From sink school to success story

14th February 1997 at 00:00
Jim Bleakley was given two years to turn his new school round - or close it down. Six years later, it has more than doubled its GCSE results and received a glowing OFSTED report. And he has not had to expel one pupil. Gerald Haigh on a dramatic transformation

Heywood school in Rochdale is succeeding against all the odds. It could have been another school like The Ridings, the comprehensive in Halifax closed after staff demanded the suspension of 60 pupils when discipline broke down in November. Like The Ridings, Heywood was created as a new school on an existing site when Rochdale reorganised in 1990. Like The Ridings, it had been a tough place to work, where children had to ask for a key if they wanted to use the toilets.

But the new headteacher - Jim Bleakley, who had previously only worked in primary and middle schools - was a charismatic and determined figure with a vision of how to make this type of school work. And six years later, Heywood has been given a remarkable report by the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED). The report talks about an "expanding, innovative and lively school with high shared expectations"; it believes that "high value is added to its intake by the school"; the inspectors found "pupils are positive and generally enthusiastic about their work particularly at key stage 4"; and that the senior management gave "strong, charismatic and collaborative leadership".

The school was recently singled out by Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, as a success story. "None of us should accept the bleakly deterministic view that some schools, like some children, are born to fail, " wrote the chief inspector in The Times.

And yet Heywood was a school almost born to fail. When Rochdale reorganised in September 1990, it lost its sixth form. Rochdale's middle schools were phased out, and there was a wholesale movement of teachers around the town.

Jim Bleakley had been head of a middle school. Of the 36 staff who started at Heywood, 18 were from the previous school on the site, and 18 were drafted in from now non-existent posts. Few of either group really wanted to be there.

"Of those allocated from elsewhere," said Jim Bleakley, "seven appealed against the move." None of these appeals succeeded, and some of the appellants are now enthusiastic senior teachers atHeywood. Their reluctance was understandable. The pupils in the former school had presented a real challenge which had been met with a traditional style of discipline which was not working: attendance was poor, with attainment to match. Fifteen pupils had beenpermanently excluded.

Jim Bleakley's brief from the authority was stark - to turn round the school in two years or preside over its closure. It was clear to him that if anything good were to happen at Heywood, the first priority was to raise the self-esteem of the pupils. There would, therefore, be no question of exclusions, or of going in with the mailed fist. All that had already been tried and, in any case, was not his style. His approach would be based on the conviction that "if you trust the young people - not just pretend, but really trust them - their trust will come back to you".

Jim Bleakley had already seen the philosophy work in two middle school headships. Heywood, though, was a secondary in an challenging area. The pupils were always going to be difficult, and now their mistrust of authority had been increased by the experience of having their school torn apart and put together again over their heads. Nevertheless, Jim Bleakley embarked on his chosen course. No doors would be locked; school would be open for them from 8am to 5pm. Each age group in the school would have a social area with games and somewhere to sit.

"In September when we opened it was chaos," he recalled. "They couldn't handle the freedom." Rooms were trashed; displays destroyed. Anne Taylor, now manager of Years 8 and 9, told me about her first classroom encounter. "A big boy looked at me and said, 'I'm not fucking staying here with her' and walked out." Later she found her precious teaching files that it had taken her eight years to compile torn up and scattered around the room. Such incidents were common.

It was clearly a difficult time for the staff, not all of whom were convinced of the Bleakley way. However, he kept focused on his theme of trust. "We kept banging on about it in assembly - about what they had to do if they wanted to be treated like young adults."

He dealt with staff doubts in a number of ways. "I got them to agree to back my approach for 12 months. At the end of that time I would support whichever way the vote went." (In fact, the vote, was never called for).

He made a point, too, of treating the staff well. He gave them a lounge, free of reminders of work. Senior staff were available to deal with classroom disciplinary problems and "There were no duty rotas - senior management did all the duties. And I did all the assemblies, five days a week, for the first term. If someone wanted to leave early, for a private reason, for example, then they could go. We were working on the staff all the time, telling them how important they were."

The self-discipline and leadership shown by Jim Bleakley through this period is humbling to contemplate. He and his colleagues are followers of the management guru Tom Peters. Several of them have met Peters and others have attended his courses.

The visible result is that the school has what staff call "fast, flat flexible management". One outward expression of this is that the head has no office - his desk is in the main open-plan school office, and private interviews are held in quiet rooms which are available to all. Teachers quote "Bleakley-isms" which also illustrate his approach. "If there's a crisis, tackle it - don't have a meeting!" is one. "Act now and ask for forgiveness later" is another.

Andrew Hamlin, manager of key stage 4, who freely admits to having been one of those who tried to get out of coming to Heywood, described Jim Bleakley as "a visionary - he has the ability to motivate people and to allow them to manage".

Claire Walters, a teacher in Year 7, pointed to another quality. "He's very good at admitting when something doesn't work - we introduced computerised registration here, but when we told him we didn't like it he dropped it. "

Slowly, as the first year went on, things improved. Better behaviour, though, only went so far. Jim Bleakley and his colleagues knew that the key to the school's survival lay in its academic record: "We had to crack the idea that the pupils were well looked after but didn't work hard."

The first year's GCSE results had remained poor - only 16 per cent passed five GCSEs grades A to C. Bleakley and his colleagues were desperate for improvement in the summer of 1992, their second year. The school's very survival was at stake.

The mock exams, however, told an ominous story. "With six months to go they projected a substantial drop." Jim Bleakley's solution, put to staff after a couple of sleepless nights, was to focus on those Year 11 (GCSE year) students who were capable of reasonable exam performance - "We put them into two parallel target groups and told them we expected them to succeed."

A vocational course, with lots of links to outside agencies, helped to keep up motivation among the lower flyers. Anne Taylor, rapidly becoming a key member of staff, came off timetable to be personal mentor to the targeted students, supporting them in and out of class, and visiting their homes where necessary. Their working rooms were transformed - every student's photograph went on the wall, with an individual action plan. When the results came out, the key figure had gone up marginally, to 17 per cent but, crucially, the school had moved off the bottom of the authority's league table.

The results have improved steadily ever since. Last year the exam figure was 34 per cent. The target-group system, which depends heavily on individual action plans, the setting of achievable goals and on continuous encouragement and monitoring, has been retained, and extended further down the school. Every pupil has a "day book" to be signed at home. There is more tutorial time than is usual in secondary schools, with checking and discussion of work. The aims are that all pupils should be in no doubt about what has to be done, and that the tasks set for them should be clear and possible.

Now Heywood is, quite genuinely, a warm and welcoming place. The most casual walk round shows there is a strong work ethic: classrooms are purposefully busy; pupils talk about school in terms of their work. The sense that the pupils "own" the school is palpable - Melanie, from Year 10, was showing me round when she saw some scuffed tiles "Look at this floor! It was spotless yesterday."

Movement in the corridors is orderly but not regimented. The pupils I met were pleasant and open - ready to shake hands and pick up on a joke. There have been no exclusions to date since the school started - a remarkable achievement over six years. A number of happenings come to mind, each one of which illustrates the school's regime of openness and trust. There was Jim Bleakley's frank introduction to me, for instance, of a girl who had been permanently excluded from another school (there are 21 such pupils at Heywood): "She's doing very well now. Aren't you?" Impressive, too, was my visit to Year 11 at lunchtime. They were in their own block, with its social area, completely unsupervised by staff. Two, Lynsay Light and Laura Kay, were occupying the office of the head of KS4. "We have so much going for us here," said Lynsay. "Look where we're sitting now - it wouldn't happen anywhere else. We're respected and not treated like children. It's a school for the students."

Laura agreed. "The staff make you feel that they want you to do well for yourself, and not for the (league table) figures."

"We don't want to leave," added Lynsay. "We want a sixth form."


One of the most remarkable things about Heywood's improvement is that it has been driven by a head who had previously worked exclusively in primary and middle schools and who was, when he took the job, already in his late fifties. Jim Bleakley (left) went to Chester Training College in 1952, and started his teaching career - which has been entirely in Rochdale - in 1954 He worked for 17 years in primary schools and 19 years in middle schools (where he had two headships) before taking over Heywood. "And now I'm cruising to retirement in the secondary sector!" In common with many of his generation, he was heavily influenced bythe child-centred educational thinking of the Sixties - he recalls how the philosophy of trust, that so firmly underpins the Heywood ethos, was astrong ingredient in the advanced diploma course that he completedat Leeds University in 1963.

"What's been interesting, though," said Jim Bleakley, "has beenbringing that philosophy together with the management thinking ofTom Peters - empowering people, setting targets." Everything aboutHeywood School, in fact, shows yet again how misconceived are all attempts to assign schools and teachers to polarised categories called "traditional" or "progressive".

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