An inspector transforms

28th April 2006 at 01:00
What happened when Zita McCormick left Ofsted and became head of a failing school? Dorothy Lepkowska reports

Even education minister Andrew Adonis thought there had been an error when he looked at the school's results.

For Seven Fields primary, in Swindon, to come out of special measures, and for key stage 2 results to improve from 32 per cent to 72 per cent at level 4 in English in just one year, seemed unbelievable.

"When Lord Adonis came to visit us, he said that when he looked at the data on test results, he thought there had been an error," said Zita McCormick, the headteacher. "I assured him there wasn't."

This had been exactly the type of challenge that Mrs McCormick, a former Ofsted inspector, had been looking for - a 300-pupil primary in special measures on one of the most deprived housing estates in the country.

What she had not banked on - and what the governors of Seven Fields had kept from her at interview - was that the school's buildings were falling down.

Mrs McCormick, 49, had worked in secondary education for nearly 30 years in London, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire - as a teacher, school improvement adviser, and an Ofsted inspector. She had been deputy head of a special school, but never a head. And she had no experience of the primary sector.

She said:"I remember times when, as an inspector and a school improvement adviser, I would sit opposite a head thinking, 'You're not the right person for this job - I wish I could have a go at turning this school around.' So that's what I decided to do."

On arrival at Seven Fields in January 2005, she closed the main buildings, which had floor-to-ceiling cracks and had been condemned, and replaced them with temporary huts.

"We threw out 12 skips of rubbish," she said. "I came into school during the first week in dirty overalls and kept a suit in my office for visitors."

A reward system was introduced for pupils to reduce truancy and improve discipline. Points for regular attendance and hard work in lessons are traded in for fancy pencils and yummy puddings. "The apple crumble and custard is a favourite, as is soup and garlic bread," she said. "For some children it is the only daily hot meal they get."

Teachers were urged to work differently. "We had to get rid of some of the dogma and create an environment where teachers were allowed to get on with teaching," said Mrs McCormick, who drives 65 miles each way every day from her home in Berkshire.

"We videoed staff in the classroom and paired them up with buddies so they could watch themselves teach and learn good practice," she said. "We turned some very wobbly teachers into outstanding ones." The most recent Ofsted inspection last December - just 18 months after the school was placed into special measures - praised Mrs McCormick for "excellent leadership".

The report said she had laid the foundations for success. Her plan now is to have the staff and pupils in new buildings and KS2 results of more than 80 per cent within three years.

* dorothy.lepkowska@tes.co.uk

Friday magazine 6

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