The Interview - 'I was the queen of tarmac'

27th February 2009 at 00:00
Jennifer Thomas led the Beacon School in Banstead, Surrey, out of special measures through 'clear, resolute leadership', according to Ofsted. Last year it achieved its best GCSE results

Ofsted calls you an excellent head. How much experience did you bring to the Beacon?

I was a career deputy for quite some years, having taught English before that. On a couple of occasions I've been asked to help out in schools with a need, as a consultant deputy or an interim head. I came to the Beacon as an interim head and was appointed substantive head in May 2008. What I brought was a clear view of what's needed and how to get there: really, addressing the basics. We've improved so fast because of the basics. I think about all the people in the school: how do we speak to them, how do we treat them? Everyone needs to know what's expected of them and feel valued.

Did you have an action plan?

When I came there were low spirits: staff were concerned about what had happened and why. Pupils felt undervalued. We needed to rapidly improve attainment, particularly literacy skills; build capacity in the senior management team, take robust action to improve teaching and learning; set targets for marking and homework; raise attendance to at least the national average. There was a culture of confrontation and disaffection too. So we revised the behaviour policy. Pupils used to be removed from class regularly and were resentful and confused. Now subject teachers deal with situations in the classroom themselves: they are empowered. If you ask pupils, they'll say it's much stricter but they prefer it.

What came first?

We knew we had to tackle some obvious issues straightaway. Homework was being set in lessons on an ad hoc basis. On the first day of term, we promised parents that there would be a homework timetable by the end of the week. Staff were required to set weekly homework, to clearly established standards. People hate marking, but pupils and parents need feedback. We gave staff guidance and stickers: "Good points were: ..."; "To improve further you should ... ". Marking of work is regularly and clearly monitored: non-marking is a disciplinary offence. How can you expect pupils to produce work of value if they don't feel it's being valued?

Did anyone object?

Of course, you lose some people, but mostly people wanted it to succeed, they wanted the school to work. Similarly, we tackled target-setting by simplifying and standardising. In the front of every exercise book, pupils have: "My target is: national curriculum level or GCSE grade x". They also have three reports a year. To make progress quickly, keep it simple. We did a lot of coaching, using local authority consultants to build a coaching network and some of our own talented staff doing lesson observations with a traffic light evaluation. Some teachers moved from red to green: Ofsted was excited by their dramatic progress.

Wasn't it a lot for one person to tackle?

If you read the Ofsted report, it pins everything on the headteacher. But really, it's been a team effort. There has been a tremendous amount of loyalty to the school from staff, pupils and parents. Simple things consolidate that. We changed the school uniform. Blazers cost a lot, only fit for about a minute and get smelly, so we measured everyone up in the hall and bought them all the new jumpers, which cover a multitude of sins. We improved the environment. I think they must have thought I was the queen of tarmac because there are new netball and tennis courts, fenced off from the quiet areas. The refurbished school canteen is now The Bistro. It all looks and feels better. We are also working with the community. We used to get complaints about children's behaviour at the bus-stop so two members of staff walk up there every evening.

What's the best success so far?

We concentrated really hard on our Year 11, with weekends and holiday sessions. We bought them pizza to get them started on their coursework. I brought in support from my previous high-achieving school, Reigate. And they've done better than any previous year. More than 200 pupils came to support their subjects at a recent open evening, mocking up a First World War trench or a tropical rainforest, singing in our gospel choir (60 strong including staff), talking about our clubs that flourish now that we've got late coaches on Mondays and Thursdays. I said to the parents: "If you want to know if children are happy and do well here, look at how many of them have given up their evening to come back."

What would you do if you were Schools Secretary for the day?

I'd introduce a fully-funded bursary scheme for teachers with a year's sabbatical after 10 years' service - possibly, but not necessarily, doing something to enhance their expertise. This would improve retention rates and should mean that teachers return reinvigorated and refreshed.

What's the best excuse you've ever heard?

It was from a boy who lived four doors down from one of the schools I worked in. He claimed he couldn't attend as he was snowed in.


1986-2007: Deputy head at Reigate School in Surrey, including secondments as consultant deputy head at Royal Alexandra and Albert School in Surrey, and interim head at Ashford High School in Surrey.

Up to 1986: English teacher, rising to head of faculty, at Bacup and Rawtenstall Grammar School in Lancashire; English teacher at Joseph Leckie School in Walsall; English teacher at Darwen Moorland High School in Lancashire and English teacher at Leigh CE High School in Wigan.

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