Never ending drama

9th December 2005 at 00:00
Headteacher Spokey Wheeler was hoping for an unforgettable Christmas present from Ofsted: a note telling him his school was out of special measures. The wise men didn't bring tidings of joy, but Spokey is full of optimism for the new year. Here is his diary

Late October 2004

I've always said I wanted to lead an inner-city school. Now it's time to put my money where my mouth is. I've applied for the headship of Burlington Danes, an 11-16 C of E comprehensive in west London which went into serious weaknesses in 1996 and special measures in July 2004. It's an amalgamation of two great traditions: Clement Danes school for boys and Burlington school for girls, which first opened its doors in 1699.

I have made the shortlist and visit the school, tucked away between the A40, Wormwood Scrubs prison and outposts of the BBC, for the first time on a drab winter's day. First impressions are not good. An automatic gate leads to a bleak roadway, dry beech hedge and stray children. Through the hedge there are glimpses of mud and concrete and a once elegant facade.

Lester, a friendly Year 8 villain who is delighted to miss his lessons, shows me around. The four floors of corridors of the 1937 Art Deco building feel bleak; a blue mile, empty except for the odd truant and cast-out pupil. In some classes students and teachers are learning together effectively; in others there seems to be an uneasy truce. The modern extension feels much the same.

At lesson change the corridors become the students' territory, challenged only by an occasional teacher's presence and raised voice. But I am given more smiles than shoulders and detect little of the edge I have felt in some of the schools I've visited as a consultant head with the London Challenge, the initiative to improve education in five inner city boroughs.

Two hours later I stand on a triangle of grass across the road looking up at the bedraggled school. The blue hands of the clock are stuck at one. I think that it wouldn't take that much to set that clock working.

Late November

A month on and I'm designate head waiting to start my first meeting with parents. England are playing Holland tonight and only 15 seats are filled by 6.45. But within the hour the hall is almost full, most of them here to check me out. When I ask how easy is it for them to make contact with the school, the forest of hands that go up is as striking as the frustration and helplessness that erupts from them. I'm not surprised. Earlier today I discovered that one of the staff email inboxes has 68 unanswered messages.

The parents' concerns are simple. They're worried most about other students stopping their children learning, about lack of homework, and about the manner in which a few staff allegedly talk to their children. Most of all, they feel disenfranchised.

April 11 2005

Today I say "in my previous school" for the first time. It's not possible to exaggerate the significance of those four words. The school I loved and led for eight years (the Wavell school in Farnborough, Hampshire) is now a source of anecdote, a past remembered.

April 18

It's my second week and HMI come and go in sunshine. We get as good a result as we could have hoped for: "reasonable progress since the last inspection". They love our vision of "achieving through belief" and confirm that our action plan hits the spot. They've seen much more "good" teaching in the school, and say that leadership and management are on the up.

Monday, June 30

Sometimes, after yet another 15-hour day like today, I think there must be a smarter way of doing this stuff. But if there is, I don't know about it.

The work of school improvement is about people, perspiration and process.

Our first job has been to help teachers to believe in themselves and for students to know they have the right to learn. More staff are out on the corridors, welcoming their students into classrooms; middle and senior leaders walk around the school during lessons and especially at change of lessons, when the whole school is on the move. I walk so much I've had to replace the steel tips on my shoes almost every month.

Outside the classroom we audit everything that doesn't move: from our IT capability to the work patterns and roles of non-teaching staff. I feel we're becoming an effective and efficient organisation. Staffing structures, a school self-evaluation programme, embedding performance management, improvement planning, a reliable attendance and punctuality process: this is the stuff of a healthy, functioning school. But most of all we are creating a culture in which people feel valued and are held to account. On the (frequent) days when I am bone tired, I get out of my office and watch the school at work and realise there is already much to be happy about. This is going to be a great place.

August 24

It's 6.30am the day after GCSE results and I'm on my morning run from school to the Grand Union canal and back. A six-point increase in our A*-Cs to 33 per cent eases the strain.


Leroy has a fight with a girl at lunchtime. My consultant deputy intervenes, but Leroy is still in a rage by the time I get to him. He's beyond the care and control of almost everyone except maybe his head of year, but even she can only moderate his distress. "Don't you give me none of your diplomacy," he spits at me. "Why can't you act like a proper f***ing headteacher and stay in your office. Why do you have to keep going into classrooms?"

Friday, October 28

Two days ago our senior team and most of the staff hit the wall. It isn't just the pressure of two successful days of parent visits and an open evening that turn us into walking wounded. We've had eight months of change, and our expectations have risen. But more than the physical exhaustion, it's our spirits which take the biggest hit. Suddenly, overnight, the students' behaviour has changed. They are running in the corridors, crowding each other into the classrooms.

The following Wednesday

I was so low this weekend. I always knew that there would be setbacks, but never believed student behaviour and teacher attitudes would slip back to the bad old days. I knew I couldn't walk on water, but I thought I could paddle with my trousers rolled up. The problem is that we're tired. We've slipped back into default mode and retreated from the corridors behind our classrooms doors. And the kids have sussed it. So this afternoon I send a clear reminder to every member of staff. "Our presence in the corridor is not simply an expectation, it is a requirement!" Fifteen minutes later, the world returns to normal. One lesson change, staff on every corridor and by the stairs, and we've got our kids back. As simple as that. The next day I do my daily rounds. At breaktime, when the bell goes, I shout out across the fields as I always do: "Hold it or lose it." The kids pick up their footballs and make their way to class. They're smiling and it feels right again.

November 10

A friend rings. Ted Wragg is dead. I am winded. Caught breathless and off balance. When Chris Woodhead was chief inspector it was Ted who helped most of us to keep going, believing that we were doing a far more important job than the HMCI chose to measure in the chromium glare of public humiliation.

He made us laugh by using his intellect and wisdom, and showed his absolute commitment to children by puncturing pomposity and by challenging the old lie: that public naming and shaming helps you improve. For those damaging years, the back page of The TES made us smile on the worst mornings.

November 24

The second HMI monitoring visit - and the school's third since going into special measures - is a drama in five acts. Act one ends around 10am when we are told it's been an impressive start to the day with a school calm and at work. Act two begins with our lead HMI telling me: "Spokey, my gut instinct is that we're going to keep you in this time." It's not what I want to hear.

For a day and a half, three inspectors have anatomised our school "in the spirit of school improvement" and in a humane and reasoned manner. So why is it that when I agree with every one of their judgments, when their analysis of our rapidly improving school matches ours, and their key points for action were written in the school self-evaluation form we completed before their arrival, that I so want them to go away and not come back? It's because we, the staff and students, deserve better than the slur of "special measures". It's a description that does nothing to assure school improvement, and it won't help us to get better faster.

Act three is in our conference room for the formal feedback with me. We have made "good progress" in leadership and management, and behaviour and attendance. But "good progress" fails to capture the transformation that is so clear to every visitor, student and member of staff.

Act four, the staffroom. Teachers' faces slacken, some put their heads in their hands, and everyone seems to shrink as the reserves of strength that have taken them through the past six months are exhausted. I so want it to be different.

The final act is in my garden on Sunday. As dusk falls I rake leaves and light a bonfire. The world settles back to normal and I realise I'm relieved that HMI has made the judgment they did. It's the right decision, even though it still does not lift my spirits. I'm happy to keep on having HMI in. In fact, if I could, I'd buy them in to validate our school self-evaluation programme. Most of all, I realise how much I love this school and its kids. I look forward to every day that I am here.

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