Discipline and learning go together

3rd December 2010 at 00:00

Given the right leadership, it's surprising how quickly a failing school can change. But thinking about it, perhaps it's not so surprising, because the basic things a school needs for success are so obvious.

Recently, I wrote about St Michael and All Angels, a secondary yards from my primary. Over the years, I have watched it lurch from crisis to crisis. I have been especially disappointed because, as our closest secondary, I would have loved to have forged a strong relationship with it.

It has endured recent media glare because Katherine Birbalsingh, a previous deputy head, spoke forcefully about its failings - and those of secondary education in general - at the Conservative party conference. She delighted the conference and the right-wing press, but angered many others.

After I had written about the school, Irene Bishop came to see me. Although I had never met Irene, I knew her well. She has headed a highly successful local secondary school for the past 17 years and many of my pupils have achieved well there.

Asking Irene to become executive headteacher of St Michael's therefore seems to have been an extremely good idea. Although she can give only part of her week to St Michael's, she is aided by an associate headteacher, Colin, who is there all the time and highly experienced at steering troubled secondaries back to success. I took up Irene's invitation straightaway.

Walking into the school was a revelation. Crisp packets, fast food containers and drifting rubbish were no longer strewn around the playground. Instead, attractive seating areas and weatherproof games tables had been fitted. The corridors were free of graffiti and now held attractive work displays. The science labs, full of broken equipment 18 months ago, had been renovated. Whole areas in the school had been repainted, thoroughly cleaned or made to look more inviting.

I was led through many classrooms, and although the classes were small due to St Michael's problems, pupils seemed interested and on-task. The teachers were relaxed and friendly. I felt a sense of purpose to the school, vastly different, apparently, from Irene's initial introduction. "The first day was my worst in education," she said. "Hardly anybody was where they were supposed to be. It felt like a rowdy, wet playtime."

Talking over a coffee later on, it was obvious why the school had fallen apart: the building had been allowed to become a scruffy, depressing place; plummeting teacher morale led to high staff turnover and weak discipline. Nobody likes to be part of a failing institution.

You cannot separate discipline and learning. The latter is totally dependent on the former. And yet that is what seems to have happened at the school. If a student was troublesome in class, the teacher had to send for a "student support officer", who would come along and remove the youngster.

In a very short time, Colin and Irene have earned much respect from staff and pupils. I'm certain their passion for the youngsters in their charge and real determination will give them the success they want. They have already made an immeasurable improvement because they know what makes a school tick.

For me, the highlight of my visit was walking into a classroom and being recognised by an old pupil. She jumped out of her seat and flung her arms round me. If St Michael's can sustain that sort of enthusiasm it won't have much to worry about.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London. Email: mikejkent@aol.com.

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