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A start down recovery road

Answers your leadership questions.

I have been asked to step in as interim head of a struggling junior school for two terms. The school was put into special measures over a year ago and has not made sufficient progress. Its head left suddenly during the holidays, so I have not had the chance to see the school at work. Several staff had left and been replaced by supply teachers. I was reluctant to take up this challenge, but feel a moral imperative to do so. I want to do a good job, but know that I must be realistic; what am I going to be able to achieve in such a short time?

You do face a considerable challenge; congratulations for accepting it. You are right; it is important that you have a clear understanding of what is possible in the short term, bearing in mind that at the end of a few months a new head will arrive to begin the long haul.

So what are you likely to find? When teaching and learning are poor, there will be associated behaviour problems, ranging from low level disruption to serious disaffection, depending, to a large extent, on the nature of the catchment area. The learning climate is likely to be shoddy, physically and emotionally. An absence of pride is reflected throughout the school; you will see it as you step into corridors, classrooms and the staffroom.

Relationships may be strained; there will be unease, a lack of optimism and faith in the school. Individuals feel isolated; they can feel hard done by, unacknowledged and are likely to look for a scapegoat to blame. In truth, the school is sick.

Although deep systemic recovery may be slow, there are always some relatively painless quick-fix remedies, which can lead to longer term solutions. The quick fix has a bad name; it smacks of a kind of Botox approach which does not address real problems, and therefore is not generally considered to be effective. I believe strongly however, that there are times when it is right to take immediate steps which are not difficult and which give an immediate, tangible pay-off.

Get the physical environment sorted out. Everyone must be involved in this.

They need to be convinced that the creation of an ordered, aesthetic environment will bring huge intrinsic reward; the sense of achievement and satisfaction at the end of the job will be shared by the whole group. Hire a skip; give people cash to dress their classrooms - insist on quality, a place for everything, an overall image. Throw out make-do containers, cornflake boxes, yellowing plastic tubs, faded paper, things which "may come in useful".This is the kind of task designed for maximum effect. It requires neither skill, nor teaching ability nor hierarchy. It has a clear beginning and end. The end product is vastly different from the start point and everyone knows when the job is done. Take photographs and pour the champagne.

Get people talking about atmosphere - what it is and how to create it. They will probably suggest some headings around relationships, conduct and behaviour and start to find agreement on what will be seen, heard and felt.

Produce some statements of intent. (These will provide an essential aide-memoire if any jarring behaviour is subsequently observed.) It should be possible to identify what good learning looks like, and therefore the features of good teaching. You won't be able to explore artistry, the development of real rapport with learners or the myriad of strategies, techniques and behaviours which effective teachers intuitively employ, but you should be able to agree on a top 10 tips list of what makes a good lesson, a simple template for observation and self-review and a framework of expectations for temporary staff.

As the term starts to roll, concentrate on making the school safe; involve everyone in vigilance, reviewing the agreed code of practice and challenging slippage. Pupils need to be motivated, convinced of the power of their own contribution and aware of the notion of quality and significance in everything they do.

Your key influence is through your own behaviour and your interaction with individuals. You need to look for and explicitly focus on practice which reflects that code of practice. Be constantly alert in your quest to find it. Every small piece of action which contributes to the school's search for quality needs to be acknowledged. Ask "how did you do that?" questions which encourage a growing vocabulary about teaching and learning.

Finally, be sure to look after yourself - you need to be in the best condition to nurture others. Keep a journal; note the smallest achievements and give yourself healthy doses of praise. Good luck!

Patricia Denison is head of a village primary, near Woking, Surrey. She has been in education for 25 years, 14 in headship, and is a facilitator with the National College for School Leadership's new visions programme for heads. Do you have a leadership question? Email

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