Someone to believe in;Profile;Gareth Newman

25th June 1999 at 01:00
Gareth Newman says his pupils, drawn from one of Britain's bleakestindustrial wastelands, deserve all the trust and respect he can givethem, and they return the compliment in full. Wendy Wallace profilesthe man who brought a fresh spirit of success to a ghost town.

Modern, impregnable and isolated, Brooke Weston City Technology College looks from the outside like a young offenders' institution. And from the inside, it feels like a motel, with its haircord carpets, hushed atmosphere and modest comforts. But with A-C GCSEs last year at 81 per cent and rising - achieved by a comprehensive pupil population from a depressed post-industrial town - the school has achieved a national profile at odds with its low-rise appearance in the hinterlands of Corby, Northamptonshire. Brooke Weston is proof positive that educational failure can be eradicated - and we have the vaccine.

The school is the creation of headteacher Gareth Newman, who leaves at the end of August to become an adviser at the Department for Education and Employment's school effectiveness unit. A self-professed "LEA man" and socialist, he stepped into the professional wilderness nine years ago to become pedagogic architect of this city technology college, taking up the gauntlet thrown down by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. His radical ideas of child-centred education permeate everything, from the lavatory design to staff-pupil relationships. Now, concerned local parents of all political persuasions jostle to get their children into the school, although admissions remain non-selective, with a bias towards disadvantaged children. As pupil James McClafferty, 16, puts it: "Our school is known as a posh school. And it is a posh school, but the people who come here aren't posh."

Corby itself, despite a population of 50,000-plus, is a city of ghosts, defined by empty and disused spaces - where the steelworks once stood, where the Golden Wonder crisp factory burned down, where fashion retailer Next used to offload its seconds.

In its heyday, when the Stewarts and Lloyds steelworks smelted local ore, thousands of Scottish workers migrated here in search of a living. The works closed in 1980; now the surrounding landscape is featureless and pylon-dotted, and jobs for life a discarded concept.

Shattered industrial landscapes and the associated school disaffection and high crime rates are something Gareth Newman knows about, having been born and bred in the valleys of south Wales. "I don't excuse the bad behaviour, but I try to understand it," he says in the train on the way back to school from a meeting at the Department for Education and Employment, teacups lurching.

Salt-and-pepper-haired, blue-eyed, slightly rumpled, 58-year-old Gareth Newman retains the accent of his youth in the pit village of Nantgarw. But he speaks in the cadences of the teacher, in complete sentences, engagingly and not too quickly, sometimes emphasising his points by finger-wagging. "It's a grave error to underestimate people," he says, beefy hand shooting out of his suit sleeve. "These kids ain't thick." He has, he says, "considerable empathy" for the people of Corby.

He came to the town from a headship at Ruffwood comprehensive in Knowsley Merseyside. He brought a core of staff and was unfazed by the pariah status of city technology colleges - which, funded partly by industry, were set up to deliver a vocational form of education outside LEA control, equipping children for the needs of commerce and business. "CTCs for me don't mean anything," he says. Except - crucially - the opportunity to put his ideas to the test.

The blueprint for those ideas was laid down in childhood. From the nature of his own education - "meaningless recollections," he says - to the love of rugby - "Caerphilly Grammar School didn't teach me to understand myself but it introduced me to sport," - and the role of the adult in the life of a child. His father, Dai, was a factory worker, and always on the touchline whatever the weather, cheering on his son in the Welsh schools rugby trials, or stood all night outside the offices of the Western Mail to get the first edition with the O-level results, and carry it proudly home on the bus. "Not bad for a boy from a council house," said Mr Newman senior, as two years ago he lay dying in hospital and "Gar" told him he was to be awarded the CBE.

Not that Gareth Newman wishes to do to children what was done to him in the name of education. Rather the reverse. He describes his own schooling as a process that rendered him passive, and often left him mystified as a learner and humiliated as a junior human being. But he went on to repeat the mistakes as a young physics teacher. "I started off doing what had been done to me - pick up a book, stand there and deliver it," he says. He colluded in the bullying regimes prevalent then and to a lesser extent now. "I was ashamed of my feelings about the way children were so thoroughly disrespected, and treated quite awfully," he says.

Aged 30, he discovered a like-minded professional mentor, Keith Evans, then assistant director for education at Flintshire, to whom he "declared his alarm". Keith Evans heard him out, thought about it and suggested he took a year-long course in counselling. "From then on I understood that the feelings I had were right, and it was respectable to have them. It transformed my life," he says.

Now Gareth Newman follows his instincts, and encourages others to do the same. So Brooke Weston children are thoroughly respected and learn to consider themselves and their prospects without panic or evasion. "I am obsessed with youngsters being able to assess themselves, take responsibility for their learning," he says.

He interviews every pupil individually every year, asking about themselves and their work, and sees each GCSE student four times during Year 11. Those predicting grade C or less for themselves go on to an intensive list and are seen by himself and senior colleagues every day for five or 10 minutes to receive support and have progress monitored. Gareth Newman describes the process as the "professionalisation of care". He says: "It's more than an arm around the shoulders. It's a timed intervention."

He takes personal responsibility for the 20 or so pupils causing most concern, usually where behavioural problems combine with academic ones. "We have a general discussion, not just about school work, but about all sorts of problems," he says. "When you form some special relationships with pupils, it has a dramatic effect."

In school, he is a considerable presence as he wanders more than patrols the wide corridors. Everybody speaks to him. Children discuss their marks and other concerns. "Mr Newman, could you speak to my Dad?" says one boy. "I just got my results and he's calling me a failure." Mr Newman says he will.

He is well-liked, but the school's success, he insists, is due to the systems he has introduced, not his personal presence, and won't evaporate when he leaves. "People say I'm charismatic but that brasses me off. Teachers and children behave within the framework you establish, and I have no anxiety about my departure."

The framework at Brooke Weston is visible first in the very fabric of the building. The wide corridors, for instance, promote ease of movement. The small but numerous lavatory facilities discourage rowdy congregation and out-of-sight bullying. Classrooms are often double, with concertina doors between them, so teachers can work in pairs. But the partitions aren't soundproofed, to encourage quiet study.

The rooms have names such as Raleigh, Wordsworth and Marconi rather than numbers. And 75-year-old Molly Tyers wields the vacuum duringthe school day, to remind pupils that cleaning doesn't happenby magic.

There is no staffroom. And no lunch duty, bog duty, or playground duty either. Staff and students share an integrated environment, that embodies a key philosophy. "I've tried to show that we're in it together, rather than that we're doing it to them," says Gareth Newman.

Oddly, although pupil absence rates are low and pupils can and do come in at 7.30am and stay until 6pm, the 1,190 children seem absorbed into the school. They're there of course, working, chatting, organising themselves or taking the sun in the landscaped courtyard around which the school is built. But thanks to staggered breaks, the restaurant being open all day and almost no areas being off-limits to children, they never appear as an avalanche or herd. "We're treated like adults so we might as well respond like that," says 16-year-old Paul Corass. "They don't lock you out at lunchtimes, they don't lock things away. They trust you."

They trust students with more than the hardware. At Brooke Weston, from Year 7 right through the school, children are taught in sets. The difference here is that pupils, not staff, decide whether they are working at Basic, Standard, Extended or Advanced levels.

To wonder whether students over or underestimate their capacity is to miss the point. "It transforms the role of the teacher," says Gareth Newman, "from being a punitive driver to being a facilitator who helps pupils achieve their goals." There's no cred at Brooke Weston in working at Basic level, and boys achieve as highly as girls, at odds with the national picture. Equally, there seems no shame in not being a high-flier. "I've dropped just to the five important exams, because I was struggling," says one GCSE candidate, straight and calm.

Those who are working at Advanced level take the GCSE early, and some acquire a whole raft of qualifications before even entering the sixth form. But those who don't get the five A-Cs aren't disregarded, disgraced or disowned by the school. If they leave, they know how and why they fell short, and support staff in the school demonstrate that the door to education is never slammed shut.

Jean MacAllister, 52, who began "serving peas" at Brooke Weston and is now in charge of reprographics, with a recently acquired GCSE in English, is just one example.

The democratisation continues in many other forms. Children see their reports - produced at the end of every term, and Brooke Weston has five a year - before they go home, and can challenge perceived injustices and add their own comments, as can parents. Teachers and pupils share the restaurant - which is carpeted and civilised - and staff do not have segregated tables, or queue-jump. Later in the day, the head stands in line for his Thursday fish and chips, exchanging rugby banter with a strapping sixth-former. Everyone pays by school smartcard, including those on free meals.

Brooke Weston is a curious mixture of the futuristic and the archaic. Information technology here is state-of-the-art, with home-school electronic links enabling students to access curriculum information from home and e-mail their homework. Children without home computers can borrow or rent them, and the one long-term excludee is in daily electronic contact with school, continuing his studies. Information technology is part of every lesson ("you speak English in every lesson don't you?" says Gareth Newman) and school notices appear on 16 screens around the school.

The 11 open-study areas, where children of mixed ages work alone or with friends on the computers, feel simultaneously logical and Star Trek-ishly unfamiliar. "I was determined to make a statement," says the head, "about possession, and accountability. Teachers lock away technology for the right reasons but the message to pupils is that it's ours not theirs."

Yet the school is named after its two main patrons - local landowner Hugh de Capell Brooke, who donated the site and underwrote initial costs, and Garfield Weston - chairman of Associated British Foods and inventor of the Wagon Wheel biscuit - whose pound;1.5 billion fortune places him at number six on the most recent Sunday Times "rich list". (In May his charitable foundation donated pound;20 million to the British Museum - the largest sum it has ever received from a private source.) Photographic portraits of the two benefactors, looking like Edwardian gentlemen, hang on the wall outside the head's office, and although caps aren't quite doffed, a certain indebtedness hangs in the air.

The head's role here is even more highly politicised than most. The chair of governors is a local businessman, as is the deputy, and the interface between the culture of education and the methods of industry can be difficult. No less challenging are relationships with local schools. It is to Gareth Newman's satisfaction though that he leaves his successor, expected to be chosen this week from a shortlist of nine, a "cordial" relationship with the LEA.

At the DFEE, where he has already been advising since April, he has high hopes of disseminating some or all of the Brooke Weston model. He leaves, he says "with a deep sense of fulfilment. I don't teach children from the front, don't rule with a rod of iron and every year we do better than the previous year. Yet it's the same kids. What I've proved is that expectations matter. Young people more than anything need someone to believe in them."

What he says about his own father may one day make a fitting epitaph for Gareth Newman. "He was absolutely uncontainable when it came to his enthusiasm for his kids."

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