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At the sharp end

Leadership is usually an issue in underperforming schools, but it's not the whole story. Tim Brighouse reads a mesmerising account of one school's recovery which has lessons for us all

Transforming Schools: illusion or reality

By Bernard Barker

Trentham Books pound;16.99

This is a book every would-be head should read. Many others should read it too: teachers, for example, who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time (namely in a school in special measures, caught by the Ofsted steamroller); government policymakers anxious for a quick fix; even inspectors about to make a judgment about a school at the end of an Ofsted visit.

Why? Well, first, it's a good read. You'd expect nothing less from Bernard Barker, who, like many successful teachers, at least in the humanities, is a good storyteller. But Barker has that rare gift: he can write like a dream. So the pages fly by in a trice and one's left disappointed when the book is over. This excellent readable style permeates even the theoretical context-setting chapter and the reflective final chapters. If only other academics could write like this.

At the heart of the book is an account of a school that, 20 years after it opened, became one of the first to be put in special measures by Ofsted.

Hillside, as it is called in the book, can be seen as a proxy for many secondary schools, both those in special measures and others that have simply run out of steam. As a consequence of this and the disillusion that crept in after the teacher action in the Eighties, or as a result of changing demography, many such schools fell into decline.

Hillside is in a suburb of a Midlands town where it initially attracted pupils from supportive and upwardly mobile families. Increasingly, these were joined by children from two nearby council estates where the schools were regarded as a last resort. So Hillside's results, at least at GCSE, weren't disastrous and were certainly better than those of their neighbours. The head, Albert Wake, a fairly ordinary practitioner, seems to have got the job - as so many did in the Seventies - by being in the right place at the right time. Over the years he becomes increasingly disengaged from what's happening in his school, his community and the wider educational world. Like other heads of his generation, he's scarred by teacher industrial action. Disillusion laced with cynicism is scarcely an ideal recipe for headship.

When the LEA visits, Mr Wake cannot accept (perhaps because he cannot accept the implications for his own stewardship) that "things don't have to be like they are", and that the mediocrity over which he has presided is not inevitable. The critical LEA report is shown to nobody. (My experience is that unless the LEA has a convention that such reports are sent to the chair of governors at their home address, this always happens to local reports critical of a school.) So when Ofsted comes calling at Hillside, poor attendance, poor teaching and poor learning lead to the inevitable.

And the school is not prepared for it. Indeed, Albert Wake tells no one until the Ofsted inspector visits the governors to present the draft findings. Eventually, after a vote of no confidence from a staff realistically aware that their head is not the person to write, let alone implement, an action plan, "Mr Wake walked into morning staff briefing in his confident manner and said at the end... 'oh, by the way, some of you will be very pleased to know that in a month's time I am resigning'."

Over the next couple of years, almost a third of the staff leave, including the deputy and two other senior teachers. The book is graphic in its revelations about how the staff's distress spills over into their private lives. Mr Wake is replaced for the summer term by Brian Goodlad, seconded from a local school. An enormously energetic man, Mr Goodlad identifies the correct strategic issues and starts putting things right. But, despite the pleas of governors and staff for him to stay, he returns to his own school.

By this time the LEA has announced its intention to close Hillside in the light of falling school rolls and an unacceptably high number of surplus places.

Hillside is lucky. Over the summer it recruits Chris Moore, a recently retired head, on a two-year contract. Moore keeps a detailed, well-written diary during his tenure. (That's when Bernard Barker himself becomes a participant, aided by a university researcher.) There's no reason to doubt the authenticity of this vivid account and incisive analysis, even though the author's involvement is camouflaged to protect the school's identity.

I won't complete the story; read the book for yourself. Its central chapters are spellbinding, with such well-drawn characters and situations that they cry out to be made into a television programme.

But, as I implied at the beginning, the book is so much more. It starts with as comprehensive and insightful a review of the school improvement and school effectiveness literature as I've read. It illustrates the facts and fallacies of the leadership-versus-management debate - you need both - and the complex impact of any headteacher whatever their style. As an experienced head himself, Barker identifies closely with Chris Moore's reflection that most of the well-rehearsed leadership styles do not accurately reflect the need to be "coercive" in some situations and "affiliative" in others.

The book concludes with a review of what can be learnt from the Hillside story and makes 30 recommendations, including the practical advice to headteachers that it's better to put up with a continuing vacancy than tolerate resistant attitudes or poor teaching. One point I don't agree with is the suggestion that there is "almost no evidence that most schools can change the pattern of results given a certain adverse social link". Perhaps "most" is a fair qualification, but some do. How they do it is the task of the next wave of school improvement research.

Bernard Barker has laid the foundations for the next wave. If governments were to tackle the noxious side effects of schools selecting pupils rather than vice versa (under the illusion of parental choice), we should get closer to cracking the cycle of disadvantage. Until they do, we need to learn from those growing number of schools that make a difference despite having children from the wrong postcode. I shall buy multiple copies of this book and distribute it to some of the many people who should read it, and who will enjoy doing so.

Tim Brighouse is chief adviser to the London Schools Challenge

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