Fresh face lifts old spirits

27th May 2005 at 01:00
New young head ruffles a few older feathers to lead school out of special measures. Martin Whittaker reports

Name: Westmorland primary, Stockport, Cheshire School type: Community primary Proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals: 57 per cent Results: key stage 2 Sats are way below average, but improving. Last year 42 per cent achieved level 4 or above in English, 54 per cent in maths and 69 per cent in science

As career targets go Martin Henderson's was ambitious - he had aimed to achieve his first headship by the age of 31.

But when he took over at Westmorland primary school he managed to beat this target by two years. He admits that the sight of a 29-year-old headteacher with spiky hair walking in on his first day must have caused some muttering in the staffroom.

"I am young enough to be the son of quite a few members of my staff," he says. Mr Henderson is not fazed by what others think of his tender years.

But he says his first 16 months running Westmorland primary have been a steep learning curve.

"I have had to do a lot of adjusting over the past year and a half to the situation I'm in - I didn't see myself as a headteacher, yet I'm aware that I'm running quite a tricky school."

This is something of an understatement. The school is described as the most deprived in Stockport and two years ago was declared to be failing by inspectors.

But now it is on the road to recovery and Martin Henderson can lay claim to another career milestone - to have taken a school out of special measures by the age of 30.

Westmorland primary is on a council estate in Brinnington - a very poor community on the outskirts of Stockport. The school serves an isolated triangle of housing estates and disused shops bordered on two sides by a bend in Manchester's orbital motorway.

It has 232 children on roll, of whom 57 per cent are eligible for free school meals and 43 per cent have special educational needs.

Its key stage 2 Sats results are way below average but improving. In 2001, 39 per cent of pupils achieved level 4 or above in English, 33 per cent in maths and 50 per cent in science. Last year the results were 42 per cent in English, 54 per cent in maths and 69 per cent in science.

The school was formed from a merger of two failing primaries and opened as a Fresh Start school five years ago, and in 2002 it moved into a brand new building. But despite having money pumped in, it did not improve and in 2003 it was placed in special measures.

Key issues have been to improve leadership and management at all levels, to implement strategies to accelerate pupils' progress and raise standards, and to improve the quality of teaching.

Martin Henderson was taken on in January 2004. After taking a BEd at Liverpool Hope university, he spent two years as a classroom teacher before being promoted to KS2 manager.

He then moved to the intervention team at Manchester education authority, and spent five years working in schools in special measures first as an advanced skills teacher, then as a deputy head.

He arrived at Westmorland to find a failing school in a new, state-of-the-art building with resources to die for. "I could see the potential - it had absolutely fantastic kids."

But not so its staff. Inspectors had been damning about the quality of teaching. Staff morale was low and absences high - classes were almost entirely staffed with supply teachers.

Mr Henderson wasted no time in setting out his stall, but he says some staff found his approach difficult to take. He responded by telling them that if they were unhappy with his running of the school they should waste no time in resigning.

Today all but two of the school's 11 teaching staff are new appointments, including the deputy head, and four are younger than Mr Henderson. He insists age had nothing to do with it - they were simply the right people for the job. "These kids are very energetic," he says. "They need energetic, vibrant teachers."

He and his new team have introduced streaming in all classes, as well as a range of interventions to boost literacy and numeracy. A former storeroom was turned into an area where children needing extra help can come for one-to-one support.

Another room has been transformed with murals of marine life into the Dolphin Room, where every class gets a 40-minute dance session each week, or does drama and role play linked to the curriculum.

The school has worked hard to improve the school's once poor reputation in the community by bringing parents in and involving them. Parents have helped paint murals and one parent runs the library, while Westmorland also opens its doors in the evening for adult education sessions.

In line with workforce remodelling, Mr Henderson has also given his learning support assistants a greater role. For example, LSAs now have the responsibility of keeping target files charting the progress of children on the special needs register.

The head opens a door out on to the playground. When he arrived this was a large expanse of Tarmac, dominated by boys playing football. "If there was a flashpoint during the school day, it was on the playground."

Now the space is filling up with pound;18,000 worth of play equipment, where Mr Henderson has been known to race his pupils up the new climbing wall.

He takes great pains to point out that it is not just him, but his staff, governors and strong support from the LEA that are turning Westmorland around.

He wants to keep staff morale high. He buys them cakes, and has offered them free massage sessions, while he is introducing distributed leadership.

"My leadership style has changed. I'm no longer the dictator which I had to be at the start."

But wasn't it a huge gamble to bring in someone so young to turn around a failing school? The school's chair of governors Peter Scott says Mr Henderson was chosen in preference to another older and experienced candidate.

"We felt this was going to be a difficult job demanding huge energy and some experience," he says. "Mr Henderson was very young, but when you look at business, often you find people in their 20s who achieve amazing things because they have energy. Before working for us he had a job of helping to turn around schools, so he knew exactly the sort of problems we faced.

"It might seem a bit of a gamble, but we all agreed we were going to have to have an effect. He came into school with a punk haircut and a T-shirt.

OK, he's calmed down and now wears a suit, but he really did kick butt, and that was the only way we were going to get anywhere."

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