Joined-up venture could spell trouble

19th March 2004 at 00:00
A partnership between two schools at opposite ends of the success spectrum faces strike action. Phil Revell reports

It looked like a marriage made in heaven - a struggling comprehensive teamed up with one of England's top state schools. But teachers at Madeley Court school in Telford have voted for strike action over plans to restructure the curriculum along lines which have proved so successful for its partner, Thomas Telford city technology college.

The CTC has kept a 100 per cent pass rate for five A*-C GCSEs for three years. But it has been accused of "predatory" behaviour by Chris Keates, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, whose Madeley members are now in dispute with the school.

Madeley Court serves two disadvantaged estates in south Telford. But there was surprise last year when the local authority announced the partnership with Thomas Telford. Madeley Court had not failed an inspection and at 27 per cent its pass rate for five A*-C GCSEs was just above the Government's 25 per cent "danger zone". Two other schools in the town scored 20 per cent or less, but LEA officers had started looking for a partnership deal after several indicators showed that Madeley Court was at risk of "a downward spiral".

It had also been unable to appoint a head. Madeley Court's chair of governors Pauline Hughes says the board wanted someone with experience of headship. But two rounds of applications and interviews failed to produce the right candidate.

The governors were left with the option of a partnership, and produced a position paper setting out their vision for the school.

Ms Hughes says: "It said 'These are the things we know we need help with, these are our strengths, these are our values, the things we don't want to change or compromise on.'

"When we saw what Thomas Telford was offering it was everything that we needed."

The CTC is well known for its work with other schools. Using money from its highly successful GNVQ courses in ICT, it has ploughed more than pound;3.5million into other schools in the West Midlands, sponsoring two city academies and many bids for specialist status.

"We are committed to working with other schools," says Sir Kevin Satchwell, the CTC's head. "Here was an opportunity to look at what was right for Madeley, right for Thomas Telford and right for the local authority."

Initially, the plan was to second a senior CTC manager to Madeley, but the governing body of the school was concerned about the message that would be given out by a short-term appointment. The new head, Vic Maher, took up the post on a permanent basis last September.

"This is not a sticking-plaster job," he says. "The school needed turning round. We spent a day talking to the leadership team and governors, and it was clear that this was a challenge."

Mr Maher aims to raise Madeley Court's results by 20 per cent in two years.

Some 70 of the school's Year 10 students now attend weekly lessons in ICT at Thomas Telford, and the CTC has invested more than pound;150,000 in its partner school in the form of whiteboards and technological innovations.

The school's senior management team includes five new assistant heads.

One of Mr Maher's first steps was to restructure the curriculum to make time for the successful Thomas Telford mix of ICT and vocational qualifications. The NASUWT strike threat came when it emerged that the change might lead to redundancies. There are also complaints about the new management style.

"There's no discussion, no debate, staff meetings consist of a senior manager reading out a list of instructions," one Madeley Court teacher told The TES.

Ms Hughes and Mr Maher knew that the partnership would not be received well by all staff at Madeley Court. There is a long history of antipathy towards the CTC in Telford schools, and Madeley Court seemed the least likely candidate for a deal. The school has a history of liberal innovation and a strong pupil-centred ethos. Until recently there was no uniform at the school.

Mr Maher concedes that he has a job of persuasion to do, but says: "There are some good teachers here. But we still have a lot with an old-fashioned mentality.

"You can't bring everyone on board - because you have to make changes.

Sometimes you have to make the hard decisions to get things done. Our children are benefiting and that's what it's about for me."

Industrial action will at first be limited to a refusal to co-operate with the restructuring process. But the NASUWT has wider concerns. As a CTC, Thomas Telford is nominally independent and outside the LEA structure. It does not have to follow either the national curriculum or nationally negotiated pay and conditions of service agreements.

The LEA emphasises that Madeley Court remains a local authority school, but the NASUWT is not reassured.

Chris Keates warns that the action could escalate into a strike.

"We have completed a ballot and given notice of action," she says. "We have also protested to the local authority.

"We are concerned about the predatory nature of Thomas Telford school - the fact that it is taking over the running of satellite schools.

"These are issues that ought to be dealt with by the LEA."

But NASUWT's action is not backed by the National Union of Teachers.

Regional officer Paul Blake told The TES that he hoped to avoid problems at the school through the normal negotiating process.

"We are working towards an agreement to avoid compulsory redundancies," he said.

The LEA describes negotiations so far as "positive". Meanwhile, the governors at Madeley Court are sticking by their decision to call in the CTC.

"The current management team is providing clear leadership and the positive effects on the school are self-evident," says Pauline Hughes.

Mr Maher notes that the school is now oversubscribed after only six months of partnership.

"People say that the school is calmer," he says. "In the classroom they are responding to the challenge.

"I was educated in Kirkby. I spent 16 years in Liverpool, 11 of those in Toxteth.

"I have an affinity with these kids and the challenges they face in life. I can see real similarities here, but we are set to transform this school."

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