The head who just cannot stand still

4th February 2005 at 00:00
Ray Tarleton is the driving force behind a school and a new national network of headteachers. Hilary Wilce reports

Ray Tarleton stepped up as leader of a new network of heads 18 months ago and is fast becoming a player on the national educational stage. He speaks at conferences, writes articles, bends ears in Whitehall, co-ordinates research and consults with colleagues.

Oh, and he does all this in just two days a week; the rest of the time he remains principal of South Dartmoor community college, a Devon school which over the past 17 years he has dragged from being a small, problem-ridden secondary into a large and bustling sports college, bristling with new buildings and smattered with awards.

And he has not done it in the usual way. If blue-sky thinking is needed, he is clearly the man. His school has an unusually flat management structure, with nine assistant heads who rotate being in charge when he is away. He has abolished parents' evenings, to give teachers their evenings back. Then there is the scheme which allows his school, in partnership with two others, to train teachers on-site, using teachers as tutors.

But it was his work as chair of the Devon Secondary Heads' Association, moving members on from discussing "buildings, budgets and boilers", that led to an invitation to join the National College for School Leadership's new network of 400 forward-looking heads. He applied to be a regional co-ordinator, but instead was asked to take the national job.

It's easy to see why. Quick-thinking and open, he has a rare ability to push forward new ideas while carrying everyone with him. The Office for Standards in Education called him "an inspirational leader" and his CV carries several close-typed pages of achievements.

"I like ideas, I like people, I like finding things out, I like seeing people come on and develop," he says. "You can't stand still. The world is changing so fast."

Guy Claxton, visiting professor of learning science at Bristol university, says anyone working with him is likely to be caught up in "the heat and light he cuts through education. He makes innovation look easy - but it might be tough being one of the poor staff who have to follow through on each initiative".

Yet his teachers appear to thrive on it, saying their head is confident, aware, generous and accessible. "He's an open thinker, and he listens to his staff," says Susan Groves, head of English.

"You'd never describe him as arrogant," says Phil Randall, a head of house.

"He always looks for the good in people, and he tempers what he does with fun."

A former English teacher, he worked in Zambia, Kent and Norfolk, and gained a masters degree in educational research from the University of East Anglia, before moving to Devon to become a head. He is married to an independent school teacher - a source of vigorous domestic debate - and has a mathematician son doing postgraduate work at Oxford, and an award-winning journalist daughter in Australia. Out-of-hours he likes to work out, ride his bike and play bridge.

Talking with colleagues, he says, "is thrilling. The best in-service training there can possibly be". Even though they can sometimes ramble on.

"Heads need to be much clearer about saying what actually works."

But he also knows that nailing this can be elusive. South Dartmoor offers pupils a flourishing all-round education, yet only 58 per cent of them get five good GCSEs, "which is not good," he says. "The children's work is below the standard of teaching they're getting. We're looking into why that should be so."

"To me, he epitomises the new profession," says a fellow networker, Martin Young, head of Cranford Park primary in Middlesex. "He's very focused on the idea of school-to-school support, he sees things more broadly than heads have in the past, and he doesn't want to fight old battles."

All of which is good news for a network that started out as woolly and exclusive, but is rapidly becoming sharper.

"I was always uneasy with the idea of it being elitist. I couldn't philosophically defend it," says Mr Tarleton.

Now any forward-looking head can apply for membership. And while that might be difficult if everyone wants to join, Mr Tarleton says: "My sense is that people will come in and out." It is also firming up as a research-based group committed to shaping policy from good practice. Major work on personalised learning and in-school variations is under way, and the group already has good connections. It consulted with David Hopkins, a Department for Education and Skills adviser, on personalised learning just before David Miliband, the former school standards minister, spoke out on the issue, and works with a growing array of opinion-shapers.

Could all this take him out of school altogether? At 54, he thinks it might be time to move on. "I could retire," he says. It seems unlikely.


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