End of an era for a head icon

20th July 2001 at 01:00
The innovative headteacher of the first city technology college is widening her sights. Biddy Passmore reports

Why isn't Valerie Bragg a Dame? The woman who retires next week after 13 years as principal of Kingshurst, the first city technology college, is widely acknowledged as one of the most innovative educators in the business, as influential as all the other heads with handles to their name.

The extended day; vocational courses for 14 to 16-year-olds; the sixth form without A-levels; the school that looks like a shopping mall and has no bells - all were pioneered at Kingshurst and copied by many others.

"She's one of my icons," says Sir Kevin Satchwell, head of Thomas Telford City Technology College.

In fact, it is wrong to say that Valerie Bragg is retiring. She is stepping down from the day-to-day running of Kingshurst.

But, as the new chief executive of 3Es, the commercial arm of Kings-hurst, she will become supremo of a federation of schools - starting with Kings College (formerly Kings' Manor) in Guildford, Kings International College (formerly France Hill) in Camberley, and the new city academy in Bexley where she is likely to become chief executive. The Government is said to be watching this development of a non-LEA cluster of schools closely.

Mrs Bragg will also be working on the development of the 3Es Academy, allowing teachers time off to develop innovative teaching materials, which can then be circulated free to schools in the federation and on a commercial basis to others. Her husband, Stanley Goodchild, the former chief education officer of Berkshire who currently runs 3Es, will become a managing consultant.

The past 14 years (she was appointed in 1987) have been "absolutely wonderful", she says, and she takes pride in an analysis of Kingshurst leavers showing more of them than expected are going into teaching.

But Valerie Bragg herself was a most reluctant recruit to the profession."I was one of those switched-off children at school," she says, "and at 15 or 16 I decided to leave school. I applied for an office job and a place at a secretarial college."

But her father said firmly she was to return to school after her O-levels so she found herself in a sixth form.

But suddenly, in the upper sixth, she decided she wanted to go to university and opted for zoology at Leicester University. In her third year she decided against a research post on extracting food from the sea with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries when she discovered that women were not allowed on trawlers.

Then her professor of zoology spent a day trying to persuade her to teach. In the end she agreed, but refused to do a postgraduate training year and went straight to Dunottar, an independent girls' school in Reigate, Surrey. Her progress was rapid: to head of department at a grammar school in Essex, head of sixth form at a new comprehensive in the Midlands (she was married by now), then a deputy head.

As a mother of young children (her son Mark was born in 1970, her daughter Julie in 1972) it was difficult for her to get a headship so she started an antique shop as a sideline to absorb her energy.

Finally, she became head of a 14 to 18 high school in Stourport on Severn. While there she saw the announcement about Conservative education secretary Kenneth Baker's plans for 20 CTCs and an advertisement for the first headship.

Then she saw a newspaper article describing how applications were pouring in for the post of "headmaster" of the new school and describing what "he" would need to do.

"Right," thought Ms Bragg, "I'm going for that." Her then husband's remark that she stood "not a cat in hell's chance" of getting the first CTC headship helped her lick the stamp on the application.

She got it, of course. "I don't really mind what you do," said Kenneth Baker, "just make sure you open on time."

So she was free to put into practice all the wisdom she had accumulated over the years: to get rid of the rigid, hierarchical structure, the over-didactic teaching, the long, cheerless corridors, the endless summoning by bells.

"I didn't want it to look like a school," she says. In 1987 shopping malls were all the rage, so the Kings-hurst building acquired glass domes and hanging baskets. Corridors were made much wider than usual, with low lighting and social areas where students could sit and relax.

The staffing structure she introduced was flat: no heads of department or heads of year, and no deputy heads. The long morning was broken by brunch, the less productive afternoon kept short. Staggered hours added a sense of purpose by ensuring classes were always going on.

Kingshurst was no less revolutionary in curricular terms. Students there have always graduated with a broad diploma at 18. About a third do the International Baccalaureate and two-thirds follow the vocational, general national vocational qualification route, but all have to keep up a foreign language, performing arts and science.

It's the same academicvocational mix between the ages of 14 and 16, with pupils taking both GCSEs and a full intermediate vocational course. Mrs Bragg fought to have the intermediate qualification recognised in GCSE league tables - and won.

Kenneth Baker, now Lord Baker of Dorking, salutes her bravery in taking on a new type of school and making it such a success.

Sir Kevin Satchwell says: "If she gets it into her head that something's right, she'll do it and take on anyone."

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