Forging ahead

17th January 2003 at 00:00
Six staff from a city primary have become heads or deputies - a testimony to training in a school where 14 of the 17 teachers are studying for MAs. Jeremy Sutcliffe paid a visit

At Birley Spa community primary school they know what job satisfaction is all about. They may not have found the secret of contentment, but they might just have hit upon something schools everywhere will envy - and seek to emulate.

Two years ago, Birley Spa was given training school status. The additional funding enabled the headteacher, Geoff Mawson, to take on an extra teacher and realise a long-cherished dream: to offer everyone on his staff the chance to boost their qualifications.

The results seem remarkable. From a teaching staff of 17, 14 have embarked on part-time masters degrees, 13 of them following a specially-tailored Hallam university course which enables them to study at school. But the studying doesn't end with the teachers. Two nursery nurses and two childcare assistants are taking diplomas in early years education and the information assistant in the ICT suite is studying librarianship.

"We are breaking new barriers all the time," says Mawson. "It's made us into a high-performing team. It's as simple as that. We can, as Tim Brighouse says, see over the top of the mountain. Mawson himself is taking a doctor of education course in leadership. In fact, he graduates next week. "At 54, I have only done this for myself. But it makes me feel more in tune with my job. It gives me confidence."

It's not surprising that Birley Spa feels full of optimism because staff self-sacrifice and dedication benefits the children. In its last Ofsted report, the school was singled out as an outstanding school and has the results to prove it. In science, 100 per cent of its key stage 2 pupils achieved level 4, 60 per cent achieving level 5. That puts the school in the top 5 per cent in the country for the subject. In maths, 94 per cent got level 4 and in English 95 per cent.

As Mawson points out: "It's not just about getting good Sats results. Ofsted said Birley Spa 'profoundly enriches the lives of its pupils'." But it obviously also enriches the lives of its staff.

For a school like Birley Spa, which serves a working-class area of Sheffield, exam success is no mean achievement. Twenty five per cent of its 500-plus children are eligible for free school meals and 40 per cent live in single-parent households. Achieving such results is not easy, but Mawson's message can be distilled into three simple rules: set clear goals, believe in your staff and always be willing to try new things.

"I think I have got a brilliant staff who are all clear about what they are trying to achieve. They take risks. If we do not ask them to take risks we are never going to be at the cutting edge of education. Innovation is part of our school vision," he says.

Jenny Huscroft is the key stage 2 maths co-ordinator at Birley Spa. She has been there since 1982 and is in the middle of a two-year course leading to an MA in maths education."It's a super opportunity. I would never have considered it if it had not been school-based. It will help us improve standards in lots of different ways," she says.

Jenny has been working on two projects: one involving parents in their children's maths education; the other to assess whether classroom practice matches maths policy.

"We are asking parents to come into school and work with their children and see what type of lessons they do. We've had an evening parents' meeting to explain what the numeracy strategy is and demonstrate the type of resources we use. The parents have responded superbly. They are very keen. We have an open-door policy and the success of the child is based on teamwork.

"We're not doing this to improve the SATs results, we're doing it because we want to improve the mathematical abilities of the children. I am sure this will help. We haven't seen the results yet and it will take two or three years. But it won't stop when I finish my MA, it will become part of the school policy. So there will be a permanent benefit to the school and to the children."

Another enthusiast for training at Birley Spa is the reception teacher and ICT co-ordinator, Gita Mardania, who takes Friday mornings out of class to conduct research for an MA into the effectiveness of the training programme the Government has introduced for her subject.

"It's nice to be able to do something where you are using your brain. It's very easy to get tied up in the classroom all the time. And, of course, that helps the school because when you go back to teaching your mind's fresh."

It is this opportunity to gain refreshment and professional pride, as much as the chance to shape and improve the school's policies, that makes the scheme so innovative. Pretty soon, teachers at Birley Spa could become the most highly qualified in British education.

Geoff Mawson believes investing in the staff gets results not just for the children, but for the staff themselves. At least half a dozen former teachers at his school have now moved on to become headteachers or deputy heads, helping to provide future leaders in the profession. With such a record it's hardly surprising the staff at Birley Spa are a happy bunch.


Teachers in the city are given a real chance to advance their training. The Sheffield Guarantee, as it is called, means every teacher has an individual plan geared to their career path. Teachers are encouraged to chart a path from induction to retirement with the help of a staff tutor. The authority has received funds from the General Teaching Council - under the Supporting Quality and Retention Initiative - to ensure it can put money where its teachers say they need training. Two relatively new teachers are part of a group looking at what staff need and want in the four years after their induction period is over. The authority has had regular meetings to discover exactly what teachers want for training in general: open meetings with a direct line to the director of education. And support staff get a look-in too: a huge group has said it wants to go on courses, many of them with the ultimate aim of becoming teachers. So impressed is Whitehall with what is going on in Sheffield that it has sent its own people to study what is happening there.


Sheffield has certainly changed in the seven years since Jonathan Crossley-Holland became director of education (see interview, page III). The year after, Labour came into government which released more money for education. Over the past five years, pound;100 million has been spent on school buildings with pound;50 milion more over the next two years (see Job Description, page VII). By next year, one child in four in Sheffield will be in a new or refurbished school. In 1998, the Lib Dems took control of thecouncil after 70 years under Labour but their policies did not radically differ. Labour were re-elected last May. Angela Smith, the cabinet member in charge of education, is an English lecturer in FE. She believes the plans for a new city centre have inspired confidence in people. She relishes the opportunity that the new sixth-form college in the city's north-east - where the management will be controlled by the feeder secondaries - gives Sheffield to be at the cutting edge of developing a 14-19 strategy nationally (see Sixth-form completes the jigsaw, page V)


Headteachers in the city now have a bigger say in decision-making for the whole authority. Partnership boards set up a year ago for each sector mean heads can also set the agenda for the overall city strategy. Heads are no longer expected to be merely reactive. As Jonathan Crossley-Holland, the director of education, says: "You're in charge now."

Secondary heads have negotiated an agreement that they will all become specialist colleges - but not to compete against one another. The real aim is to offer genuine specialisms as well as strengthening outreach work with primaries and the community. (See Dancing to a common tune, page V)


E-learning is set to become big business in South Yorkshire as pound;80 million of European money is pumped into the region. Six secondaries in Sheffield have reveived hardware worth pound;100,000 in the first phase of the programme. At the Meadowhall shopping centre, a specialist suite for schools use - such as pupils on work experience - opens next month. (See Seoul Mates, page IV)

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