Challenge, change and co-operation

22nd May 2009 at 01:00
It was a case of out with the old and in with the new at Prestwick Academy

New building, new headteacher, new management style

Brian Clough, one of England's top football managers, had an authoritarian style of management. "We talk about it for 20 minutes," he told an interviewer who asked what happened when a player disagreed with him. "Then we decide I was right."

Good management crosses boundaries, but what worked in football 20 years ago wouldn't work in schools now, says Gordon Bone, head of Prestwick Academy, South Ayrshire. "I spent a lot of time at the start listening to staff, asking what the issues were, what they wanted changed, how they saw the future."

Crucially, the former design and technology teacher - previously depute head at Kyle Academy, then headteacher at Dumbarton Academy - followed the listening with action. "I drew up a draft vision statement. That might sound like management-speak, but it's not. Once you've listened to people, it's vital to get something on paper that reflects what they've said. I remember hearing a teacher once talking about not knowing where the school was going. It stuck in my mind. Staff shouldn't feel like that.

"So we put out the draft vision statement and early in the new session (I started here last June), got every member of staff on an in-service day working on it. We rewrote it and put it out again, to staff, parents and the pupil council, as the agreed vision statement. Everybody now knows where we're going. We will revisit it each year, along with our aims and values, look at what we've achieved, think about what we need to do or to change."

Besides listening, another key aspect of managing a large school (pupil roll 1,200) is to be visible and accessible, says Mr Bone. "At both schools where I've been headteacher, people said they'd never been in the head's office. I put that right at the start of the year."

It has been a year of challenge and change at Prestwick, with a new head, a new building occupied 10 weeks into the session, and a visit from HM Inspectors almost immediately afterwards.

That those challenges have been met is shown by the contents of the inspectors' report. This highlights the "high-quality leadership across the school, including the headteacher's outstanding drive for improvement". It comments on the "skilful support from senior and middle managers". It commends the "very clear sense of common purpose and direction under the leadership of the new headteacher".

All of which creates an impression of a school heading rapidly in the right direction. On this one point, Mr Bone is not entirely in agreement. "They talked about the pace of change, but I don't think we've been moving that fast.

"A lesson I learned at previous schools was that you can't do things too quickly. You have to take people along with you. Mind you, my senior management team do say we've been moving pretty fast."

Prestwick's senior management team meets twice a week - once for operational issues and once to discuss strategy. "Good management is about getting the balance between those two," says Mr Bone. "In a big school, effective communications are crucial, formal and informal - being out and about, dropping into classes, chatting to staff and pupils."

Prestwick Academy's previous headteacher retired through ill health and the school had two acting heads before Mr Bone. "I was building on a platform of change," he says. "Combined with the new environment, that gave us a great opportunity to drive up standards and attainment."

While the new environment is not yet complete - old PE facilities are still in use and playground space still scarce - well-equipped classrooms, the wide corridors radiating from a communal area with lime-green chairs and cafe tables, the overall air of studious calm all make the new school feel like a modern university.

The impact of such surroundings on the quality of learning is well researched but often overlooked. Prestwick's occupants are in no doubt. "The pupil council came to see the building before it opened," says Hazel Jamieson (S3). "It was empty. There was nothing. It didn't feel like a school, more a hospital."

Something had to be done, especially about the bare corridor walls. But the obvious solution was out, says depute head George Docherty. "It's a PPP school, so we weren't allowed to stick anything up."

The pupil council conferred, then bid for items to make the school more human, says Rebecca Trayner (S6). "We had loads of ideas. We gave a presentation and bid for blue pinboards for the walls, to put stuff up on, television screens so we can see the news, strips for each house so we can have inter-house sports."

The pupil council is very effective, say the members. "It's different now Mr Docherty and Mr Bone have brought us together," says Jamie Menzies (S3). "We had a pupil council before, chaired by different teachers. And they took the decisions. We'd express our views but they always got . rationalised. All they bought was benches and plants."

A Brian Clough management style also prevailed in the primary school, according to younger pupils. "Teachers picked the people for the pupil councils," says Callum McGowan (S1). "Here, the class picks them. We get time to talk about things. They listen to us. In primary, if you wanted to say something about bullying, you had to go to the headteacher's office."

Assigning responsibility for pupil voice and citizenship to a depute head - George Docherty - was an important management decision, says Mr Bone. "We did a pupil survey using an HMIE questionnaire. They clearly told us they didn't feel they had an effective voice.

"We asked them again three months later and overwhelmingly they said they now did. How did that transformation happen? By giving pupil voice priority. By building time into the day for pupil council meetings. By forming them into working groups to deal with the concerns they raised."

Getting the balance between representation and effectiveness is tricky and a council with 66 members, two from each class, can be a tough forum to get working well. "I don't like talking in front of a lot of people," says Finlay Banks (S2). "I do like having our opinions listened to, though. You feel now that they're being considered."

That's where the four working groups - set up to deal with the main pupil concerns of new school, ethos, uniforms and bullying - come into their own, says Mr Docherty. "We have Community Learning Development to give training to the pupil council members."

This has helped youngsters overcome their inhibitions.

The turnaround in pupil voice is a real achievement of the past year, says Mr Bone. "Others are that the SMT is now more strategic - looking ahead, for example, to the transformation needed for Curriculum for Excellence.

"We have empowered staff. We've given them the capacity to take initiatives and manage change. We are building firmer links with the local community. There is a greater rigour in what we do. I often ask `So what?', which aims to focus everything we do on the impact on young people.

"The biggest challenge so far has been dealing with the move to the new school, then the inspection - in the space of a month. But we got it done. We are getting there. Others might not agree, but I don't think the pace is too fast - in my mind, I have a five-year plan."


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