Farewell to fear and loathing

12th December 1997 at 00:00
Bernard Barker re-examined his approach to headship with homespun solutions such as basic efficiency and a passion for justice. Results at his school are up.

We live in an age of miracles: schools "turned round" overnight; a national learning grid constructed out of space; headteachers increasing output quotas to match the requirements of the latest Soviet-style five-year plan.

The columns of The TES glisten with gold as miracle workers explain their alchemy in the manner of a "super power memory" advertisement. High expectations, SMART targets, mentoring and a sharp dose of value-added will soon make your school buzz and frighten the competition to death.

I try to play my small part: GCSE five A-C grades at Stanground College in Peterborough are up 16 per cent since 1993; at Rowley Fields they're up 50 per cent - amazing since I was only appointed in June.

As I complete my first term at Rowley Fields (in special measures since November 1996), and remember my first term at Stanground, the eerie similarity between my experiences of headship causes me to reflect that other strategies may have a more fundamental effect.

Rowley Fields and Stanground both seem to have had little going for them before my time. Heads presided over crumbling buildings, discontented staff and government-inspired cuts.

Snoozing governors and impotent education authorities made no significant impression on the schools, and there seemed to be no room for innovation. Local authority advisers and inspectors were evidently unable to influence the situation.

Rowley and Stanground were isolated from their neighbours and aroused sympathetic disbelief among local teachers as amazing stories travelled the grapevine. Primary schools were treated as inconvenient younger brothers and sisters.

Very able teachers laboured unrecognised in these vineyards, and the whole was less than the sum of its parts. Children found their own way through the system, which segregated them into complex bands, sets and options. At Stanground, when I arrived, half the students sat no examinations. At Rowley, 105 children are divided into six sets to yield a non-examination group of six hapless individuals. Sink groups, disaffection and misbehaviour were designed into the timetable.

Familiar problems have prompted me to homespun solutions. Action plans, assertive discipline and fast-tracking had not been invented when I began my odyssey in 1980. For me, they are marginal to a strategy which combines a burning passion for justice with common humanity, empathy with losers and a desire for basic efficiency.

Poorly-managed schools devalue and diminish the people who work in them, so I always campaign against structures which distribute resources unfairly, label children and generate optional subjects that don't really matter. The arts are as important as mathematics. Less able children are as precious as the stars in the performance table.

Next, I have shifted the blame away from the survivors and victims. Since special measures were applied at Rowley, good teachers have felt humiliated - their life's work set at nought by the Office for Standards in Education and the Government. But aren't penny-pinching budgets and education authorities infinitely more to blame, if blame there must be? My internal promotions have put the best practitioners in charge, releasing their pent-up energy for the benefit of everyone. I have been so fortunate in my friends and colleagues.

Setting up financial procedures and installing computers that work is an unglamorous business, far from the classroom, but my two schools have lacked elementary systems so I have given simple routines absolute priority. What use is a classroom-prowling head if the drains are blocked and the phones don't connect?

Debate can be uncomfortable, but progress depends on teachers who are free to challenge their leaders and express their concerns. One deputy described my style as "Spain after Franco" and I have lived ever since with the benefit and pain of open government. I refuse to let a shortage of cash become an excuse for inertia and encourage teachers to expect "yes, yes!" not "no, no!" I learned early the lesson of Risinghill, that progressive and doomed comprehensive of the 1970s. Teachers expect heads to lead in dealing with student misbehaviour and Risinghill head's reluctance to use corporal punishment lost him vital support. At Stanground, I caned 30 boys in the first term and chased the chip vans away with a stick in my hand. At Rowley, more subtle methods have been required but I have given the same priority to neglected disciplinary cases. Everyone needs to see that bottom line, to understand expectations and boundaries.

The media are there to be stroked, managed and used. I have exploited my self-confidence as a communicator to promote our schools and to encourage colleagues to publicise their achievements.

Open doors, positive stories, frank admission of mistakes, honesty about weaknesses - I've never known the formula fail. Staff and students need to feel good about themselves, their schools and one another and publicity should be designed as much for the authors as their competitors.

Once self-belief and confidence have begun to develop, I have made friends with our natural partners and neighbours. Is there a project we can work on? What about an exchange?

I believe spending time in primary classrooms can recreate our excitement about learning and our passion for child-centred education. We are obliged to live with the folly of competitive markets, but friendship can mitigate their destructive effect and remind us that we exist for young people, not our own comfort.

These simple, teacher-friendly principles seem to work, seem to create a self-confident, "Let's do it" culture. I'm unclear whether so much can be said for OFSTED, league tables and special measures. Aren't they about fear and pain?

Bernard Barker is principal of Rowley Fields Community College, Leicester

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