't realise until you go somewhere else," she says. "At Langley, the children respect you and don't push it too far. They allow you to be a human being, not a Hitler figure. So most of the time you can be yourself. And that kind of relationship is what keeps us happy."


* Staff go on hikes together, and the entire maths department spends half-term on the Isle of Wight.

* As well as playing Bon Jovi songs, teachers have impersonated the Spice Girls and performed a panto for their pupils.

* Regular toast days and doughnut days are a feature in the staffroom.

* Children sponsored the head of Year 7 to come to work dressed as Elvis to raise money for charity.

* Four teachers took lead roles alongside a local brass band in a school production of Brassed Off.

* Secretarial staff and the school's site manager join teachers and children on trips abroad.

* Friday-night activities range from aromatherapy to band practice, while in the mornings, before school, staff and pupils play football or rehearse the next musical.

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