The hidden cost of excellence

9th February 1996 at 00:00
Diane Hofkins reports from a school that has received inspection plaudits, but where the head shoulders an unduly heavy teaching load.

Alan West seems an easy-going, confident man, as befits the head of a successful, smallish primary school in idyllic Cornwall. The only real worry of the inspectors who visited his school, Devoran County Primary in Truro, last year, was that the head would burn out.

He has been running a top-rated school with no time off from a full teaching load. In chief inspector Chris Woodhead's annual report this week, Devoran's inspection report is recognised as one of last year's best. The registered inspector, an experienced HMI, described it as "an outstandingly good school in which standards are high in every subject".

The report points to a "rich and carefully planned curriculum", excellent behaviour, "inspiring leadership" and much support from governors and the community.

The school seems to have everything going for it - a beautifully-renovated old building, an experienced and dedicated staff, a majority of children with above-average ability. But its success does not come easily. The inspectors say that despite all the school's achievements, "the financial resources at the governors' disposal are only just adequate, and there are times when the workload of staff is excessive". The way Mr West puts this is: "There are decisions that we are constantly making in the best interests of the children. "

These have included keeping classes down in the 20s in the infants, and achieving what the school believes is the best balance between new and experienced teachers as staff retire. He has given up any free time for his administrative responsibilities for two years.

However, he and the governors recognise that next year he will have to take his "head's relief", as non-contact time is called in Cornwall, no matter what. Last year, the staffing problem was exacerbated by what OFSTED described as "an unanticipated increase in the number of pupils in the upper juniors" - in other words, appeals won by parents wanting to get their children into such an excellent school.

Hence, OFSTED's two key issues for the school to address in order to sustain its good work: "To ensure that the demands made on staff, and in particular on the head, are kept to reasonable bounds; and that admissions are carefully controlled, to avoid increasing the number on roll beyond the capacity of the building."

Last year, rather than take his free time, Mr West worked alongside the part-time teacher hired to cover "head's relief" in a class of 40 Year 5s and 6s. "This flexible arrangement is very effective," wrote the inspectors. "Nevertheless, the decision to teach full-time has placed a considerable burden on the headteacher, and the governors should review this policy."

They did, but the children came first. A decision was made to have six classes, rather than five in the 150-pupil school, and another to replace the retiring deputy head, who had been a powerful force in the school, with an experienced teacher rather than a probationer.

"If we had appointed a newly-qualified teacher, we would have been fine financially," said Mr West. "We could have had six classes and head's relief and a din-ner lady." But they felt such a change could have damaged the balance and strength of the teaching staff. "If you have a good team, it's money well spent," he said.

And it is not just the head, but teachers, too, who work far beyond the call of duty. For instance, it was seen as important that children learn to swim as young as possible, but lessons at a local pool are held out of school hours, to avoid using any curriculum time.

Teachers and parents also give up their free time for morning runs, sports, public-speaking competitions, outdoor activities, and administration, so the children can be offered everything they believe they should have.

It all appears to be done without resentment, and with good cheer. Relationships and co-operative working are well-developed, according to OFSTED. But clearly sacrifices are being made.

If OFSTED and the Government are to hold up schools such as Devoran as proof that big classes and low funding need not prevent excellence, it would be reasonable to ask just how much a nation can demand of its teaching force and its headteachers.

Co-operation and integration are at the heart of what makes Devoran so effective. "A large part of the success of the school is that we have all been able to work together," says Jean Lapham, the deputy head.

The inspectors' report says that it is "a strength of the teaching" that reading, writing and speaking and listening are effectively woven together in lessons. It points to real co-operation among pupils during groupwork, and "thorough and accurate" assessments by teachers, which "are used effectively to inform the planning of subsequent work and to promote higher standards". Meanwhile, "the pupils' moral development is considerably enhanced by the excellent relationships within the school. Children, taking their cue from the adults around them, treat each other with respect and consideration".

Another plus is that teachers have "helpful job descriptions which sensitively reflect both their expertise and their needs for further professional development".

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