Staff bring home the bacon

1st October 2005 at 01:00

Name: Redbridge community school, Southampton

School type:11-16 comprehensive

Proportion of students eligible for free school meals: over 50 per cent.

Results: Up from 27 per cent of students gaining five or more A* to C grades in 1999 to 43 per cent last year.

Head feeds his teachers' needs first to the benefit of the whole school. Martin Whittaker reports

Amid a montage of newspaper cuttings on Richard Schofield's office wall is a photograph of him cooking breakfast for his teachers.

He started the tradition after a teacher in the staff football team complained that he could not score goals on an empty stomach. Now, whenever teachers work late or go that extra mile for the school, he thanks them with bacon sandwiches.

Mr Schofield likes his staff to have fun. As well as the soccer team, teachers club together to go on skiing trips or narrow boat holidays and they happily dress up for charity fundraising evenings. He insists there are no cynics in this school's staffroom.

Hang on - teachers having fun? That doesn't sound right! Aren't teachers supposed to be overworked, weighed down by stress, targets, and government prescriptiveness?

Not at Redbridge community school in Southampton. Headteacher Richard Schofield has pursued a deliberate - and controversial - policy of putting teachers' needs before those of students.

Cooked breakfasts and staff outings are just trivial examples of the head's claim that "staff who play together stay together". More relevant is the impact the school's management style has in the classroom.

"We trust people," he says. "We actually invest faith in people to do their job. It's been a key principle here . that we do give much more licence to staff than many schools do.

"If you give people the opportunity to run with ideas, at times they will make mistakes. And in my mind it's very important that we have a culture of no blame, that all of us learn by our mistakes."

This ethos has worked wonders for students. In a recent inspection, Ofsted said that Redbridge provides "outstanding quality education" and commented that students speak very highly of their school and show considerable pride in it.

To hear the word "outstanding" from inspectors should be accolade enough.

It is more remarkable given that this is also a secondary school working in a very challenging environment.

Redbridge community school is an 11-16 comprehensive serving working-class estates near Southampton docks. Around 60 per cent of students are on the special needs register and more than half are eligible for free school meals, though the take-up is just under 30 per cent.

GCSE results are below average but have improved in the past five years. In 1999, 27 per cent of students gained five or more A* to C grades: last year this had risen to 43 per cent.

Richard Schofield believes the policy of putting staff welfare first has been a central factor in the school's improvement.

He says he was influenced by having a very supportive head when he started in teaching. "I know what it felt like 30 years ago as a vulnerable NQT - and I also know how liberating it was to have a head who said `go on - give it a go'."

Lindy Barclay has been at the school for 26 years, firstly as an English teacher and latterly as assistant head, and she says she has lost none of her enthusiasm for the job. She now carries the unusual title of director of learning and motivation.

Last term in an article for The TES she wrote that rather than the Government publishing Every Child Matters, it should call the document Every Teacher Matters. Given the profound effect a good teacher has on a child's life, she argued, teacher well-being and feelings of self-worth should be a central government concern.

"It's not a popular view to say you put the staff first, because everybody would think they put the children first," she says.

"Yet from the response to the article it would seem that it's very popular with teachers. I think the Government has taken initiative away from teachers. And they have robbed teachers of trust."

The school invests heavily in teachers' continuing professional development, sending them on the best courses in pairs, so that they can share what they have learned and have each others' support to implement it.

Teachers are also heavily involved in developing school policy.

Staff social life is given high priority - PE teacher Kath Hield is also the school's social secretary, with an apparent gift for organising staff trips and charity fundraisers.

Redbridge allows staff to explore their own specialisms and interests. Greg Walters, for example, started out as a humanities co-ordinator, but has been encouraged to develop his expertise in outdoor adventure activities for children.

The school has not been afraid to take on unqualified staff. Rachael Metcalfe began doing exercise classes for students part-time, and is now employed as a dance and exercise instructor - despite having no teaching qualification. She was hired for her enthusiasm and ability to engage students.

Richard Schofield says he has had full backing from the school's governing body in developing this style of management. But he admits that swimming against the tide of opinion to cut teachers some slack has at times been challenging.

But while he runs a happy ship, he insists it is also a tight one - his staff are constantly challenged. "In Ofsted terms we have just won the cup, and yet we are talking about the next stage of our development.

"And inevitably that provokes questions in the minds of some staff - why tinker with something that's just been pronounced outstanding? But you can't afford to rest on your laurels."

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