Children first, job titles last

15th July 2005 at 01:00
An innovative head keeps his management structure flat and all his staff on their toes. Jon Slater reports

Malcolm Beresford is something of a contradiction.

The head of a Lincolnshire primary is a darling of the Government's innovation unit and one of 22 heads being groomed by the National College for School Leadership for a wider leadership role.

But he is no ministers' pet. The 49-year-old is an outspoken critic of national tests. And despite his lofty position, he is not above "shovelling cats' mess" in Willoughton school's grounds.

Oh, and his 72-pupil school has more computers than children.

Mr Beresford's educational philosophy can be summed up in two words: children first. He said: "It is not about my career, the convenience of staff or Sats results. It's about children learning."

To that end, all staff are expected to pitch in and help out. The business manager and ICT manager double as teaching assistants. The caretaker is also a one-to-one special needs assistant, and the school's garden loppers had just been used by Mr Beresford to trim tree branches blocking the gate.

This lack of hierarchy can cause problems. One teacher moved on quickly, unhappy with the blurring of the distinction between teachers and assistants.

Indeed, Willoughton could be a prototype for workforce remodelling.

Teachers get non-contact time (though not yet the half-day required by the agreement) and classes are routinely and in some cases almost exclusively taught by assistants.

Elaine Vale, a teaching assistant, said: "One key stage 1 class has not had a teacher for nearly a term and there is no (negative) change at all."

But in keeping with the school's flat management structure, Mr Beresford believes freeing teachers from 20-plus administrative tasks set out in the agreement is unrealistic and counter-productive.

Nevertheless, his teachers are happy. Terence Holmes, KS2 teacher, said: "I wanted to come here because what Malcolm is trying to do is so different. I met a teaching assistant as my first contact with the school and thought she was a teacher."

All seven to 11-year-olds have their own computers which they use for routine work as well as creating Wallace and Gromit-style animations.

Pupils who feel their work is not suited to them are encouraged to complain to staff.

The computers were paid for by a mixture of fund-raising (including a 200-mile sponsored bike ride by the head) and the school's flexible staffing structure, which has meant it has not had to pay for a supply teacher for three years.

Mr Beresford praises the support and knowledge gained from both the innovation unit and the NCSL. But he is not a government stooge. Until recently, the school refused to prepare children specifically for national tests, which Mr Beresford says are total nonsense.

"It is sinful to reduce the statement about children's development to three numbers. What about creativity, attitude, social skills?"

Similarly, his take on personalised learning would make even the most thick-skinned spin doctor cringe. "It was always going on, but it was called child-centred learning," he said.

* jon.slater@tes.co.uk

Primary Forum 21

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