The man who made a good school better;Heads' tales;Briefing;School Management

8th January 1999 at 00:00
As a principle for your working life, "What you do tells you more than what you say," certainly fills the bill. You can only use it, though, if you are genuinely in a position to offer more than slogans, a few good jokes, and some references to your more memorable speeches.

It was John Swinburne, self-effacing head of the 1,300-pupil Cheslyn Hay High School in Staffordshire who used this saying, suggesting that he was not keen to expound his philosophy and methods. The record of improvement at Cheslyn Hay, he feels, is what counts. It goes something like this: He moved in 1985 from the deputy headship of Edgecliff School, Kinver, to be head of Cheslyn Hay - already a school with a good reputation. He set out to make it even better.

So, since 1988, when GCSE began, the number of subject entries per pupil has increased from a little over six to just over nine; the percentage of A to C grades has gone from under 35 to more than 51.

At A-level the story is much the same - since 1987 a doubling of the number both of pupils entering the exam (from 27 to 54) and of the percentage of A to C grades (from just over 20 per cent to just under 43 per cent) When the Department for Education and Employment published its table of the 100 most improved schools, Cheslyn Hay high was 18th.

The secret? Another head in this series suggested that effective education is "not rocket science" - you have to work hard at basic issues. John Swinburne's approach is much the same. "There's no quick and simple answer. You have to work on many different fronts."

There is, for example, the drive to maintain a high-quality teaching staff. Cheslyn has 70 teachers at the school, and with only two or three leaving each year, great care is taken with the selection of replacements.

"Recruitment has a high priority," says Mr Swinburne. Although the school has a conventional recruitment process and policy, he believes that his experience as a teacher and senior manager has come into play. " It's a feel for people - I use instinct and intuition."

It would be a mistake to assume, though, that Mr Swinburne runs Cheslyn Hay entirely on personal judgments. He and his colleagues have prepared and supported their drive for higher standards by the methodical collection and analysis of data.

Ten years ago they began to use National Foundation for Educational Research cognitive abilities tests (CAT) for the Year 7 intake. When they correlated the results with GCSE grades, they found that although pupils with high CAT scores did well at GCSE, the story lower down the ability range was different.

The focus for improvement has been on raising expectations and aspirations. Here part of Mr Swinburne's inspiration harks back 40 years to his own school days, at Wath grammar, in what was then the West Riding. "I saw what a good school could do for a small town."

What those West Riding small-town grammars did - Wath, Mexborough, Ecclesfield, Penistone and others - was bring in able teachers who were role models not only for learning and culture but for wider experience of life. "We still tussle with this," says Mr Swinburne. "Quite a few of our kids want to stay in the locality. We have had to set out to broaden horizons."

His first teaching job was at Plymouth College - then a highly selective direct-grant school. This experience had a lasting effect, by showing him, early in his career, what very able, motivated pupils could achieve. And although committed to the comprehensive principle, he has been equally dedicated to rooting out of Cheslyn Hay any suspicion of complacency, or acceptance of mediocre standards.

His description of the school as it was when he arrived will spark recognition in heads who have worked on raising standards. Regarded as a good school, with happy pupils, its strength was perceived as being in its pastoral care - many people, including some of the then staff, felt that they were doing well just to keep up with other local schools.

Mr Swinburne welcomed the arrival of league tables and the publication of results. "We could show that we were good academically too."

The drive for higher aspirations and higher standards has been continuous. Classroom methods have been under the microscope, with teachers observing each other; pupil reviews concentrate on encouragement; wherever possible, modular exam courses are used, offering the possibility of quick feedback of progress.

One of Mr Swinburne's great strengths, according to Philip Hunter, Staffordshire's director of education, is his feel for how quickly to push things along. "He has a sure touch and a superb sense of timing. He knows when to push a new idea and when to bide his time."

Not that he thinks this is easy. "The most difficult thing you have to judge is the pace of change. Your pupils only have the one chance with you, so you don't want to be too experimental - but you do want to move on."

It is the way that heads respond to this kind of challenge, he believes, which marks out quality of leadership. "Leadership is to do with having a vision of where you want to go, taking account of the requirements of others and the other needs of the locality."

Mr Swinburne's early career was built in science departments - as a physics teacher and, in the 1970s, as head of science and maths at Wolverley High School in Worcestershire. Until recently he taught maths to Year 7 at Cheslyn Hay. "That just doesn't seem possible now, though," he says. Not that he subscribes to the negative perception of the good teacher being promoted out of teaching and into management. For him, that boundary does not exist.

"I'm strongly opposed to that view. A teacher actually is a manager. I believe that having been in the job from the ground floor the decisions I make are more informed, more acceptable and more realistic."

To be shown round Cheslyn Hay High by John Swinburne is an inspiring experience. His body language is almost diffident. And although he will tell you what you need to know, he lets much of it speak for itself - he will open a classroom door, gesture inside, and wait as you soak up the atmosphere, noticing that every child, to use the inspectorial phrase, is "on task".

This is a head who over a long and often difficult period has won staff, governor, community and pupil support and then set quietly about the task of making a good school into an excellent one.

"The big thing we've done here," he says, "is change the culture to one where the pupils have self-belief and high expectations."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today