Recovery must put pupils first

7th November 1997 at 00:00
Michaela Saunders tells how a failing school improved

Nearly three years ago, Shaw Park primary was inspected and deemed to be failing. Over the next few months there was a succession of acting heads and, as a local authority adviser, I was asked to support the school. This rapidly turned into what seemed like a full-time job and in the September, seven months after the inspection, I became, first, acting and then permanent head. The school, in one of the most deprived areas of Kingston-upon-Hull, has 359 children aged four to 11.

Her Majesty's Inspectorate monitored the school and it was not included on the "name and shame" list because we'd made enough progress.

Our visits by HMI were a challenge, but equally our progress was celebrated. Our considerable difficulties were recognised and the monitoring was thorough and rigorous. This helped us maintain a sense of direction.

The local education authority was stoic in its support. Wisely, it kept an overview but did not interfere as long as things were progressing. The Office for Standards in Education publication on improving failing schools clearly indicates that too much intervention is as detrimental as too little.

At Shaw Park, all lessons are observed regularly with feedback. Originally this was with senior teachers in the monitoring role, but it has now evolved into monitoring and evaluation by the head and deputy (challenge, if you wish) and mentoring of one staff member by another (support).

Neither would be effective without investment in team building and understanding curriculum and pedagogy.

Every school needs vision and leadership, but these can be difficult for a headteacher bombarded with daily crises. Vision and leadership are about explaining, sharing, communicating and - yes - directing. It is about having a strong philosophy of what good primary education means and an understanding of what that might look like in the classroom. It is about understanding what methods are appropriate under which circumstances. It is about maintaining sufficient flexibility to say "Does it work?" before saying "Don't do it that way!" Every school is more like a group consultancy than a factory. Each individual is a professional with considerable expertise and considerable rights - parent, child, teacher, para-professional, governor. In a school with the stigma and consequences of failure, the head walks a difficult tightrope. There must be enough discussion to gain a common understanding, but enough progress must be made to avoid takeover or closure. I am certain there were staff who saw me as a far more dictatorial manager than I would wish because they could not come to terms with that.

Ultimately though, leadership in schools is about one idea alone - that the children should receive the best possible education. This is what makes a successful school. It is what takes a school out of special measures. An inability to provide satisfactory education is what gets a school into special measures in the first place. At that stage, isolated examples of good practice are there to build upon but they are only as valuable as the ability of those involved to share them.

School improvement is about teamwork and professionalism. In the case of a school in a bad state - as was Shaw Park - this can amount to valiant effort. Staff, governors, parents, LEA officers and advisers gave unstintingly of their time to clear out the broken furniture and repaint the school. Some staff sat up all hours to get the planning and schemes of work not just complete but right. The midday staff learned to manage lunch-time behaviour that at times resembled football hooliganism.

Teachers rapidly learned new techniques and mastered new expectations. These things happen in all schools, but they occur daily in a school in special measures. This constant urge to improve was sustained at Shaw Park for two years and seven months. Now the challenge is to sustain growth from a competent school to a very good one.

It concerns me that the lessons that could be learned from the improvement of a difficult school could be lost in the hype about supposed "hero heads". But I'm more concerned that if we become obsessed with improvement for improvement's sake, it will result in paralysis by analysis, resulting in some strange formula for improvement ("Take this and you will be better!").

As an LEA adviser, I learned that schools can be unique and yet stay within the frameworks of local management of schools and the national curriculum. I am certain from what I have read and seen that no two failing schools are the same, though there may be common facets. Perhaps what is needed is a more honest appraisal of the range of techniques and improvement strategies at our disposal. But we must always keep at heart our prime directive - the best possible chance for all the children.

Michaela Saunders is head of Shaw Park primary school, Kingston-upon-Hull

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