It takes more than Sooty's wand to make a difference

14th March 2003 at 00:00
"When are you leaving, sir?" This was the question that Gary Phillips faced, when he started as head of Lilian Baylis comprehensive, in the London borough of Lambeth in January 2001, the fifth headteacher in as many years.

Lilian Baylis is one of the lowest-performing schools in the country. But Mr Phillips denies that this is the reason for the high turnover of heads.

"There are always different stories. Behind the statistics, there are lots of human tragedies."

A challenging, inner-city school demanded an enormous level of commitment: something that not everyone was able to give, he said. Many heads felt unable to balance the commitment with parallel personal demands. But he said the success or failure of a school was not necessarily dependent on the achievements of the head.

"The head is only one in a very big team. If you could fix a school's problems by waving a magic wand, Sooty would be a head."

Equally, a rapid succession of headteachers need not be detrimental to pupils: "It's turmoil for a child if English or maths teachers leave. But a lot probably didn't notice the heads come and go."

Staff, too, have been accommodating the changing leadership. There have been no mass departures of long-serving teachers and little reference is made to Mr Phillips' predecessors.

"Staff are just worried about standards. They talk about revision classes, Saturday schools, extra-curricular activities. Their conversations are about how to improve things for the kids."

He said strong leadership was valuable at all levels. Committed staff, pupils and parents were vital for success. And increased levels of funding can often be more important than effective management, in making a difference to a school.

Nonetheless, he admitted to worrying that he may stumble at the same obstacles as previous heads. But he doesn't ask questions. He is taking the school forward. Its history is irrelevant.

Adi Bloom

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