The Conversation: National Challenge

24th October 2008 at 01:00
When you take over a school that is failing on every level, you have important decisions to make. Nancy Robinson talks to Geoff Barton about the pressures

Q: You have been headteacher at Charles Burrell High in Thetford, Norfolk, for seven years. What was the school like when you arrived?

A: In January 2001, the school was failing on every level. Ofsted had visited in 1997 and given the school a satisfactory judgment, which proved to be the final blow to long-serving members of staff who knew there were serious issues in terms of leadership, teaching and learning, and behaviour. When I arrived, it was as if everyone had given up.

The building was also in the most appalling condition, dirty and unwelcoming. There was no staff accountability and the pupils seemed to be in charge. In fact, on the day I was appointed there was a vicious fight in the corridor. There was certainly plenty to do.

So, where did you begin?

Between my appointment and starting six months later, I visited the school as often as I could and interviewed as many staff and pupils as possible. One of my key questions was: "What do we need to keep at all costs and what needs to change?" The sad fact was that no one could think of anything that needed to stay the same.

We established a no-blame culture, which encouraged staff to be innovative and to take risks within a clear framework of accountability. We also set up a school improvement group and a parent focus group to monitor and evaluate what we had done.

What progress did you make?

The school became more positive as we worked hard to develop a learning culture.

Initially, as expectations were raised, there were casualties. Nine pupils were permanently excluded in the first two terms, and the leadership team was completely restructured. There was also 75 per cent staff turnover within the first two years.

Our results improved slowly. We maintained the percentage of GCSE pupils achieving five top-grade GCSEs, in the mid-20s, from an all-time low of 12 per cent. Attendance gradually improved from 83 to around 90 per cent.

How do you feel about the way schools are judged in terms of their quality and effectiveness? For example, the official target deems as inadequate anything below 30 per cent of pupils achieving five good GCSEs.

I am deeply saddened by the way everything seems to be reduced to crude targets and the assumption that if you are critical of this, then you are in some way making excuses, or have low expectations.

I have worked in challenging schools all of my career and it is my experience that, if well led, staff in these schools are highly motivated and determined that pupils will succeed.

How do you keep the school on target in the face of external pressures? Has it affected recruitment of pupils?

We continue to do what we have always done. We will not turn pupils away, even halfway through Year 11 and they "damage" our figures. To date, recruitment of pupils has not really been affected, but that might change when league tables are published.

Staff recruitment is obviously a worry.

Won't doing what you have always done look as if you are in denial about the pressure to improve?

Not at all. We are very much an improving school and extra resources will enable us to undertake further intervention.

Leading a school in challenging circumstances necessitates having a clear set of values.

We focus on teaching and learning and ensuring that all pupils do as well as they possibly can, whatever their background or ability. It is what we are fundamentally about, whatever the external pressures.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

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