The Conversation - A turnaround school

7th November 2008 at 00:00
Anne Bufton led her primary school out of special measures. She describes her uphill journey to Sue Robinson

You were seconded to Anderton Park Primary in Birmingham in 2006 after it had been put into special measures. You later became its head and the school was removed from a failing category in December 2007. What were the first actions you felt you needed to take when you arrived?

The same as any new job - talk to everyone. Touch base, however briefly, so that you've made a connection. When a school is put into category, everyone is hurt. It's always worth letting people tell you how they feel. Before you can start anew, you have to gain closure. The hardest thing about category schools is holding your nerve. There are always going to be casualties, but you have to wait until you can find teachers of the right calibre to replace them. We had 13 supply staff out of 30 at one point. It's about getting the right people on the train. And in the right seats.

I can see that building relationships with staff must have been especially important in tough circumstances. What advice would you give to others to develop these?

Say what you mean, and do what you say. It's about trust. Staff feel vulnerable - their confidence has been shaken. They are about to enter a new world of monitoring and inspection. You know staff are going to feel like a hamster on a wheel, so it's vital for them to see you as rock solid and trustworthy.

Communication is the key - making sure everyone gets the same message. Mind you, it's hard to do, and you have to beware you don't live it so much that you treat your family like they are in special measures too.

Were you constrained in your drive for school improvement because of being in special measures? Did you feel you had to jump through hoops?

Not really. I've helped in schools in category before, and you have to remember that we are here for the children. If the quality of education they are receiving just isn't good enough, then it's our job to make sure it is.

There are expectations for improvement, and speed is crucial, but you do need to put the basics right before you can get on to the more exciting bits of school improvement. It's not unusual to find that schools in category have no routine monitoring in place, and that teachers have been left to flounder with new initiatives. Many people talk about jumping through hoops, but the hoops are the same for all schools - it's just that often schools in category didn't know they were there.

The parents must have had some concerns. How did you address these?

Parents are the best ambassadors a school can have, so it was very important to try to get them on side as quickly as possible.

Most parents came to this school when their families first came to Britain. They were very angry and disappointed, so repairing that trust was paramount. We began by having a big open meeting and letting everyone have their say. This was followed by regular head's coffee mornings each term where we still discuss burning issues. We have a weekly newsletter and an occasional session on local radio where we try to keep everyone informed.

What do you think are the essential qualities you need to lead a school that is in special measures?

Almost any line from Rudyard Kipling's poem "If ." You have to be really, really determined. Our core focus has to be the pupils. Whatever the decision, I always ask, "What will this mean for the children?"

As head in any school, you spend most of your life prioritising and then re-prioritising. It's no different in special measures - just that the stakes are higher. There's always another inspection just around the corner. The relentless drive for improvement will make a significant difference to the pupils' learning. As head, it is up to you to make sure this happens.

It is almost a year since your school was praised by inspectors for its significant improvements. What do you think is now distinctive about it?

The great atmosphere and sense of teamwork. It's almost like the Dunkirk spirit. Everyone who visits the school comments on the ethos, in which it is seen to be cool to work hard.

All our children have English as an additional language, but we've managed to get the staff, pupils, parents and governors on board the improvement train, and we are all in the right seats. There's no i in team, and that's what makes it such a great place to be.

Sue Robinson is head of Cherry Orchard Primary in Birmingham.

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