I refused to wield the axe

24th October 2003 at 01:00
A headteacher rescued her school from special measures with few staff casualties. Martin Whittaker reports

When Brownhills high school came out of special measures this summer, head Sue Chesterton celebrated by taking all the staff out. Then she treated the school's 750 pupils to a day out at Alton Towers.

"It was a huge operation," she says. "We were all on mobile phones saying 'coach number 13 - where are you?' But the children loved it - it was our way of saying thank you."

The Stoke-on-Trent school certainly had something to celebrate. In two years it has seen a staggering improvement in its GCSE results - from just 9 per cent of students gaining five A* to C grades in 2001 to 46 per cent this summer.

Also, despite intense pressure from inspectors to wield the axe and change her team, Mrs Chesterton and her governors dug their heels in and resisted.

She has taken the school through special measures while keeping her own job, her senior management team, and the bulk of her teaching staff intact.

She says the pressure on her as head was immense. But in the end she puts her and her staff's survival down to a combination of hard work and "sheer cussedness".

"I just had to prove people wrong - that I was a good head. The first thing I said to the staff is 'we are going to come out of this, and we are going to come out of it together'."

Brownhills high is an 11-16 mixed comprehensive in Tunstall. Its community has high levels of disadvantage - 37 per cent of its pupils are eligible for free school meals, and around 30 per cent have special educational needs. About a third of pupils come from ethnic-minority backgrounds and 23 per cent speak English as an additional language.

The school's 1920s buildings are in need of renovation. But the atmosphere is very upbeat - Brownhills is currently bidding for specialist status in maths and information and communications technology.

When Sue Chesterton became head 12 years ago, only 4 per cent of students were achieving five or more A*-C grades at GCSE. She and her team managed to improve the results, which hovered between 19 and 25 per cent throughout the Nineties.

But by the end of the decade, the school hit major staffing problems. With key teachers off sick and the national recruitment crisis biting, standards plummeted. An inspection report in March 2000 said the school had serious weaknesses and the following year Brownhills was placed in special measures.

Mrs Chesterton says it was a real blow to staff and pupil morale. "At the time the inspectors put us into special measures, they weren't decided as to whether I should stay or go. So I really had to bounce back first before they made the decision."

She says the school implemented a two-pronged rescue plan - concentrating both on the quality of management and on teaching and learning. She and her team began by looking at ways of improving supply teaching. Supply staff were told to teach with their doors open and there was always a senior manager in the corridors to offer support.

Teachers went out and looked at good practice in other local schools, advisers were brought in and Brownhills introduced peer mentoring for staff.

The school also sent all its staff on a motivation training course to boost their self-belief. And then the school began putting its key stage 4 pupils through the training, which this term has been extended to those at KS3.

What were the benefits? "I can tell you what it did for me," says Mrs Chesterton. "To fight back when you're in a situation where your leadership is being called into question, you have to find an inner strength. It's just a way of focusing and taking control of your own life. It was one of the ways I managed to get through three years of hell."

Mrs Chesterton learned to be more creative with her staffing. When a deputy head moved on to take a headship midway through special measures, she saw it as an opportunity to offer other local schools professional development and borrowed a deputy on secondment. And when the school lost its head of modern languages, it collaborated with another school to buy in theirs for one day a week.

The school began training in learning styles, accelerated learning and brain gym. It also invested heavily in technology. The school's ICT support staff produced tailor-made learning materials on CD-Rom. And alternative ways of teaching were brought in - for example, the head of maths brought a quiz show format into lessons after he was a contestant on the Channel 4 TV quiz show Countdown.

Mrs Chesterton says the governing body have played a huge role in the school's turnaround. "They have been very supportive. They undertook training themselves because they realised the whole staff were having training.

"I think they trusted me and my judgment. And when we were struggling with recruitment, the governors were coming up with all sorts of ideas, bringing in their experience from business."

Chair of governors Pat Shenton says: "The governing body is far more pro-active and involved than previously. I think we view ourselves as critical friends, but very much of a constructive nature.

"The inspectors put me on the spot as soon as they put us in special measures - and I gave my view on behalf of the governors that we believed the head could turn the school around. I think it's down to having faith in the leadership of the school."

Name Brownhills high school, Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent

School type 11-16 community school

Proportion of children entitled to free school meals

37 per cent

Improved results Up from 9 per cent of pupils gaining five C grade or better GCSEs in 2001, to 46 per cent in 2003

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