Attention please

18th April 1997 at 01:00
Everyone knows about 'failing' schools and 'bad' teachers; the media sees to that. But what about the successes? The Schools Curriculum Award scheme, founded 15 years ago, was set up to fill the gap by celebrating the achievements of schools that harness their environment and communities to improve themselves. Gerald Haigh reports

The idea that you can be "on a roll" is deeply embedded in the hum-an psyche. It makes a gambler feel invincible as the chips pile up; it fills a soccer team like Manchester United with an arrogance that has the game won before the kick-off. And some schools, it seems, have it. Good things keep happening to them, and the old cliche that success breeds sucess is demonstrated all over again.

The growth of self-confidence in a school, however, owes little to chance. The basic ingredient, obviously, is that all the performance indicators - classroom res-ults, attendance, behaviour - point in the right direction. There is, though, more to it than that: if a head really wants the staff and pupils to glow with pride, then he or she has to go out and seize every opportunity to attract attention.

Thus it is that in the front corridor of Four Dwellings Infants School in Birmingham, for example, there is a noticeboard crammed with photographs, certificates and press cuttings: awards from the National Primary Centre; letters of congratulation from the chief education officer, Professor Tim Brighouse; photographs recording visits by everyone from Professor Brighouse to Ed Doolan, a disc jockey with the local radio station. These events didn't just happen; the headteacher at Four Dwellings, Sandra Walton, seeks every chance to gain recognition for her school. "I watch out for things, and I write off for details: a poetry competition, or something from the Japanese Cultural Society or whatever," she says. But she isn't "pot hunting" in the sense of putting on special events with which to win prizes - "It's always been based on what we're already doing, not on special initiatives."

David Kershaw, head of Coundon Court Community School, a 1,600-pupil comprehensive in Coventry, takes a similar approach. "As a matter of policy we are looking for opportunities to celebrate achievement," he says. It is not, he points out, that other schools are not succeeding. "Lots of schools are doing excellent work, but you have to seize the opportunity to draw attention to it. It's a very simple philosophy, isn't it? Teachers, like youngsters, flourish when they are recognised."

Thus, in the week I visited Coundon Court, efforts were being made to draw the attention of the local press to a successful girls' soccer team. "We want to shout about that - you should never miss an opportunity," says David Kershaw.

A positive Ofsted inspection is a good morale booster, and both Four Dwellings and Coundon Court have earned good reports. But Ofsted works to its own timetable and framework, so schools prefer to concentrate on the quality of the learning programme they can offer.

This is where the Schools Curriculum Award, given every three years or so and co-sponsored by The TES, comes in. A school which is confident of its quality can enter for the award saying, in effect, "Here we are. This is what we do. Come and see if you like it."

The award also emphasises community links, which most good schools see not as a frill, but as central to their work. Ofsted, although it will recognise this aspect of school life, often does so in a bland and general way.

David Kershaw says that when he read his school's report, "I thought, here we are with a range of wonderful community activities which we passionately believe improve the quality of school life. We said all that to Ofsted and they made relatively little of it; just one paragraph in the report."

Mr Kershaw arrived at Coundon Court 17 years ago, at a time when the school was still the demoralised product of an ill-starred amalgamation between a girls' comprehensive and a secondary modern. "It's been a long haul," he recalls. "It took us 10 years to bring about real change, but then for the last five we have been able to concentrate hard on the teaching and learning. "

His energy is palpable. Showing you around the school he strides ahead; to hesitate is to be left behind. And in his study, describing to me his enthusiasm for his job, he is at one moment literally jumping up and down in his chair, arms pumping, as he describes the benefit to his pupils of bringing in people from the community. "One of the qualities of leadership is to exploit every opportunity to use people's talents," he says. "The most unlikely people in the community have something to contribute. The longer I am in this job, the more passionately I believe that our job is to find the spark that gets them going."

In this regard, Coundon Court's award submission tells a heartening story. The school spends Pounds 9,000 a year of its staffing budget on links with primary schools. There are courses for parents - on handling children's behaviour, for example; 2,000 local people use the school's facilities; three groups of senior citizens meet in the school every week; there are direct curricular links (business studies, technology, science, humanities, languages, IT) with major Coventry business firms; and parents who help with sport are tutored for coaching qualifications.

Perhaps most interesting is the school's early years unit. Not only does this educate the 150 nursery children who use it but it enhances the work of pupils in the school and also makes it possible for some parents of young children - such as A-level theatre studies student Nicola James - to attend classes alongside pupils. The school's open door policy, together with the early years unit, is, Nicola James says, "helping me to realise all those wishes that I had".

The story at Four Dwellings is much the same: of courses for parents ("such as computing for the terrified", comments deputy head Clare Williams) and of the "sound trail", which tours the neighbourhood and includes the local police station. Staff have had placements with Marks and Spencer, Dillons Bookshop, the Children's Hospital, the local evening paper. The school has friendly links with just about every local business. In recent weeks, TV cameras from both Channel Four News (who were following up the views of the chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, on school leadership) and the BBC have been in the school. For Sandra Walton, the mission is to keep the school's profile high and to bring the right sort of attention to an area of Birmingham which has more than its share of social problems: nearly 50 per cent of children at the school are on free meals; in some classes half of the children are of single mothers living on state benefits.

There is no doubt that all this attention, and particularly something as big as a Schools Curriculum Award, has its effect on the staff. Clare Williams, at Four Dwellings, feels that it has helped to offset public criticism of schools. "We are sometimes led to believe that we are not effective," she says. "Here, though, is something that says well, actually, you are. It's a sort of seal of approval when you're so often in a vacuum, with no way of measuring yourself. " Nursery teacher Pat Jackson points out that the message then went out into the community. "It's raised our profile, and lots of our parents feel proud of what we are doing."

Neil Parker, head of PE at Coundon Court, feels the same. "In education, there are not many times when you feel recognised," he says. "Things like the curriculum award do bring recognition and spur teachers on."

Jim Ravenhill, a long-serving senior teacher at the school, illustrates the importance of the award by describing how, when news of the success arrived, he immediately re-drafted the material which is sent out to applicants for teaching posts. "It really means something when you can talk about the Curriculum Award. You feel as if you are going somewhere."

The Schools Curriculum Award, then, can be a real fillip to staff morale. The process of allowing staff to describe their work, and to experience a rigorous but supportive visit by assessors is in itself rewarding, even before any results are announced.

What is clear, though, is that it all works best when the award is sought by a management team which is already in the habit of recognising the efforts of the whole team. For the Four Dwellings teachers, the Schools Curriculum Award was a natural progression from the celebrity visits, the poetry competitions, the handwritten notes from Tim Brighouse, and the celebratory "free ice cream days" which Sandra Walton has made a joyful part of school life.

At Coundon Court, staff are accustomed to being appreciated by their head. Teachers tell of his faithful attendance at rehearsals and every performance of every school production, and of his careful attention to notes of thanks. Neil Parker probably speaks for many teachers across the land when he says, "If our work went unnoticed it would still be good to do it for the pupils, but it's so much better to be appreciated. "

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