Send for the troubleshooter;Heads' tales;Interview;John Cullis

11th June 1999 at 01:00
They are a growing breed: headteachers sent to sort out other schools on the slide.

Gerald Haigh meets John Cullis

Every local authority has what it unofficially regards as its senior heads. These men women have earned their status not just by years of service but through their wisdom and effective leadership - and, quite often, their fearless support for pupils and colleagues. In recent years local authorities, aware of performance targets and judgments by the Office for Standards in Education, have been increasingly ready to accept help from these able heads. They bring them to the office to deal with target setting, benchmarking and school improvement. And, of course, they call upon them to help schools that are in difficulty.

Such a person is John Cullis, head of Barclay Junior school in Waltham Forest, north-east London. Cullis started teaching in 1963, in Taunton - then the nearest place to his native Cornwall where it was possible for a new teacher to find a job. In 1968 he went to Carnegie College in Leeds for the one-year specialist physical education course. From there, in 1969, he came to Waltham Forest to be deputy head of Edinburgh junior school. After three years as a deputy, he was given the job of opening, as first head, the new St Mary's Church of England primary in Walthamstow. Having proved this particular skill, he went on two years later to open Gwyn Jones primary. Opening a new school in the early Seventies was an exciting and demanding business, says Cullis. "It meant working with architects, recruiting staff, choosing equipment, going round looking at schools across the country. It was a marvellous time, and I was extremely lucky." (Readers of Heads' Tales will know how often the word "lucky" is used by the subjects.) He stayed at Gwyn Jones until 1985, when he applied for his present post. "It was the biggest primary in Waltham Forest - 500 pupils. I inherited a very experienced staff and a wonderful tradition." Since then he has had two breaks: in 1991 he spent a year seconded to the authority as manager of the curriculum support services.

For Cullis, this was an important piece of professional development. "It was a privilege to be able to go into schools across the authority, and to appreciate some of the tensions and pressures on officers." Then in July 1996, after a quarter century of headship, at a time when many contemporaries were seeking to take their pensions before the early retirement restrictions arrived, came what must have been the biggest challenge of all - to go and turn round a failing school.

"The advisers told me that Stoneydown Park Primary had failed its Ofsted. It was in special measures and the head had resigned." There were only two weeks to the end of term. "I was there within a week," he says, "Making plans for the next term."

It is not easy, even for those experienced in education, to know what it must be like to take on a task like this. Any head who has done this job obviously has to be discreet in the telling of the story, and you are left only able to guess at some of the tensions. Cullis, though, is clear that the main task facing him was restorative.

"Confidence and morale were devastated. I just had to listen, to gain people's trust and to give them reassurance and respect." A great believer in the power of snappy mnemonics, he offered the staff, for their encouragement during the summer, CONQUER, which, he says, "..stood for Commitment, Open mindedness, No second best, Quality, Utmost honesty, Efficiency and effectiveness, Respect.

"I asked them to reflect on it and then come back in September fired up for a couple of training days."

For him, though, there was real nuts and bolts work to do over the summer, preparing an action plan to address the weaknesses identified by Ofsted. "The deputy head and I met on a Spanish mountain and trawled this mammoth report line by line, colour coding it to each key issue."

For the first training day, before school started in September, he asked the senior adviser to take the staff to a good hotel. "I really went out of my way to make them feel valued - to convince them that they were not failures but professional people who deserved better treatment."

The local authority, he says, was very supportive - "Just tell us what you want." Throughout that term he kept up the pressure, building up staff morale, pushing for higher standards. Important in all of this was his relationship with the parents who were, understandably, anxious about what was happening. "I was out in the playgrounds at the beginning and end of school, making small talk, having time for everybody."

Crucial both to relationship with parents and to general morale was a series of special events - "Harvest Festival, Halloween, Christmas. They pulled us together." He also introduced a weekly newsletter. "Every Friday it went to everyone, parents, governors, the town hall." In every one of these newsletters he included a short checklist asking parents for their views on some on some aspect of school life - the quality of assembly, for example. This, he says was a straightforward crib - in fact he still keeps the Beefeater Restaurant "We Value Your Comments" leaflet upon which it is based.

He trawled for opinions. "I had the chair of governors and the adviser in every week. I was saying do you notice any difference? Has anything changed? I wanted constant feedback."

Another tactic was to make an ally of the local newsspapers. "The press were hovering of course, and I had to turn them round - I wanted them at the concerts, and celebrating the football team. In all of this the PR unit at thetown hall were of immense help."

It was a busy and effective term, after which he had to return to his own school, spending only two days a week at Stoneydown Park. At Easter this, too, came to an end. His governors clearly felt the need of his presence at Barclay. Cullis understands this, but feels also that with more time he could have given more help at Stoneydown Park.

The experience has obviously had a profound effect on John Cullis - in some senses he feels liberated. "The learning curve for me was enormous. It merely confirmed that I barely knew half the answers."

He feels that his own school gained a great deal on his return. "Having worked closely with HMI and senior advisers at Stoneydown I was able to put those hot tips into practice in my own school. I had a lot of tuition."

He now feels himself to be in clear water. "I'm enjoying myself now. These are the golden years, with the weight of having to prove anything gone from my shoulders - though I'm aware there's a certain arrogance about that."

He shows no sign, though, of actually wanting to go. Ask him what contributes to his continuing zest for the job and straightaway he points to the quality of new teachers coming in (there are four newly qualified teachers at Barclay this year) "They are very exciting to be with, these young people who have been trained in a very different style from our day. They have a great deal to offer us in relation to planning, as well as being able to hold on to those crucial creative ideas that we all value. They've brought that bit of fresh air that we all need, and they are showing us the way."

Everything about John Cullis attests to his enthusiasm, and the feel of the school, in turn, is a mark of his success. Every classroom is lively and purposeful, and the whole community has achieved that magic mixture of relaxed confidence, concentration, enjoyment and sense of pupose for which all heads strive. The test for any visitor to any school is to imagine his or her own child or grandchild sitting in one of the classrooms. In the case of Barclay juniors it is a vision to becomfortable with.


Selecting a new permanent head for a troubled school can never be done quickly. Further trauma cannot be countenanced so a permament appointment has to be the right one. The idea of moving in the head of another school temporarily - a person of known qualities - is always attractive to a local authority. Given governor agreement, it can be done at very short notice.

A governing body that is asked to release its head has to ask itself a number of questions.

What will be the total impact on the school? The very qualities of up-front leadership that attract the authority's attention are the same ones that may cause the head's influence to be missed. Governors usually want to support the authority's trust in their head, but will be right to ask whether the authorityhas fully considered the total effect on both schools.

How long will then secondment last? John Cullis had one term full-time away from his school and now concludes that such secondments need a full year to work. Governors may not want to release their head for a year, however. If they do, then they will want to be very sure that the local authority will be supportive to them too.

Will there be a guarantee of good- quality replacement staff? Might there be some extra staffing hours and or adviser support? What will happen afterwards? While the head is away, the deputy often runs the school. This can be a real career opportunity, so will the authorty be supportive if the deputy wants to build on this and look for headships?

Will the head be properly thanked and formally recognised? Sadly, governors sometimes have to nudge the authority about this.

Will the school reap some benefit? John Cullis felt that his term at Stoneydown Park was a learning experience and developed him professionally. Governors who have doubts could well reflect that their head may return with fresh ideas and renewed confidence.

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