Best feet forward

30th January 2004 at 00:00
Phil Revell talks to West Midlands heads who really do walk the walk through the corridors of their own schools

Management, say the gurus, is about leadership and credibility, about "walking the walk" not "talking the talk". So it is appropriate that a ground-breaking initiative in the Midlands does exactly that.

Teachers in Sandwell and Dudley, one of the more challenging parts of the Black Country, have been "walking the walk" as part of a networked learning community.

It is one of hundreds of such communities of schools, funded by the National College for School Leadership to develop, share and disseminate good practice.

"I saw good practice in my school that I had never recognised," says Tracey Ruddle, head of Bromley Hills primary. "When you walk through your school, you are too often looking for that which needs improving, rather than that which can be celebrated. I now know far more about my school through sharing it with others."

The idea sprang from a chance reading of Gung Ho, by Ken Blanchard. The book describes how extraordinary results can be achieved through teamwork and mutual support. Jan Campbell, who was then head of Brierley Hill primary in Dudley, read it two Christmases ago and returned to school determined to put some of Blanchard's ideas into practice.

"The budget was dire and I needed to energise my staff," she recalls. "The National College for School leadership was beginning the networked learning communities initiative. I thought 'be proactive'."

Jan contacted an ex-colleague over the border in Sandwell, and sent her the book.

"She told a friend, who told a friend, and soon we had six schools ready to bid for pound;50,000 from the college."

The team decided to establish a "learning walk". One head described how, when she appointed a new teacher to the leadership team, they would walk the school together. The teacher would often see the school through new eyes.

Each school identifies two aspiring leaders. They then pair up with another and establish "home" and "away" days for the learning walk. This takes the form of a one-day visit, when one pair of teachers hosts the visiting pair.

In the morning, the four teachers walk around the school together.

The visitors look out for positive things to comment on and ask questions about. At midday, the four meet for lunch, which has to be off the school site. In the afternoon, two headteacher facilitators arrive to lead a discussion about what the group have experienced. Neither of the heads is from either the "home" or "away" schools.

At the end of the day each teacher is given two postcards to record the things they have learnt. The first is used to list three things they would like to take back to their school. After three months that card is posted back to them, as a reminder. The second card is used to lead discussion at network planning meetings.

"This process makes staff feel valued," says Jan Campbell, who now co-ordinates an education action zone in Sandwell. "Even staff who have not directly participated have received positive feedback as a result of their work being noticed."

The planning process for the learning walks began in January last year, with walks taking place over the following term. By the summer, the six schools were ready to expand the project. Children had commented on the regular stream of visitors. When the idea behind the walks was explained to them the comment was "Why can't we do that?"

"Why not?" says Jan Campbell.

Children from Bromley Hills primary in Kingswinford, Dudley, visited Highfields primary in Blackheath, Sandwell. They returned with a list of ideas - including having computers in classrooms as well as in computer suites, and expanding the visits so that whole classes experience life in a different school.

The next phase of the project could involve the six governing bodies on exchanges. Les Archer is a governor at Bromley Hills, and has a grandson in the school.

"I've been kept aware of how this was progressing," he says. "It's not just a day out, the children and teachers get a different view of problems. I do think it would be useful for governors as well. Unless you make contact with other schools it can all get very inward looking."

Gung Ho, by Ken Blanchard, see www.blanchardtraining.comareasgungho.cfm For details on learning walks email jan.campbell@Breaz

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