Lateral thinker, straight talker

18th September 1998 at 01:00
Karen Thornton talks to ground-breaking head David Bird about his mission in a troubled Hull comprehensive.

Orchard Park is one of those misnamed northern council estates, more concrete jungle and horizontal sleet in winter than trees and blossom in summer.

Rows of terraced houses circle a bristling group of tower blocks. Stray dogs wander deserted streets - and several stray children hang out in a tiny playground in the shadow of the towers, well after morning registration has been called.

David Bird, headteacher of Sir Henry Cooper school, admits that the first time he drove on to the Hull estate - for his job interview - he nearly turned around without looking back.

"I'm a science teacher, all my decisions are rational, logical. But there was something telling me I wanted this job. It's not easy. It's a challenging school and it does require commitment. It's also a tremendously rewarding school," he says.

David Bird is an ideas man with a good sense of humour who went for a big challenge with his first headship. So says Ralph Cooke, his former boss at Longton high school, Stoke-on-Trent, where Mr Bird was deputy head responsible for the curriculum.

He went into Sir Henry Cooper with his eyes open. He says he grew up in a not dissimilar part of Stoke-on-Trent, failed his 11-plus, became a labourer and eventually went into teaching in his late 20s after studying for O and A-levels at night school. He trained at Matlock College of Education and Nottingham University.

Now aged 49 and less than two years into the job, Mr Bird is brutally honest about the challenges. Around 60 per cent of the "Cooper kids" are entitled to free school meals, and half of their parents are unemployed. The school's last OFSTED report, from 1996, notes extremely low and declining levels of ability on entry, and a truancy rate - particularly in key stage 4 - that was depressing GCSE performance even further.

"The estate has a poor reputation. There is a drugs problem and high vandalism in the school. But I have inherited a tremendously positive and hard-working staff.

"Because of our profile of low achievement and low attainment against national indicators, we decided the only way forward for the school was to throw our hat into the community game. We had to bring the community in and explain our vision of what's happening in the school. In an area like this you have to try things."

The school was already taking innovative steps involving community support of pupils. Retired volunteers from Age Concern help one-to-one with literacy and numeracy skills, family reading, homework clubs and an absenteeism scheme involving contact with parents.

A credits scheme rewards good behaviour, achievement and attendance with free school equipment and discounted trips to the cinema and local burger bars.

Mr Bird took it a stage further February, when he used the public address systems at local supermarkets to remind parents about the school's consultation evenings. The move made the national newspapers, and the media interest caught him by surprise.

The announcements worked: attendance at parents' evenings improved, and a follow-up "surgery" in a supermarket drew another 30 people into chats with teachers about their children's progress. There have been other surgeries since, held at the community centre and local Kwiksave store, and the school is represented at all community events by a member of the senior management team.

The idea for the public address announcements came from a staff development day attended by some parents, who - it later emerged - didn't ask questions because they were unsure whether to raise their hands or not, and how to address teachers.

"It was only when they heard teachers telling dirty jokes, having a fag and a pint, did they realise teachers are human. It was only then we realised we had unintentionally created massive barriers," said Mr Bird.

Mima Bell, who chairs Hull's education committee, welcomes his fresh approach. Using the PA system "might seem a bit of a gimmick," she says, "but he has a real problem - it's an estate school and a lot of the parents were not getting involved and were disenchanted."

A keen distance runner, cyclist and rock climber, Mr Bird says keeping fit helps reduce stress - and also provides a parable for pupils' academic efforts.

"I like to get over to the kids that to succeed at school, the same as succeeding at sport, you have to have rigour, determination and tenacity. You have got to run on wet and windy days as well as sunny ones."

A father of two, he sees his wife Jan and two sons - one at university and one preparing for A-levels next summer - at weekends only.

With an OFSTED visit expected in spring 1999, he contrasts Sir Henry Cooper with the middle-class North Staffordshire school where Jan is deputy head.

"It succeeds on all the OFSTED parameters - high attendance, high GCSE pass rates. Sir Henry Cooper would be classed as a not-so-good school, yet I know my staff are working out of their skins.

"What we have got to do - and are doing - is saying, I accept your (OFSTED's) game but we think this game is best for our community and will ultimately lead to improved achievement... When people judge us, they need to take into account the foundations and strategy we are putting in place, and not to expect a rapid turnaround."

David Bird is the first to say there is still a long way to go. The school has not been able to reach a hard core of parents, and pupil attendance ("sub-80 per cent on a good day") remains a significant problem. And there is the image problem associated with the challenges of Orchard Park itself.

One mother, hurrying across the estate to deliver her children to primary school, said: "I wouldn't send my kids there." Maybe not yet.

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