Swan shakes off ugly duckling

13th January 2006 at 00:00
Philip Schofield revisits an old school and discovers it has become a beauty

Last week I broke one of my golden rules and returned to a school where I had worked several years ago. I usually avoid going back for all sorts of reasons, some logical and some irrational. This time, circumstances dictated that I needed to spend a couple of days there. How glad I am that I did!

The little primary school in west London was a sad, run-down and dejected place when I first entered its doors some five years ago. It had just suffered the indignity of failing its inspection and morale was pretty low.

The building was shabby and many classrooms were untidy and unattractive.

Many good-hearted staff were trying to work in difficult circumstances against the odds but some had just given up. The governing body was dysfunctional; petty politics and personal egos got in the way of real leadership.

I was asked to go in as interim headteacher and stayed with the school for a year. During that time we were able to put the pieces of a broken school back together sufficiently well for it to be removed from special measures.

We restructured, redesigned, honed and polished. Some people left and others grew and blossomed in new roles. The most important task for me was to find a new headteacher who could take the school forward and consolidate what we had started.

Our approach to recruitment was unorthodox with a special pre-interview briefing as the key. After the tours and formal speeches were over, we invited 20 candidates to address questions to a panel of experts. I was there with the director of education and new chair of governors but we did not grab the attention. It was the representatives of the school council who seized the day. They were poised and confident and their pride in the school shone through. One in particular sat grinning throughout. I will call this boy Tommy.

Tommy was no angel, but he had been elected to the council on merit. I sat with Tommy's mother in her trailer on the Traveller site before the event and explained what was going to happen. Her face lit up as she promised that Tommy wouldn't let us down. On the day, he had been polished and scrubbed and his conduct was perfect.

We made the appointment and the successful candidate confided in me that it was the presence of the children and, in particular, Tommy that had swayed her decision. The process worked. We found the perfect match for the school. She picked up the initiatives we had started and steadily set about transforming the place. At the heart of her strategy was the building of a dedicated, committed and hard-working team. She gave them status and invested in their development. She worked tirelessly to get the funding to remodel the school.

When I walked in last week I could not believe the transformation. The decor was bright and cheerful. Beautiful and relevant displays adorned the walls. This was impressive enough but it was the people who stole the day.

I met teaching and non-teaching staff who had been with me five years ago.

They were all in new, important roles as senior teachers or learning mentors and were bursting to tell me of their successes. Their pride in the school and what they had achieved shone through.

One grabbed me and dragged me down to what had been the library and staff room. It was now a stunning state-of-the-art foundation stage unit. She and her team had worked so hard to create an exciting, dynamic and stimulating environment for the children. As she told me how the project had evolved, I smiled secretly as I thought of the unpleasant experience she had endured five years previously at the hands of a rookie inspector who had savaged her with criticism. I thanked God that she hadn't given up at that time!

In typical style, the headteacher was modest about what she had achieved and full of what still needed to be done. I watched as she gave two children their merit awards and then spoke to members of her staff. It was here that I found the secret of her success, not in the policies and procedures of the school but in the relationships and interactions. At the end of the day, I chatted to the site manager; his pride in his school and his overwhelming loyalty to the headteacher spoke volumes.

Ironically, people were nervous about the prospect of an inspection team visiting the school at short notice. I understand why but I know that any wise and experienced inspector would only need to come into a school like this, breathe in the atmosphere and soak up the energy, drive and purpose of the place to know that it was successful.

Philip Schofield is an educational consultant who can be contacted at director@worldclass.me.uk

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