The Conversation: Raising achievement

11th July 2008 at 01:00
David Kirk's school, which serves the same community as the Ridings, achieves outstanding results. He explains his philosophy to Alan Hall
David Kirk's school, which serves the same community as the Ridings, achieves outstanding results. He explains his philosophy to Alan Hall

Q: Ash Green serves a disadvantaged area of Halifax. Ofsted judged it outstanding, and in the report your staff describe it as "a school in a million". What makes it that kind of a school?

A: The main factor is that from the minute a child arrives till the time he or she leaves, we are concerned with all areas of life for that child. Obviously we promote enjoyment and achievement, but we are also prepared to go the "extra mile" (to quote Ofsted) to make sure the child's life is better. And this approach is recognised and understood by everyone concerned - parents, pupils, staff and governors.

Q: How did you get such a high level of support from the community?

A: By building on the good work of the previous head. First, I made a definite decision to be zero-tolerance on bad behaviour - from adults as well as children. Our thinking was that if we dealt with the small behaviour issues, everything else would follow - and that's what happened. Some parents were suspicious at first, but once they saw it had a dramatic impact on results, support grew. When Ofsted judged us an outstanding school, that became a real source of community pride. Gaining support was also to do with not "talking down" to parents, because that infuriates people. And because we've always challenged bullying and disruption of any kind, attendance improved as community support increased.

Q: The Ridings, soon to be replaced by an academy, is your local secondary school. Do you think there is an issue with pupils thriving at primaries such as Ash Green, then becoming disengaged when they move on?

A: This is a difficult professional issue. Parents and governors have asked why solid level 4 and 5 pupils have left us and a year later become disengaged. Ash Green pupils thrive, despite a background in which older siblings at secondaries may well be disaffected or even play truant. That makes it "hard-won progress" for us and our families, as Ofsted acknowledged. There was even a community petition proposing that Ash Green become an all-through 3-16 school.

I support the idea of an academy, provided lessons are learnt about what vulnerable children (which most of ours are) really need. Support mechanisms, such as those in place in primaries, are also needed in secondaries. The size of secondaries may be a factor too.

The academy is intended to have 2,000 pupils. I'd like to see it consist of smaller "pods" within an overall framework, so that things such as monitoring the transfer of skills between different curriculum areas are made easier. It's ideas such as this - many of which have come from the community - that I hope will be considered by the planners.

Q: You work for part of the week as the executive head of a nearby school that was in difficulties. Linking highly successful schools, such as Ash Green, with less successful ones is current government policy. Is it working?

A: Very well on several levels. First, recruiting experienced heads to lead challenging schools is often hard. But an executive head can oversee and support the work of a comparatively inexperienced head.

Second, because I work at another school for part of the week, colleagues at Ash Green have had the opportunity to take on leadership roles. In some ways, we still have a 1950s model of leadership in England, so it's technically not possible for a school to have joint heads. We need to develop new, more flexible models, with an emphasis on collaborative leadership.

Third, all schools - even those in difficulties - have some pockets of good practice. So, for example, we were able to benefit by importing some very good approaches to phonics teaching to Ash Green.

Q: In a nutshell, how can other heads whose schools serve similarly disadvantaged areas achieve what you have achieved here at Ash Green?

A: You need to have faith in yourself and the confidence to take considered risks. If you think something is right for your pupils, you should go for it. Also, you need to make sure that the emotional support you give pupils is not an end in itself - it should always be channelled towards raising attainment.

Alan Hall is an education consultant and former headteacher of Belle Vue Girls' School in Bradford


Name: David Kirk

Age: 44

Job: Head of Ash Green Primary, Mixenden, Calderdale, since 1997. Became executive head in 2005, incorporating the roll of a nearby failing school and a local children's centre. Ash Green Primary was judged to be outstanding in seven key areas last year.

Education: Took A-levels as a mature student while working in a bank (Institute of Bankers). Graduated (BEd Honours) aged 27.

Career: Taught in Bradford before taking up a teaching post at Ash Green. Became deputy head in 1996

Years in teaching: 17.

Interests: Music, drama (directs productions at Bradford Alhambra), tennis.

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