'The children give back to me what I give to them. I like them'

11th July 2003 at 01:00
They do it their way - and it works. They are the maverick heads. In the first of a series profiling outside-the-box school leaders, Elaine Williams meets Frank Vigon

Frank Vigon, aged 57, has been head of Turton high school, Bolton, for 15 years. The school, for 1,700 students aged 11-18, is oversubscribed and has above-average GCSE and A-level results. Last month it was awarded specialist media arts college status.

Why is he a headteacher?

Because he likes teenagers and wants everything about his school to be "pro-student". Takes "in loco parentis" seriously. Says Turton high is going places because of this level of care.

How does he do it?

Still teaches A-level politics and general studies. Patrols the corridors and playgrounds almost every day. Knows most pupils by name - they text him when they are in trouble. Astute political operator. Established the "Bolton 400" seven years ago, a pressure group of heads who lobby local MPs. Exam board scrutineer for Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. A fierce critic of the A-level system ("from inside the tent").

Personal style

Loud, warm and physical with an irreverent sense of humour.

In action

At the end of a non-uniform day, Frank Vigon is saying goodbye to pupils as they stream homewards, standing in sweatshirt, baggy trousers and hideous silver trainers with red flashing heels. His pupils love it. They rib him.

Some give him a hug - even the boys.

The wellbeing of children is central. We try to be relaxed and I want pupils to be challenging, not spoon-fed, and that's not everyone's cup of tea. Some might say the students are a bit uppity but we also expect them to be responsible, and they never take advantage. I am a risk-taker with them, and open about myself. Many teachers fear the kids, and hide behind a role, but you can only teach if they understand there is a real person behind the teacher. You have to give of yourself.

"In many schools teachers have lost the skill of talking to young people; they shy away from them and, because of that, young people have become remote and their culture separate. I will go along the corridor and talk to every child I meet. I will go and sit among a group at the far end of the playground where they smoke. They give back to me what I give to them. I like them. Doing this job would be torture if I didn't.

"I invest in their goodwill. Whoever is leading a school must have the respect and goodwill of the children. Many kids have lots of baggage and it's important to know what that is before you have a go at them. It doesn't excuse them, but it means you can never deal with the same issue in the same way. Rules aren't there just to be obeyed. They are there to be interpreted.

"The exam system makes me angry. My staff are wiped out by it. The other day my politics kids did three one-hour exams in an afternoon - that's mad.

In one-hour exams you cannot do justice to the questions. The whole thing becomes trite and stupid. I also hate the national curriculum. It's the most retrograde step that's ever been taken. Of course all children have an entitlement to breadth, but the national curriculum has tried to do too much with too little. It is a straitjacket.

"No government has ever given me so much money to spend on capital, but it's the time for staff to be innovative that's missing. The Government is wearing out a vital workforce. Teachers should work a four-day week on a shift system and have time to work through new ideas.

"I was brought up in a Jewish family in west London. My father was a tailor, and wanted me to be a lawyer. I hated primary school as there was no support, and I was badly behaved - wilful and disruptive. I spent a lot of time being ill in bed listening to the radio and reading. I had read every Dickens novel by the time I moved to secondary but got through to the third year being inconsequential.

"Then the drama teacher, Peter Mitchell, came to cover our class one day and gave us a general knowledge quiz. My general knowledge was huge having been brought up on the Home Service. He came to see my mum and made sure I moved to higher sets and joined the drama club. I never looked back. It was like unlocking a door. I have spent my whole career paying him back, looking out for kids who need, like I did, that understanding, that friendship. That comes first.

"I think some staff would like me to be more distant, a more traditional headteacher, because they think that would resolve all the discipline problems, but that kind of structure is difficult and brittle, and with a brittle discipline structure there comes a point when it breaks.

"Students get my time because I take a lot of work home. But I also take other people's ideas or let them get on with it. Some might see me as a benign dictator, but I hope most colleagues view me as a delegator. For example, I take no credit for our specialist school bid. I knew one of my deputies would do that well. I give people the capacity to run large sections of the school and don't interfere with department heads. I keep a watching brief."

Next week: Sheila Wilkins, head of Kell Bank CE primary, near Ripon, North Yorkshire

What they say about him

Ben Eastham, 21, a former pupil, studying law at King's College London "Frank was a fantastic politics teacher, he knew his subject and he was an excellent orator and very theatrical. But he was also supportive of the individual; he imbued confidence in people. He turned me round."

Margaret Blenkinsop, Bolton's director of education

"He knows his pupils exceedingly well, he is on their side, and they like him for it. He is a passionate man, there is nothing grey about him and he will challenge, but always positively. If we want an honest view as a local authority, we go to Frank."

Jessica Childs, ex-deputy head girl, now sabbatical officer at Cambridge University

"I remember his warmth. He was very good at picking up when we were stressed. He focused on us as people. He had the school under control; he had respect because pupils liked him. His assemblies were entertaining; he would make us laugh, then turn it round and say something profound."

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