A champion for the fun-lovers

24th August 2007 at 01:00
Mary MacDonald is looking to lighten the prescriptive load and make a big push towards the arts. The TES continues its four-part series in which senior staff explain how they aim to face the challenges ahead

The summer holidays are certainly a time to relax and recuperate, but inevitably I also like to take the opportunity to reflect on my priorities for the next year and the key challenges facing my school.

In recent weeks, I have found myself making a list of what we would like to experience and achieve for our pupils. It would be nice to think that we face an open road, but with the workload we all face, driven by government and supported by local authorities, the journey regularly seems more like the "road to hell".

I have been headteacher at Riverside primary school in North Shields, Tyne and Wear, for 13 years. My school is in the heart of one of the country's most disadvantaged areas, serving a catchment with high levels of unemployment, single parents, teenage pregnancies, free school meals and other tell-tale signs of a struggling community.

Despite the long odds, our school is a very successful one. Indeed, that fact has been recognised by both the local education authority and Ofsted. This has been achieved through a mixture of hard graft and a sound belief that children in the inner cities can and will match the attainment of their peers from the "leafier" suburbs. The climb may be much steeper and the obstacles to be overcome will be many, but the outcome for the children will be rewardingly high.

School should be fun

My main aim for pupils is to put some fun back into the school day. For too long we have endured a curriculum based largely on literacy and numeracy. We have seen the introduction of modern foreign languages, and because of their "success" in primaries we are having more. Who insisted the primary curriculum had to be so academic?

In my school, we want to change this prescription and develop a more creative programme that sees an exploration of the arts. We were recently awarded the Artsmark Gold. It was a lot of hard work for all staff but promises a wonderful future of music, drama and dance for our pupils. Young teachers leaving university are brainwashed with the national strategies, but as experienced practitioners we owe them an alternative way to be creative and to produce the readers, writers and mathematicians of the future.

In the current climate, there are many barriers to achieving our goals. Most pressing is a lack of funding. When heads ask about money, we are constantly told by local authorities: "It's in your budget." Yet job evaluation, workforce remodelling, planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time are all grossly under-funded.

Another problem is that by September 2008, the Government has decreed that each primary school with a nursery attached must have a teacher in that nursery. Several years ago, schools were allowed to run an early years unit with a teacher planning the early years curriculum and nursery nurses delivering and evaluating the same. Not any more. In our last Ofsted inspection, with this model running, our early years department was awarded the outstanding grade, but I am reliably informed that I will get unsatisfactory if I do not appoint a nursery teacher. How can this be when the practice will be the same? This is an abomination and has major implications for school budgets and potential redundancies.

Ludicrous league tables

Also holding us back are the Sats league tables, which have put awful pressures on schools to achieve level 4s and above. The minute you reach your targets, the stakes rise and you are expected to do better the following year, despite a change in cohort and the number of pupils in Year 6.

One year, we achieved 100 per cent level 4s and above across all subjects. "What could be better?" I thought. But others thought differently and the next year we had to boost the level 5s. I am not averse to challenge when it is based on good sense, but why can't a pupil with special educational needs be praised for achieving level 3? Pupils are now assessed to within an inch of their lives from the moment they enter school at three years of age until they leave us at 11, chasing the ultimate level 4. Do these same children appreciate classical music, play the guitar, paint? I suspect they don't in any meaningful way, if at all.

Preparation for headship has to return to being grounded in a proven track record, not the National Professional Qualification for Headship route, which has taken on people with limited experience and expertise. In the next few years, heads will be leaving the profession, and who is there to replace that wealth of talent? Head recruitment is low people simply do not want the stress that the job brings.

Damaging allegations

Another barrier concerns false allegations against staff. These are a hindrance to the standards agenda and affect many schools. Most of these are proven to be spurious but can end careers and personal relationships. Child protection is at the forefront of everything we stand for, but many parents view an allegation as a means of redress and a potential source of compensation. This spreads across a school and can have a serious impact on morale.

All these concerns are working to detract from what we as school leaders would like pupils to experience and achieve.

Next week: The Academy head


Name: Dame Mary MacDonald

Age: 57

Job: Primary headteacher

School: Riverside primary school in North Shields, Tyne and Wear

Background: Moved to the North East in 1987 from the Isle of Bute, where she was a primary teacher for several years while raising three children. Worked in several inner-city schools before becoming a headteacher in 1994

Honours: Became a Dame Commander of the British Empire for services to education in the Queen's New Year Honours 2005.


1. Performance management getting to grips with the new model

2. Making sure we get the best out of the new strategies framework

3. Achieving the Government's new financial management standard

4. Getting to know my new school improvement partner (SIP)

5. Preparing for the next (imminent) Ofsted inspection what joy!

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