We're all in charge here;Middle Managers;Case Study;School Management

20th March 1998 at 00:00
If you ask about middle management at Sharnbrook Upper School in Bedfordshire, people look puzzled. Almost everyone, including the newly qualified teachers, plays an important role in whole-school development. A mature entrant to teaching who became a year head in her third year was unusual - but not that unusual. I met a teacher in her second year who was mentor for a mature student in initial training, one in her third year who was an assistant head of year, and a newly qualified teacher who had just led a workshop at an international meeting for schools engaged in a project on tutoring and students.

"You get more experience in two years than you'd get in ten in some schools," said one young teacher.

Other staff invent their own middle-management jobs. Marian Greaves was an assistant head of year when she judged that some pupils needed individual support with study skills and time management. She is now running tutorial support, a scheme where Year 10 (14 to 15-year-old) pupils can choose their own mentor.

"We try to avoid hierarchical structures and develop a dense and diffused capacity for leadership," says the headteacher, David Jackson. Even pupils are beginning to take part: a group last year made recommendations for better support and deployment of trainee teachers - these are now being discussed with the school's partnership training institutions.

Sharnbrook has grown in the last ten years from 850 13 to 19-year-olds to 1,500, including 550 sixth formers. The growth has meant it has recruited many new young teachers. It has a relatively favoured intake - only 6 per cent of pupils have free meals - but the Office for Standards in Education reckoned it was providing unusually high added value to their education, and named and famed it.

In 1993 it became a grant-maintained school, but vigorously reaffirmed its local, comprehensive, non-selective admissions policy. Being grant maintained means it can now spend pound;55,000 a year on professional development. "If you want training in anything that relates to the school development plan or your agreed professional targets, you can generally get it," said one teacher.

There are heads of department, heads of year and leaders of curriculum areas. But these jobs are not fixed. Heads of year take "sabbaticals", taking on other responsibilities, such as mentor for a new head of year. Leadership of curriculum areas changes fairly often.

Heads of department often stay longer. But nothing is sacrosanct. When there was a sudden gap in the history department, the head of geography ran it for a spell. "He knew about pedagogy, about structuring learning, about assessment," said David Jackson. An administrator who wanted more personal contact with students became an assistant head of year.

The headteacher draws a distinction between management systems - primarily concerned with maintaining an effective and efficient organisation - and more flexible and creative structures for development. The school works with Cambridge University's Improving the Quality of Education for All project (IQEA). More than 50 teachers are engaged in various IQEA projects. A small team - from different subject areas - conduct research. They, or a different team, try out ideas and evaluate new ways of working. Results feed back into practice remarkably quickly: "We know that the development will have been properly done," said one teacher.

Staff seem to agree with David Jackson's assertion that there are more ways than extra money to pay for extra effort and responsibility. Extra time, new roles, and professional satisfaction are rewards in themselves.

The management of time is a big concern at Sharnbrook. "There will never be enough time, so we try to be entrepreneurial about it," says Jackson. Invigilating exams is "dead time" for teachers - so external invigilators are hired. More time was needed when assessments are returned to pupils so all other meetings were cancelled that week. Lessons could be used more creatively when the upper sixth was on study leave, so they rewrote the timetable to accommodate sustained projects such as field trips or having artists in residence.

When you ask teachers - particularly young staff - how they find time to plan and improve their teaching, they say that the school is orderly. The high expectations and genuine implementation of the school philosophy that "individuals matter" make for easy classroom relationships.

Departments are well run, with agreed schemes of work for each year group, well-organised teaching resources, and unfailing support - "when you scream for help, you get it without question". Responsibilities are shared , and individual teachers - again including the newly qualified teachers - engage in pieces of curriculum and resource development that keep things fresh and moving.

Young teachers say that their whole-school development work all feeds back into their teaching - "the more you do, the more efficient you get". Finally, they agree that, although they all get tired and stressed, it's the sort of tiredness and stress that comes from satisfying hard professional work, not from daily struggle.

Staff also believe development work is incremental and relevant. "There's no sense of: 'Oh no, not another initiative' " said Andy Cakebread, who leads the humanities curriculum area.

"It all sounds very frenetic", said David Jackson. "But it's not. We are an evolving school. Nothing we do this year is innovative in relation to what we did last year."

Virginia Makins

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