An inspector calls
There are not many jobs that require you to deal regularly with weeping headteachers, but being a school improvement adviser is one of them. In the last six years, Simon Molony has had to tell about 25 heads that their schools are not doing well enough so that he is intervening whether they like it or not.
"I haven't had anybody take a swing at me, but I have certainly had plenty of people who initially wouldn't put me at the top of their Christmas-card list," says Mr Molony, a primary adviser in Kent. "Some people, dare I suggest, burst into tears fairly quickly hoping that will bring the interview to an end. It doesn't.
"You simply sit and offer them a tissue and wait until they're ready to carry on. Does that sound a bit hard? It does, but that's the way it is. At the end of the day, schools are not a facility for employing teachers, they are there for the children."
Sometimes heads try to deflect criticism by blaming the children.
"There can be an element of 'What can you expect when they come from backgrounds like these?'" says Mr Molony. "The response is that all children can learn whatever their starting point. If there are barriers to their learning, the school needs to identify what they are and work out how to overcome them."
Since the School Standards and Framework Act in 1998 made explicit the requirement on local education authorities to improve standards in their schools, a network of advisers, earning around pound;50,000 a year for, on average, 60-hour weeks, has been established across the country.
Generally the service has evolved out of local education authorities'
advisory and inspection services, which provided links between each authority and its schools. In some areas, those doing the school improvement adviser's job are still known by different titles such as link adviser or inspector.
"Since the standards agenda hit education and targets became the order of the day, the role has been hardened up every year," says Pat Doherty, a former principal inspector, now working for Cocentra, a private company, which provides back-up for advisers working with struggling secondary schools.
"These days it is very much about challenging schools to achieve their targets and supporting them in this."
It is a job for experienced teachers who have worked at different levels of management and have the ability to spot what may be going wrong and devise solutions for putting it right.
Marianne Breedon, a senior adviser for Southwark in south London, says:
"Standards are key. We want children to achieve level 4 at the end of key stage 2 so they are prepared to go to secondary school. That is a primary school's job.
"If the children are not making good progress there is something wrong in the school. It may be poor management, weak teaching, or that they are not assessing the pupils properly so they don't know they are not making progress.
"Sometimes there is a sudden dramatic change - perhaps the headteacher becomes very ill and the deputy is not strong enough or not ready to take over - sometimes it is more of a slow slide downwards. Then we have to support them in the right way and empower them so they can move forward."
Often poor Sats results alert the local authority to a school that needs attention. The aim is to intervene before Ofsted gets there. Simon Molony, who was head in two different schools before becoming a primary adviser, says: "Two consecutive days in a school are usually enough to pinpoint what the problem is and collect supporting evidence.
"Very often it has to do with the competency of the headteacher, unfortunately. If you have a head who doesn't know what is going on and is failing to monitor teaching and learning effectively, no one will know what progress the children are making or what their learning needs are."
After a visit and a check with his senior adviser, Mr Molony will supply a written report with suggestions for improvements to the school, such as bringing in literacy or numeracy consultants, designing a new curriculum, carrying out joint lesson observations with the head and deputy to ensure they know what to look for, training the governors, and getting in software specialists to make the school's tracking data on the children useable and useful.
"Initially, the response is often to deny there is a problem," he says.
"That is when you have to produce the clearly documented and organised evidence that you have gathered. Once they accept that, you're in business.
You move into partnership with the school and work jointly to improve things.
"Very soon you find the head and staff are devouring all the support that's going in and becoming more robust and more capable of sorting out difficulties for themselves.
"In one school where I intervened recently there was a 20 per cent improvement at key stage 2 and 10 per cent at key stage 1 in the first year.
"What's lovely is to see the children's response: to see the smiles on their faces and their engagement with a curriculum that is now imaginative and creative and innovative. That is where the job satisfaction lies."
Occasionally it does not work. For all the adviser's efforts, the head, or sometimes individual teachers, will not make the necessary changes and formal competency procedures are invoked.
"Those are not happy times," says Mr Molony. "You have to remind yourself that those children are not getting a good enough deal if the teachers are not doing well enough for them."