No more heroes

23rd March 2007 at 00:00
They call them the new national leaders of education, rescuing failing schools -but what happens when they move on?

A clarion call went out last year for intrepid headteachers to join the ranks of national leaders of education. They should be ready to step out of their comfort zones and help turn around failing and underachieving schools.

The call from the National College for School Leadership sounded rather familiar. Was this a new move for superheads, like the two who transformed the notorious Ridings school, only for it to plunge back into disaster once they left? Would it allow ambitious heads to indulge in some casual "educational tourism" before disappearing into the night?

The National College and the 68 heads now recruited are at pains to stress the opposite is true. There will be no hero heads.

The new scheme identifies successful headteachers who are willing for their schools to become "support schools" to others in challenging circumstances.

One is Richard Thornhill, headteacher of Loughborough primary in Brixton, south London.

Mr Thornhill and the management team at Loughborough agreed to step in at nearby King's Avenue primary last November, after it was announced the head would be leaving. Both schools are in deprived areas. Loughborough is thriving, while King's Avenue is on Lambeth council's "causing concern"

list.

Mr Thornhill has became executive head of both schools and set about transforming the appalling standards of behaviour.

He laid down strict rules and made sure everyone, from staff, to pupils and parents, knew what they were. He says control has already been re-established in the corridors and the next task is to focus on the school's management and curriculum. It is hoped that by 2009 the school will be able to recruit a permanent head.

"This way, King's Avenue doesn't have to start from nothing," Mr Thornhill said. "We are developing leadership capacity so that improvement is sustainable."

He said he was motivated to volunteer for the project because he was upset by children with potential being let down by the system.

Hazel Pulley, head of Caldecote primary in Leicester, said becoming a national support school for nearby Braunstone Frith infants had given staff a common purpose. "It's not just about me going in and giving leadership advice," she said. "We've been sharing knowledge on all levels. Even our teaching assistants and office staff have been demonstrating good practice to their counterparts."

She applied for the scheme to share her years of experience working in challenging schools. "It's very fulfilling," she said.

The extent of involvement a support school has with its "client" can vary from full-on management to a head simply providing a sounding board.

Lawrence Montagu, head of St Peter's high school and sixth form centre in Gloucester, said he sees himself as a catalyst for establishing teams at his two nearby client schools, which are both in special measures. He is keen not to intervene unnecessarily. "We assist only where there is a problem," he said.

Academics are concerned about the concept as a cure-all for problem schools.

Professor Bernard Barker, of the Centre for Educational Leadership and Management at Leicester University, said he was unsure if the idea was sustainable. He said:"The national leaders of education have ceased to be headteachers and become educational tourists. The good head comes in with their team and when they go, what happens next?

"Having a good headteacher advising a bad headteacher will not necessarily help. The scheme can achieve short term results, but the leadership solution is the lie that papers over the cracks."

Professor Barker added that leadership could not solve fundamental problems such as poverty, which have more impact on school performance than anything else.

Marsha Elms, headteacher of Kendrick school in Reading, said the scheme seemed to be a label for good work that was already going on. "It's a bit artificial because there are lots of good heads already doing this work,"

she said. "There will always be certain people who put themselves forward and others who are beavering away doing a tremendous job who would never seek this kind of recognition."

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