Howard's way works

9th September 2005 at 01:00
Martin Whittaker on the primary that pulled itself out of crisis by appointing its chair of governors as headteacher

Name: Midfield primary, Orpington, Kent

School type: three-11 community primary

Proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals: 47 per cent

Results: At key stage 2 last year, 52 per cent gained level 4 or above in maths and English, and 60 per cent in science, though results are skewed by a high proportion of special needs pupils.

Just 18 months ago, Midfield primary school was in crisis. It had been placed in special measures and the headteacher had resigned following a scathing inspection report.

Governors decided that the school needed an experienced leader with a firm hand on the tiller, so they turned to their own chair of governors, retired head Jim Howard.

The request took him by surprise. To run a school once more - particularly one in such challenging circumstances - was no easy decision. He had to give up headship a decade ago after heart surgery and had settled into comfortable semi-retirement, taking on freelance work as an inspector and adviser.

"Like anybody associated with a school, sometimes you wish you could get your teeth into a problem, but I'd never taken it seriously," he said.

"I had my pension and I was able to supplement it with other work. It was OK. But I did care about this school and I wanted it to be the school it was capable of being."

His feelings for Midfield and the lure of the challenge proved too great, so he accepted.

Under his leadership, the Kent school has just hauled itself out of special measures two terms before its target date.

Newspapers tend to shy away from the word unique, but Mr Howard's situation as a born-again head coupled with his extensive career must make him a contender. As well as being chair of governors since he retired at 48, he has also been an Ofsted inspector, a trainer of inspectors, external adviser on performance management and a tutor and assessor of graduate teachers.

He was asked to join Midfield primary's governors after running a three-day conference there on school improvement.

Midfield has faced considerable challenges. It serves poor housing estates in Orpington, on the south-eastern edge of London. Nearly half of its 272 infants and juniors are eligible for free school meals and it has a high proportion of pupils with special needs.

Children's attainment on entry to the school is well below average, as are its key stage 2 test results. Last year, 52 per cent gained level 4 or above in maths and English, and 60 per cent in science, but the results are skewed because a tenth of Year 6 pupils have special needs statements.

The school had been in decline for some time. Its Ofsted report in December 2003 highlighted unsatisfactory leadership and management, low attainment and inconsistent quality of teaching. Governance was satisfactory and the report said the governors were well-led.

Mr Howard also inherited shabby buildings, a pound;50,000 budget deficit and an over-reliance on supply teachers. And as soon as the school went into special measures, parents took their children elsewhere. The school lost some 30 pupils.

The first thing Mr Howard did was call staff together and set out a tougher management style.

"When you are trying to bring a school out of special measures, you need to be strong. You have to make some difficult decisions.

"You need to have the strength or ruthlessness sometimes to make difficult or what might be unpopular decisions. Some people left, and some people needed to leave, and if they hadn't left action would have been taken because you simply can't carry passengers in this situation. Things have to change."

He set about improving the school's image and raising its profile. Using his experience as an inspector he introduced rigorous monitoring of teaching and learning, involving planning, lesson observation and scrutiny of work. He also coached senior staff in monitoring.

"I was trying to empower my subject leaders so they could have a real understanding and make an impact on the standards in their subjects," he said.

The school began investing in staff training and continuing professional development, and Mr Howard set about giving key staff a greater say in the school's development.

"What I don't want is to finish and this school to slip," he said."I want structures to be robust enough so that it can continue."

His breadth of experience has undoubtedly helped.

"With my various hats on, I must have worked or been involved with hundreds of schools over the years and all over the country. And working closely with heads as an external adviser and threshold assessor, I think my depth of experience enabled me to see through the tangle."

He also cites his relationship with the governing body. His experience as chair of governors gave him an unusual perspective.

"We also have great trust," he said. "I know that they are committed to the school and they know that I am."

Mr Howard says he has had good support from Bromley education authority and his leadership team. Numbers are slowly rising. The nursery is full and some pupils who left when the school went into special measures have returned.

But he knows Midfield still has a way to go. "We have the fundamentals in place. Next we plan to renovate poor buildings and improve resources," he said.

So, how long before Mr Howard retires for good?

"I reach retirement age in two years," he said. "That will be ideal. If I can lead us through a successful Ofsted, that will be a good time to hand over."

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