The Interview - 'We made it cool to succeed'

17th July 2009 at 01:00
Louise Duncan, headteacher at Sunbury Manor School in Middlesex, has turned around its reputation from `Scumbury' into one of Surrey's highest achieving schools

How did you become a headteacher?

I came here eight years ago after being a deputy head in a school in Tower Hamlets. I trained as a French and German teacher and I still teach. If you're not teaching last period on a Friday you can't know what it feels like for your NQTs. I also take exam classes so I can share other teachers' stresses and concerns.

One of the things I've had to learn most recently is how to use the smart- board - it's good for pupils to see you in a position where you're learning.

What are the pupils at your school like?

I am lucky to work with the most lovely pupils. It is an area of really high employment, with many parents employed at Heathrow Airport. When I first came here pupils used to think: "Why do I need qualifications if I can go straight out and get a job?" We have all worked very hard to make it cool to succeed at Sunbury Manor.

Very early on I ran assemblies with each year group about who they thought was cool. Pupils thought that, from the Year 11 cohort that had just left, the "coolest" were those who got the most GCSEs.

We are always opening our pupils' eyes to new opportunities. We say to them: "Of course you could get a job at the airport, but imagine how much better it would be with a language or a business qualification." We also make them aware of opportunities at university.

So how do you get parents on side?

It helps that they see me as a parent myself. My second child was born when I'd been at the school for four years - I don't think the local authority had ever had to deal with a pregnant secondary head before - and lots of parents say they find it easier to talk to me because I have kids. It's also a huge vote of confidence that 18 members of my staff have kids in Sunbury Manor.

Your most recent Ofsted saw you gain an outstanding status for behaviour. How did you manage that?

We have worked so hard as a school to achieve this. One of our key developments has been the Internal Isolation Unit. Known by the pupils, and now staff, as "the box". It is a facility where rather than hang around at home, parents have to sign pupils in and out. They work in silence for the day and they must do sufficient work to get out. It is networked so they can access the virtual learning environment and staffed with members of staff trained in behavioural issues. It has cut fixed-term exclusions by 87 per cent as pupils do not want to go back in there. They hate being cut off from their friends and not knowing what's happening in the rest of the school. Some parents were initially worried by the idea, but when they came to see it, they were impressed.

Why did you decide to become a specialist school?

When our last Ofsted showed us as "a good school with outstanding elements" I was delighted, as this built on our previous report where we had been good in every category. Following the previous Ofsted, we knew we could not stand still or we would plateau. So we applied for specialist status in humanities, something 94 per cent of the staff voted in favour of. It has brought the whole school together with focus weeks on humanities in each faculty. We became a foundation school in 2009, which has given us more flexibility.

A quarter of your pupils have special educational needs (SEN). How have you accommodated that?

We have pupils with a wide range of SEN, including pupils with physical disabilities and those with learning difficulties. We make sure we offer them the most appropriate pathway at 16 to ensure that every child can achieve the maximum possible. We offer college places, the Princes Trust XL Club, a construction bus, extended work experience as well as the traditional 12 GCSEs. More than 80 per cent of our pupils stay on at college for further study.

It's a big school - how do you communicate with everyone?

We've made the most of our virtual learning environment so everything staff and pupils do goes through it - you do your email through it and faculties create their own web pages and post elements of the syllabus, homework assignments and important information. We have a portal for Year 6 pupils to ease the transition between primary and secondary school - as soon as they get a place here they get a password and they can meet their new teachers, see a tour of the school and talk to their pupil mentors. We've just introduced a leavers' portal for Year 11 pupils - it means they can keep talking to us and each other once they've left to go to college.

If you were Schools Secretary for the day, what would you do?

I would abolish league tables and issue a policy that says it is time to start trusting schools and teachers.

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

"I can't come in. I've just carried out a citizen's arrest outside my house and I'm holding the prisoner down."


2001: Headteacher, Sunbury Manor School, Middlesex

1997-2001: Deputy headteacher, Swanlea School, Tower Hamlets

1999: MBA education, South Bank University

1994-1997: Head of modern foreign languages, Ernest Bevin School, Wandsworth

1989-1994: Teacher of French and German, London Oratory School

1984-1988: MA French and German at Oxford University.

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