Praise as tough love sparks staff exodus

18th April 2003 at 01:00
'Forceful but humane' head earns glowing report from inspectors. George Wright reports

HEADTEACHER Mo Brennan has faced down vandals and drug-dealers to turn around her West Midlands school, but the tough approach that she applies to pupils and teachers has led to the departure of 34 staff.

Her uncompromising vision has transformed Hillcrest school and community college in Dudley. Inspectors hailed Mrs Brennan as a "forceful but humane leader".

An Office for Standards in Education report on the 750-pupil school cites the risks she has taken to change a school beset by bullying, racism, drugs and with high truancy and staff absence.

Inspectors described her as an "outstanding" leader, although many teachers decided to leave rather than be part of her vision.

When Mrs Brennan arrived at Hillcrest in September 2000, it had been in special measures for two years. It languished at the bottom of league tables and was, in her words, "a sad little school".

In March 2001, the school was taken out of special measures and, after its latest inspection, last month received a "very good" Ofsted report.

Mrs Brennan said: "I brought in a new deputy head, someone I had worked well with in the past, and set up a very strong leadership team.

"The first thing we did was to stop having meetings to discuss the problems, stop drawing up action plans, reflecting, reviewing and negotiating - we just did it.

"I am very direct. I laid my cards on the table at the very beginning and told people how I wanted the school to run.

"A lot of staff didn't like the way I work and left. For instance, I wanted teachers to sign in every morning, to cut absences."

Mrs Brennan made it a priority to recruit teachers who "could do the business". "I like staff who are engaging, exciting, who meet and greet the pupils at the door and then give them a pacy lesson," she said.

"I want them to love children to work very, very hard. They have to be up to working in a challenging school like this. If you are a great teacher, it is very rewarding. If you are only satisfactory, this is not the place for you."

Mrs Brennan also introduced hardline measures to improve discipline.

Children caught with drugs are automatically excluded and uniform rules have gone from being "relaxed" to strictly enforced.

As David Bell, the chief inspector, has acknowledged in a personal letter of congratulations to the school, the results are remarkable.

Since Mrs Brennan took over, GCSE results have soared, with 38 per cent of pupils gaining five A*-Cs last year, compared to 17 per cent in 2000. They are still below the national average of 52 per cent.

But Mrs Brennan said: "We have transformed a school that was in the most awful state in such a short time - we deserve some praise."

Martin Bradney, chair of the school's governors, said being failed by Ofsted gave the school the jolt it needed.

"People don't like being in special measures, or the pressures it brings, and they left," he said.

"There were staff who had to be replaced. The difficult part was making it clear that things could not carry on as they were. The governors, new teachers and a lot of the staff who remained with us started to take on the more positive attitude that is needed to improve teaching and exam results.

"Mrs Brennan was very important. Before she came, the attitude had changed, but she was the catalyst for rapid improvement."


INSPECTORS praised the "clear vision and goals, inspiration, teamwork, effort and outstanding leadership and management."

They said: "Mrs Brennan has personally taken many risks to achieve these goals, but has always led by example and remained highly visible - always present at the school gate, for example, to face down the vandals and drug-dealers who tainted the site."

Their report stated: "The motto 'Proud of our success' affirms the school's belief in itself and its confidence in its value to those outside its gates."

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