That was special

26th January 2001 at 00:00
Steve Clamp (above) took a job at a school in special measures because he wanted a challenge. It tested him to the limit

Why would anyone volunteer to work in a school deemed to be failing? Why choose to increase your workload, raise your stress levels and set yourself up for potential failure? I did it and it was a move which has, I think, improved my teaching after 20 years in the classroom.

You choose to go into a school in special measures because you want a challenge and believe you can help make a difference. This is not careerist smooth talk - although it does make you sound like some sort of missionary.

in September 1999, when I went to Deincourt community school, a small 11-16 comprehensive that serves a number of former mining villages in north-east Derbyshire, its recent history could best have been described as troubled.

The previous September it had been threatened with closure because of amalgamation plans. These were successfully opposed, but Ofsted placed Deincourt in special measures after an inspection in November 1998.

In April 1999 Alun Pelleschi, an experienced and hard-working head, was appointed to get the school out of special measures. I joined on an LEA secondment as communications manager.

Staff welcomed me: I was there to help and that was enough for them. Comradeship - vital, valued, at times joyful comradeship - becomes second nature when you are together in the inspection searchlight.

My role was twofold. The first was to manage the communications faculty (an amalgamation of English and modern foreign languages); the second was to help raise literacy standards across the school.

Morale in the faculty was low, the result of inadequate support, guidance and training. The staff had many good ideas, but rarely shared them - they seemed to work in isolation. I understood this: the sound of hatches being battened down is common as morale falls and schools flounder. But the more pressing the circumstances, the greater the need for collective problem-solving. Regular communication builds trust and raises morale. A strong collective spirit is vital for teachers' resilience, essential for survival in a special measures school.

Raising literacy standards was an Ofsted key issue and most staff recognised this. Wide and often demanding whole-school strategies were introduced with little discord. Staff fully supported the appointment of a literacy worker and the organisation of a lottery-funded literature festival. They'd endured a lot, so their generally positive attitude to change was as surprising as it was commendable.

But some of them had what can perhaps only be described as a lack of faith and belief: a lack of faith in themselves to perform, and a lack of belief in the pupils to achieve. The pressures and atmosphere of the special measures experience affect normal behaviour and relationships. Your brain is so packed with problems and plans that you have little time for talk when there is no professional reason for it.

This surely indicates that special measures must only ever be temporary. Anything else consigns staff and pupils to a life where normality - and that key component of a happy ad successful school, fun - are banished.

Teaching in an underperforming school is demanding. After 20 years, I had to improve my own performance to succeed within the classroom. But admitting my difficulties and my need to improve strengthened relationships and increased my influence with colleagues who needed support.

I learned almost as much as I had during the previous 20 years. And much of it was often remembering rather commonplace notions that I should have fully understood.

While classroom management skills - and a lively and relevant curriculum to bring out the best in the pupils - were vital for survival at Deincourt, the element that eventually makes the most difference is the relationship you develop with the class. Again, this is hardly an original finding.

The inspectors made a further visit last June. Their approach was professional and rigorous, and the mood among the staff swung from confidence to despair over the two days they were there. On the last afternoon we gathered in the staffroom to hear the verdict. The head announced that we had passed.

The initial reaction was one of total disbelief. Good news was not something this staff was used to hearing. Once we realised the school was out of special measures, relief followed, along with the alcohol. The pupils took, and take, real pride in "the result". "We'll not get the piss taken out of us so much now," said one 14-year-old. Spot on.

My reaction was one of utter and blessed relief. When I got home I tried to talk to my wife about it, but I just ended up crying tears of relief and joy.

Should teachers be subjected to the pressure of special measures? The workload can be enormous, and education authority and in-school planning and support must reflect that.

But the rewards in terms of professional development and personal satisfaction can be enormous. Of course, there are staff who have given a long-time commitment to "schools in difficulty", whereas I sauntered in on a year's placement. Many of them are polished practitioners who have successfully fought against the odds and helped many of the youngsters they have come into contact with. These are the real heroes of school improvement.

Looking back, I see my time at Deincourt as one of terrific personal turbulence when despondency was often mixed with elation; a time when my emotional resilience was tested to the limit.

How do I feel now? Strangely at sea. Why should that be? Am I suffering from what a colleague refers to as "foster child syndrome", unable to let go of the special measures school? Perhaps I am, a little. But I can readily recommend a stint at a school that is in difficulties as a demanding test of your performance. Be prepared to be humbled, though. You may find, as I did, that the strategies for, say, raising the standard of teaching and learning through good classroom management are similar for most schools. It is simply that in schools in difficulty, the problems are starker and the strategies therefore require a more rigorous and consistent application.

Steve Clamp is now back teaching at Frederick Gent school, an 11-16 comprehensive in South Normanton, Derbyshire

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