Practically masters

27th April 2007 at 01:00
One school leader is coaching his staff to a higher degree. Fiona Leney reports

while many heads complain about their workload, one has added to his by taking on a new group of students: his own teachers.

John Gillard, head of Whitton school in south-west London, is the only head in England to teach his staff part of their masters degree course. He says it is an experience that benefits everyone: staff, school and himself.

"What else would give me the opportunity to sit with 15 of my teachers, from senior management to NQTs, once a week to look at the latest thinking and discuss how best to take the school forward?" he says.

Mr Gillard draws on his experience as a university lecturer to deliver one of the seven modules on the MA in Leading Innovation and Challenge being taken by 15 of his 60 teachers. Far from being an extra burden, the teaching plays a central role in his plans to improve his school by encouraging team-work, breaking down hierarchies and encouraging new ideas and best practice.

"You can't do this as a head unless you make it an integral part of running the school," he says. "It totally dovetails with what my job should be."

The two-year course, which combines theory and practical classroom work, is at the heart of Whitton's school improvement plan. "I wouldn't be teaching this course if it wasn't highly based in practice, if theory wasn't transposed into day-to-day activities within my school," says Mr Gillard, who came to Whitton last year from a job as outreach lecturer on MA courses offered by St Mary's University nearby.

James Thorpe, the school's acting director of sport, for example, is looking at the introduction of school houses as part of his MA.

"It is exciting working like this - a large group of people facilitated by the head," he says. "Change isn't all coming from the top down - we are feeding up to the head and getting a say in how the school develops."

Mr Gillard has ambitious plans to raise Whitton's achievement. It is situated in the affluent London suburb of Twickenham, but the comprehensive is on its outer edges, surrounded by council estates. It has a large number of challenging children and a modest 46 per cent A*-C pass rate at GCSE - so all the more important, believes Mr Gillard, to give staff the intellectual satisfaction of furthering their professional development with an MA and ensure it is tailored to bring benefits to the school.

The course costs the school pound;2,500 per teacher, but Mr Gillard believes it is money well spent. As he talks, it becomes clear that Whitton's head is a big believer in the professional satisfaction that can be gained from applying new ideas in education to the classroom. He speaks of the pleasure he has always derived from academic research, and is convinced that stimulating intellectual activity among his staff bolsters everyone's sense of professional status at a time when teachers feel under attack.

On a practical level it is also an effective tool for staff retention.

"You're not likely to walk out on a job while you're doing your MA," he jokes.

Mr Gillard takes care to keep his two professional roles very separate. He chairs early morning seminars once a week before school, sets pre-reading materials, asks members of staff to prepare presentations or invites external speakers in, but does not mark his own students' work. That is done by staff at St Mary's, which offers the MA.

"I have to use discretion and ethics," he says. "When I am working on the MA, I see myself as another teacher in this school. For the rest of the week I keep it separate from school business. I'm always very aware of which professional hat I have on."

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