Never stop learning

16th January 2004 at 00:00
Teachers who helped turn round a school which was in special measures found their colleagues held many of the answers. Janet Murray reports

Name

Mayfield school, North End, Portsmouth

School type 11-16 mixed comprehensive, 1,450 pupils

Results

2002: 22 per cent five or more A*-C GCSEs; 2003: 26 per cent

Staffing

Vacancies in 2001: 12In 2004: 0

The moment you set foot in Mayfield school, you can feel the energy. Staff talk quickly, move around the school quickly, even seem to think quickly.

The place just buzzes with enthusiasm.

So it is hard to believe that just four years ago, the school was understaffed, results were poor, and staff morale had hit rock bottom. But thanks to innovative coaching techniques and in-house training, the school is hoping to become a success story.

In May 1999, the mixed 11-16 comprehensive in North End, Portsmouth, was placed in special measures, after an Office for Standards in Education inspection said it was not providing an acceptable education.

The school was keen to improve, but had a staffing crisis. By the end of 2001, there were 12 vacancies due to long-term sickness or permanently unfilled posts. For a short time, the school was forced to work on a reduced timetable, with students losing up to a day each week. Not ideal - particularly as more than 30 per cent of students have special educational needs.

"When schools are put in special measures, they can become tense, frightened places," says Michael Harbour, the advisory headteacher who has worked with the school since November 2000. "We had to develop strategies to restore teacher confidence."

High-quality, in-house training became a priority. During 2002 and 2003, the school recruited 17 untrained teachers, aiming to support them through the graduate training programme to achieve Qualified Teacher Status. As part of their training, graduate teachers have a six-week induction period, when they observe lessons, shadow competent practitioners and help with lesson-planning. They also benefit from the schools' coaching and mentoring schemes.

Consultancy work at a school in Domenica in the Caribbean inspired Mr Harbour to make use of peer coaching and mentoring.

"In Domenica, I'd seen how small adjustments could make a huge difference to teachers' practice.

"Coaching is all about helping people to find ways to develop their skills.

For teachers, that means looking at their practices with the help of sympathetic colleagues and modifying them. It's about encouraging them to believe that they can find solutions to their difficulties within themselves."

An audit of teachers' skills was carried out during 2001 after Mr Harbour observed lessons. Teachers were asked to evaluate their qualities, against an inventory of classroom management and teaching skills. Each teacher was asked to identify what they were good at and what they felt they could demonstrate to others. Then a directory of expertise was compiled which colleagues can access when they need help.

A staff training room was also set up, where regular training sessions are held for new and existing members of staff on all aspects of teaching and learning. The television and video are a focal point; video footage of good practice observed from teachers at the school is often used to help staff improve their skills.

Mayfield teachers are organised into cross-curricular "coaching trios", each has colleagues with varied teaching experience.

"We don't want teachers to feel they are being assessed or inspected, which is one of the reasons why the trios are made up of teachers from different subject areas," explains Mr Harbour. "It's a non-threatening way of developing good practice across the curriculum."

Coaching trios observe one another using a specific skill in the classroom.

Recently, staff focused on using assessment to improve students'

performance. The information gathered is helping staff work towards a more "joined-up" approach to assessment. Although coaching trios meet formally during staff development sessions, many meet informally to discuss issues.

For new or less-experienced teachers their coaching trio can be a vital source of support.

Kerrie Paskins, a graduate teacher of English at the school, has found coaching particularly helpful. "You can learn so much from your peers," she says. "It's great to listen to other peoples' ideas and it's a great confidence booster when others like your ideas. I was initially nervous about it - particularly as I had the headteacher in my trio - but it was reassuring to find he was so positive about my ideas."

Experienced art teacher Vicky Whitlock has been working with a trainee and a newly-qualified teacher. "I've actually learned a lot about interacting with students and building rapport," she says. "Everyone, however experienced, has something to learn from others."

The in-house training and coaching programmes have had an impact on the school. When HMI inspectors visited Mayfield in November 2002, they withdrew it from special measures, although it still has serious weaknesses. They noted improvements in teaching quality and said that staff and managers had "coped admirably" with the "extremely difficult" situation.

Mayfield is now fully staffed and is striving to make significant improvements.

As Mr Harbour points out, it will be several years before the full impact of coaching is fully reflected in examination results, but he is confident results will soar.

"What we have now are confident classroom teachers who are continually improving their skills. Good teachers never stop learning."

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