Send in the cavalry

25th March 2005 at 00:00
When Vanessa Ray took a secondment to head a school in special measures, parents, governors and staff expected her to ride in on horseback and save the day. But is it possible to turn around years of decline in two terms? This is her inside story

You must be mad!" a fellow head exclaimed when I told him news of my secondment: for two terms I was going to run a school in special measures.

"Why would you want to leave your lovely, new, successful school?" He had a point. The school where I'd been head for eight years had recently gained specialist status in maths and computing, had its Sportsmark gold status renewed, and was judged the 17th most improved school in the country in 2004. The proportion of students achieving five A*-Cs at GCSE went up from 48 per cent to 81 per cent in three years. All I could come up with to justify my decision was "because they need me".

In truth, the Radcliffe school in Milton Keynes didn't need me; it needed a head, any head, for two terms, to give the governors time to make a permanent appointment. It's obvious that a school in special measures without a head is a recipe for disaster. For my part I was looking for a challenge. I wanted to prove that I could be a good head of a challenging school as well as a successful school. A secondment wasn't a life sentence; if I didn't like it I only had to stick it for two terms.

It has been both the best and worst of times. Perhaps the worst time was in September when I had to announce the death of the deputy head following a nine-month illness. Although I never met him, Derek had been at the school for more than 20 years. His huge role, which included writing the timetable, managing the finances, personnel and examinations, became a vacuum that I had to fill. Other dark days have included a serious assault on a member of staff by trespassers, a burglary during which computers were stolen, and two permanent exclusions.

Any school in special measures has complex problems that don't happen overnight. Originally a grammar, the Radcliffe school had grown and prospered until it occupied two sites and served 1,300 students. In recent years, a declining local population and a multi-million pound fire that wiped out the art and music accommodation sent it reeling. Poor student behaviour during an Ofsted inspection in November 2003 sealed its fate. By September 2004 the long-standing headteacher had left, and student numbers had declined to such an extent that the school had moved on to one site, taking with it a licensed deficit of pound;1 million (a legacy from the fire).

The school had been vilified in the local press and the previous head subjected to a determined hate campaign. Rumours abounded, and before accepting the job I contemplated buying an Alsatian. I am not a dog person, but the idea of having one at my heels that would growl at students, protect me from parents, and see off drug dealers and other trespassers was attractive.

Although HMI had visited and judged the school to be making progress before my arrival, it wasn't making enough progress quickly enough. I found myself viewed as the "quick fix". People were pinning all their hopes on me.

But my leadership style had to change if I was to make a success of the secondment. Until then, "grumpy old woman" would best describe my manner.

No matter what my old school's successes (and there were many), I was never satisfied and always wanted more from staff and pupils. At least at Radcliffe things were unlikely to get worse, no matter what mess I made of the job. That was a liberating thought: the only way was up. The staff at the Radcliffe were a little down and in need of some "TLC" so I softened my leadership style and became a "happy risk taker", whose favourite phrase was, "Let's try that. If it doesn't work, we'll try something else."

Last September I began by addressing poor behaviour. I instituted a new behaviour management programme, restated the rules and stuck to them rigidly. Exclusions initially shot through the roof, but after a few weeks behaviour began to improve. The next step was to put learning back on the students' agenda. There are a lot of needy students at the school and many of them were coming equipped only to socialise. Their bags bulged with video phones, Walkmans and chewing gum, but they weren't giving a thought to bringing a pen.

The biggest challenge and fastest change I needed to effect was with Year 11, who had little time left in which to succeed academically. As the mother of a teenage boy, I knew exactly what would work: money. Forget cinema tickets, forget fast food vouchers. I promised to give pound;200 to every Year 11 student who achieves five or more A*-C passes at GCSE. I had to raise nearly pound;10,000 from sources beyond the school budget, but it will be worth it. I showed them the money by counting out pound;200 in used pound;10 notes in assembly. They've been far more focused on learning since then and predicted grades are up on last year's. I have barely excluded or detained any Year 11 students; they just needed a good enough excuse to behave, and pound;200 was it.

Once student behaviour improved, teachers had the opportunity to teach. Now there are days when I question why this school is in special measures. I do lots of "management by walkabout" and on good days students are in class, paying attention, being taught exciting and interesting lessons by experienced and happy teachers. Then there are other days when there's incident after incident of bad behaviour, lots of staff off sick, and abusive parents waiting in reception. I'm glad to say these days are getting fewer; we aim to be rid of them altogether.

Running a school in special measures is doubly difficult because you have to do it with one hand tied behind your back. To improve teaching and learning sufficiently to emerge from special measures you need 90 per cent of all lessons to be satisfactory or better; ergo you need good teachers.

But good teachers don't want to work in schools in special measures. The only option is to hang on desperately to your good staff and try to improve the quality of those not so good.

If a programme of staff development doesn't work then you have to resort to capability proceedings, when one of three things is likely to happen: the person improves, they resign, which means you then have a vacancy you can't fill, or they go on long-term sick leave. You have to replace them with a supply teacher, and that does nothing to improve the budget situation. Some days it feels as though you just can't win.

So, was I tempted to apply for the permanent head's job? You bet. In a short time I have grown fond of Radcliffe. There is lots of laughter here, camaraderie, unstinting loyalty and heart-felt support from staff whom I will really miss. But I have had to work quickly and make hard, unpopular decisions. I couldn't have done that if I was going to work with the staff in the future. I needed to make a really big splash from the start and didn't have time to cause a few ripples.

Writing this one month before the end of term I still have one unpleasant parting gesture. I have to agree a robust financial recovery plan with the LEA that will mean money will be tight for the next two years. Many of the things I have done - starting capability proceedings, disciplining staff, agreeing compromise deals, permanent exclusions - have been unpleasant, but they have all been necessary. How could I continue to work with the staff after putting them through all that?

I can see the end is in sight and the future is looking good. Soon, Radcliffe will emerge from special measures, achieve sports college status (something it was on the verge of before November 2003) and pupil numbers will grow. At the last monitoring visit the school was judged to have made "reasonable progress" (HMI's lukewarm way of saying "fantastic", "wonderful").

I like to think that, when I arrived, the school was like a super tanker slowly steaming ahead on no particular course and with no one steering.

After nearly two terms we know the direction we're heading in and the leadership team is together at the helm, turning the wheel like crazy so that slowly, very slowly, the tanker is beginning to turn. I take no credit for this. It has been a team effort. All I have done is to empower others and ensure that when I hand over to the permanent head at Easter, solid foundations are in place on which improvement can be built.

Would I do it all again? You bet. I can't say I have enjoyed every minute, but I have had such fun and met some wonderful staff and students. It will feel very strange going back to my old school. Being on secondment is the hardest thing I have ever done and it has changed me. The question now is whether or not I want to change back.

Vanessa Ray is headteacher of Shenley Brook End school, Milton Keynes. She has been on secondment at the Radcliffe school, Milton Keynes

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