'We don't do status. I do the breakfast club, I clean up sick'

1st August 2003 at 01:00
Anne Whitehead (right) didn't fit in when she was at school. But it's stood her in good stead throughout her teaching career. In the fourth of our summer series on maverick heads, Elaine Williams finds out why

Anne Whitehead, 50, has been head for the past four years of The Willows primary school, Wythenshawe, Manchester. The 400-pupil school is in the middle of a large council estate which is among the top 1 per cent of the most deprived wards in the UK. She took over after being head of a school in the leafier suburbs of Stockport because she's Manchester born and bred, and because she wanted a challenge. She got it.

The Willows was being refurbished and going through a bitter merger of three schools. Parents were baying for blood. English Sats results that year (1999) were 28 per cent and maths 44 per cent, but when Ofsted came in some months later, she defied inspectors to find fault with the school she was creating, which she predicted would be a beacon of its kind.

Describing her as "feisty" and a "trailblazer", they backed off. Sats results have since risen sharply, now standing at 76 per cent in maths and 69.5 per cent in English, with 30 per cent level 5s, and are still on the up. The Willows has won two achievement awards in the past two years.

Why be a headteacher?

To provide the "richest possible diet of experiences for children" and to prevent anybody being taught "the way I was". Because she behaved badly at school, she has insight into children behaving badly.

How does she do it?

Making sure the creative curriculum has priority - art, lots of sport (Active Mark Gold Award); lots of clubs - dance, gardening, bridge; lots of trips out - the school went to the opera ("they stole the opera glasses, but we took them back"). Giving parents a central role - all learning mentors are parents, so they have a stake in the school's success. Taking a tough stand on parental aggression ("I've taken out three injunctions against parents entering the school"). Investing in pupil and staff self-esteem - celebrating children's every achievement, whether it be swimming or controlling their temper. Taking a tough stand on bureaucracy - helping teachers to get planning down to an hour a week ("If teachers plan on the back of a postage stamp what difference does it make? A lot of heads make a rod for their own back").

Personal style No sufferer of fools, down-to-earth, focused, funny with a sharp sense of irony.

I have a very low boredom threshold. For me, things have to be exciting and that's the same for many children. I used to get sent out of class for looking bored at school and for holding my pencil the wrong way, which I still do.

"I went to two prep schools, where the diet was endless assessment and catechism. You never did art or PE. I could read and write before I went to school, but once there I seemed to spend copious amounts of time standing on a chair with my hands on my head staring at a crucifix. I went to grammar school a year early, but was very non-conformist, always in trouble. I was once called a "core of evil". My mum helped out at the school fairs and when people asked her if she had a child in school, she would say, 'No, she's left'.

"I didn't fit in. That gives me an insight into children who make trouble.

People think it's the low-ability kids, but often it's the bright ones. I think the majority of teachers were goodies at school, so don't have a real understanding of why some children behave badly. I talk to my children a lot and I tell them that when they go to high school it's up to them; that people won't lose sleep if they don't succeed.

"When I was at school, teachers were never fair or treated you with respect. They never gave praise, and thought looking bored was a problem.

If I see children looking bored, I do something else.

I'm about relationships and giving children aspirations, respect and responsibility. At the end of each day, they all have to say something they have been proud of. I want them to feel valued and to realise that they do matter.

"We don't do status here. I do the breakfast club, I clean up sick. My learning mentors are parents, we all work as a team. My father was an engineer, very principled. He always said, 'Don't ask anybody to do anything you cannot or will not do yourself'. That has stuck.

"I am a bit tigerish and love to innovate. We do masses of stuff on accelerated learning and multiple intelligences, covering all the ways children learn. We do the numeracy and literacy hour, but we don't stick to it rigidly. Doing endless maths and English for those who struggle is just doing more of what you can't do, and for the bright ones it's excruciatingly boring. I am proposing to chunk them down to make way for a broad curriculum.

"We deliver a lot through drama, the arts, dance, PE. They are not for sale. The national curriculum made people accountable, but it also took away a lot of brilliance, a lot of eccentric stuff. The league tables are disastrous because they reward affluence. I don't coach children through Sats. We do bother about results; if the children have good self-esteem the results will take care of themselves.

"We don't do homework. I loathe it. Our kids have a full day here and at the end they have done enough. Because of the circumstances many of them face, it causes stress at home and is a waste of time. Neither do I want my teachers at home doing lots of marking. Marking is effective only if it is done with the children. My concern isthat teachers have the energy and creativity to go into the classroom to be fantastic teachers. I don't want them to waste time. I don't want them planning all day Sunday because they are anxious they won't do a good job without it. Staff need a social life.

I go out with friends, I go to the theatre. I don't get in to school until 8.15am because I'm not a morning person.


John Corcoran, chair of governors and a retired secondary head

"Anne is very tough and down-to-earth. She knows what she wants and thinks far ahead. She is always on to the next idea before people have caught up with the current one. Her position is non-negotiable. It's about quality education. Anne has a real presence and demonstrates to children that she is here for them and nobody else. Everything about the place has to make children feel good about coming in. If I was a child, I'd be in no doubt that this school was for me."

Karen Stott, pastoral administrator at The Willows; Lynne Myers, office manager in charge of finance. They speak together

"Anne always has time for the children, even if she is has visitors to the school. They come first. She has a steely resolve and will go out on a limb for the school. She is tuned in to the personal side of both children and staff, but makes people go outside their comfort zone by giving them such confidence that they believe they can achieve anything. She has no fear of authority and hates bureaucracy, although everything runs like clockwork."

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