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Teachers are more important than pupils

Lindy Barclay explains how her school won an outstanding rating by putting staff welfare before everything else, even the children

In its rush to fix every problem in education, if possible overnight, the Government has gone badly wrong in important places. Our work is skewed as it tries to prescribe how we should teach, tells us what should be measured and makes us collect endless data.

A noble attempt to put things right is the recently published Government document, Every Child Matters, now on every headteacher's desk, and high on the agenda of the Office for Standards in Education. It outlines a range of measures to improve the quality of care for children. One of its cornerstones is the entirely laudable aspiration that every child should get the chance to fulfil their potential. Words like "enjoy" and "achieve" are used to describe expected outcomes.

But I would argue that this should not not be a starting point for schools.

I would first lay another document on top of it. It would be called Every Teacher Matters, and I would use similar words.

Earlier this month, our secondary school was officially pronounced "outstanding" under the new inspection framework. Despite operating in one of the most deprived wards in the country, and with 60 per cent of students on the special needs register, Ofsted described student progress as "very good in relation to their starting point", their behaviour as "exemplary" and that, as a school, we make "a great difference to the development of every student".

I think I can safely say that I know how we do it. In an educational climate of constant change and uncertainty, we have clung to a single vision that is very simple: we put staff first. We put teachers before targets, before parents, before the holy grail of data gathering, and - here's the controversial bit - before the students themselves.

We have been unfaltering in our view that if you look after staff - if you make them want to come to work in the morning, if they are happy and settled, if they feel valued and part of the organisation - then everything else falls into place.

Levels of achievement and standards of behaviour invariably rise in a climate of trust and optimism. A loyal and committed staff is a dream ticket for any school. From this base, everything can grow.

The vision may be simple enough but the work to support it is, of course, much more complex.

If the Department for Education and Employment ever approaches me to draft out the radical new document Every Teacher Matters I will be glad to go into much more detail. In the meantime, however, school management teams may find these pointers useful:

* Start with staff welfare. Look after them! Spend money on them by sending them to the best training around. Cut them some slack. Respond positively to requests for personal days off. The goodwill is usually returned, tenfold. Appoint a staff social secretary. It's entirely true that a staff that "plays" together, stays together.

* Make sure that teachers are involved in the construction of school policy. Ask them simple questions: what works best? when does the best learning take place? when are students happiest? And then you have your policy.

* Establish simple systems that everyone understands and supports. We have three central policies. They are written in the form of "memos" and cover our strategies for "learning", "motivation", and how to be a "super tutor".

They are stuck on every teacher's desk.

* Regularly review and assess staff strengths. Shift them around. Put staff into areas where they are most likely to succeed and shine. Make performance management a time for critical thinking and organised praise.

* Create a genuine no-blame culture. Teaching is tough all round. Teach new staff not to fear mistakes. If something doesn't work, try something else.

At management level adopt the same policy. Admit mistakes and figure out what has been learned from them.

* Be unrelentingly positive and optimistic. At the first sight of staff negativity go after it. Track it down, all the while asking yourself the question: is this a school problem, a personal problem or another pesky government initiative which has struck this teacher down?

Everyone knows that a good teacher has a profound effect on a child's life.

So surely teachers' well-being, feelings of self-worth, and their sense of happiness and achievement in their working lives need to be a central concern of government?

As yet another new idea to rescue schools is dragged out, namely putting parents centre stage, yet more horrors loom. Every Teacher Matters would automatically improve the life chances of every schoolchild.

Get the teachers right and most of what you hope for, and dream about, will follow.

Lindy Barclay is assistant headteacher at Redbridge community school, Southampton

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