The other day, I received an object lesson in how to cock up a primary school to devastating effect.
Janice teaches in a neighbouring local authority. She phoned me and said she'd just been made a curriculum co-ordinator. Could she come over for some advice? Fine, I said, but shouldn't she ask her senior managers first? What worked in our school might not work in theirs. No, she said. Her managers were unhelpful, and since she knew our school's reputation and lived nearby, she'd be grateful if she could drop in. I said I'd meet her after school the next day with two key curriculum leaders.
She arrived with some papers and we spread them on the floor as my desk was covered with the day's ephemera, and Oliver's glasses, which I mend daily.
I asked Janice to describe her role in the school and it became clear where the problems lay.
"I'm the co-ordinator for history and geography and I have to plan these subjects across the school."
"Then you've a lot on your plate. It's unusual for a young teacher to be given two subjects to look after."
"Oh, that's not all. I've got PHSE and citizenship, too. There are problems with the budget, so I don't get paid for those."
'Why do you have to take on so much?"
"Because so many staff leave. We have lots of supply staff and newly qualified teachers, and the children are very difficult. Some of the behaviour is awful. Morale in the school is low, so it's difficult to plan for consistency."
She showed me a piece of paper covered with topic headings.
"This is what I have to start from," she said. "The deputy head worked out the topics we have to follow. She has time because she never teaches."
"So the curriculum plan is worked out in discussion with the staff?"
"Oh no, it's not discussed. I just have to integrate all my subjects into it, and then she has to approve it. I'm desperate for good textbooks. We don't have much equipment, either. The children break it."
"But you have a budget?"
"No. If I want something, I have to ask the head, but she's always out at meetings. We had three visits from our link inspector recently, though."
"And you explained your difficulties?"
"Well, no. She terrified everybody. She's also an Ofsted inspector and she said if we get inspected soon we'll go into special measures. Then she told us we need to get tracking and targeting in place, but she didn't really explain what she meant."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. A chaotic curriculum, badly behaved children who were probably bored, rapid staff turnover for the same reasons, disillusioned co-ordinators, a deputy who doesn't go near children and an inspector who thinks the answer is a fashionable bit of tracking. If I were writing a recipe for educational disaster, I couldn't improve on this.
Tracking and targeting are the last things the school needs. If the inspector had any common sense, she'd have told the head to stay in her school, spend her time with staff and pupils and start getting the place organised - and that includes trusting her co-ordinators with a budget. If teachers are happy and motivated, and see senior management rolling their sleeves up and getting stuck in, morale will rise rapidly. The children will catch the change in atmosphere and behaviour will improve, as it must if progress is to be made.
We gave Janice some valuable help. But she isn't in a position to make the necessary fundamental changes, and she'll probably leave, proving once again how essential strong, competent leadership is.
Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary in Camberwell, south London