Happiness is a well-led school

18th June 2004 at 01:00
Like 40,000 other PGCE students in Britain, I am coming to the end of my final teaching practice and I am only a few lessons away from gaining qualified teacher status. My two main teaching practices have been with a Year 6 class in a north London school (let's call it school A) and a Year 1 class in a south London school (school B). On paper, both are similar: they have about the same number of pupils, are two-form entry and are in socially deprived areas. Why then is the behaviour of the children, the morale of staff and general atmosphere so different?

Earlier this year I spent seven weeks in school A, a challenging school in a densely populated area. It had been in special measures, but the general consensus was that the worst was over. I spent most lessons addressing behaviour before I could begin to think about teaching. The children were difficult to control and physical fights were frequent; one even developed during a tutor's observational visit. I regularly heard bad language and saw racism and bullying.

In school B, where I am completing my final practice, it's a different story although, like school A, most children come from the neighbouring council estate and are culturally diverse. I have not yet seen one child be aggressive or rude to a teacher. It seems they want to behave. Of course there are miscreants, but teachers appear to have more control. As a result, the staff are happier and friendlier. In fact, it would be the kind of school I'd like to work in.

So why should two inner-London schools be so diverse? The obvious difference to me is the way the two are run. Both heads are long-standing and well established, but have differing approaches. The head in school A did not seem particularly liked or respected. She conducted morning meetings as if they were another lesson, and treated the staff as if they were a troublesome class, telling teachers to "shush at the back" and sometimes using a deadly stare. Once, when I was using the photocopier in the office, I heard her shout: "What are you doing?" I assumed she was talking to a child, but it was directed at me. I half expected to be kept in at playtime and told to sit with my hands on my head.

Staff believed senior and middle managers were no longer prepared to get their hands dirty and teach, favouring meetings and training courses as alternatives. When one member of the senior management team was off sick, I was given responsibility for teaching her low-ability maths group, a task I continued for the duration of my practice: great experience for me, but it did little to earn her any popularity points.

In direct contrast, the head of the school I am in now is approachable, well liked and respected by children and teachers. He never raises his voice to pupils yet still manages to exert authority and control. He eats with the children every day, and always seems to be at school. It pays off.

The pupils look forward to his assemblies and my class can't wait to show him their completed work.

In school A, I felt I was taken advantage of and treated as an extra pair of hands to cover sickness and absenteeism, whereas in school B I feel supported and valued. One of the great things about the PGCE year is that you get to see a wide variety of schools. Admittedly, it is only a snapshot, but first impressions are important. I've had two very different experiences in two schools that, at face value, I thought were similar. It goes to show that you should never judge a school by its cover.

The writer is a PGCE student in London. She wants to remain anonymous

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