Kevin Satchwell failed his 11-plus but found an inner conviction thattook him forward
AMONG today's successful secondary heads, one theme crops up regularly: working-class boy or girl, fired up by school and a loving home, goes to college, is drawn to teach disadvantaged city children, finds success under inspirational leadership and becomes a fierce advocate of the comprehensive principle and the right of all pupils to achieve academic success.
Such is the story of Kevin Satchwell, head of Thomas Telford School in the Shropshire town named after its famous public surveyor. The school has been nominated as a beacon school and is one of the original 15 city technology colleges set up under the previous government.
The second of the seven children of a road-building labourer, Satchwell slept in a bed with three of his brothers in a Wednesbury council house. "I had a socially rich upbringing," he says, "and a financially deprived one."
To complete the picture, he failed the 11-plus - an experience which, he feels, did him good.
"It gave me great determination. From those early days, I carry the belief that you must have passion and conviction about what you are doing." He would regularly get up at midnight to do his schoolwork. "There was only one room downstairs and I would work when the whole house was quiet."
From secondary modern he went to the sixth form at the local grammar and then to Shoreditch College to qualify as a technology teacher. After a year out earning high wages as a road labourer - "following in my dad's footsteps" - he did his probationary year at a local Catholic secondary school, then went to Merseyside where he worked for 14 years, first at Cantril high school, on a difficult overspill estate, then at Brookfield School in Kirkby where he was deputy head.
Both schools had challenging surroundings, and he learned much from their heads - Stan Hill at Cantril, Roy Nelson at Brookfield. "Different as chalk and cheese, but great leaders who made a lifetime commitment to those children."
He speaks with fierce respect for the heads and teachers who dedicate themselves to pupils in the socially devastated areas of our country. "They are the ones who deserve the accolades - often very modest people who give their lives to children from those backgrounds." Such schools, he believes, make valuable training grounds. The key, he says, is "to instil in those pupils the belief that they can do well and do things in their own lives".
In 1987 he returned to the West Midlands as head of Moseley Park School, Bilston, Wolverhampton. "A terrific school, a wonderful experience. Bilston people were so supportive." Then came the plan to build a city technology college in Bilston. "I thought it would have an effect on us, so I started to take an interest - at that time as a sceptic."
In the event, Bilston's CTC was never built because of the difficulty of finding a suitable site - the developing town of Telford was chosen instead. "I sent for the details of the headship, and to my surprise I discovered that the intention was to create a school which fitted exactly with my own ideology: full spectrum of ability, good links with industry, the freedom to take decisions and have clear responsibility for them, a style of curriculum that matched with what I was trying to achieve."
After some prevarication - "I loved Bilston and I didn't want to leave" - he applied for the post, which he took up in January 1991, to prepare for the opening of the school in September the same year, "against a background where neither the local teachers nor the local politicians wanted us - but the parents did, and that for me was what mattered".
He says it was "no job for a shrinking violet. We were subjected to a barrage of media myths - that we cream off able children, that we have significantly more funding than other schools. Both are untrue, and over the years they have mostly faded, as the school is a roaring success."
In 1995 the school was inspected by the Office for Standards in Education and received a very good report. In February of this year an OFSTED team was privately commissioned by the governors to carry out a follow-up. This, too, is filled with positive comments. "The results of national curriculum tests at key stage 3I are now markedly better than the national average I GCSE results in all subjects are significantly above national expectationsI While able students generally fully realise their potential, other students achieve high levels of success relative to their ability. This is a particular strength of the school."
There is, says Kevin Satchwell, no secret recipe. "Running successful schools is not complicated. Educating children is not rocket science, but we tend to make schools into complex organisations and then look for complex explanations when we don't succeed." All that it takes, he says, "is to know how you teach effectively and how you help children to learn effectively. Effective teaching involves knowing your children as people, and knowing where they are in their learning."
In practice this means that Kevin Satchwell and his team spend much of their time discussing the individual progress of their 1,100 pupils. "Every Tuesday we have a senior management team meeting which is never cancelled. We spend two-thirds of the time talking about pupils - not policy, not rhetoric, not systems." He names from memory five pupils in key stage 4 who are borderline for five GCSEs at C grade or higher, reciting in detail what they will have to do to succeed. This is what he means when he says that there is no magic way to success - "It's attention to detail, coupled with the human approach. The rest is academic."
Kevin Satchwell is not short of confidence. That he manages to signal this without appearing arrogant clearly has much to do with his upbringing, which he recalls with great affection, speaking warmly of his brothers and sisters and of his mother, who still lives in Wednesbury. "Every Sunday, without fail," he says, "we congregate at my mum's house - brothers and sisters, grandkids. We call it Sunday therapy."
In recent years he has learned another important lesson. "The greatest thing that's happened to me is to have two children of my own while being a head." (They are two and seven). "I used to think I knew everything about kids, but I was wrong. In dealing with other people's children, having your own gives you an extra dimension."
So to his essential qualities for success - self-belief and passion - he now adds a third - "having your own kids". They are, he says, "all humane things. You can talk about fancy management solutions, but the humane qualities are what matter."