What happened at Clackmannan?

5th September 1997 at 01:00
Her Majesty's inspectors are about to lift the lid on why Clackmannanshire + suddenly suspended one of its headteachers in May and embarked on radical + reform of the school where she taught. Teachers were shaken by the announcement+ that Rena Black of Clackmannan Primary was absent indefinitely. Such dramatic + action in the past would have carried suggestions of rioting pupils or serious + staff misconduct. With the publication next Tuesday (September 9) of the HMI + report, it will become clear that the smallest authority in Scotland has simply+ taken the lead in enforcing the much talked about crackdown on poor + educational standards. It is widely expected that in the report inspectors will+ confirm that the school has lost its way dueto a well-meaning but flawed + approach to management. Mrs Black is believed to have received + "unsatisfactory'' - the lowest possible grading - for leadership and for + assessment and direction of children's work. In 12 other measures the school is+ believed to be judged only fair. There are eight "goods'' but not a single + "very good''. The report is also expected to highlight many positive aspects of+ the school, such as committed, hard-working staff and a well-run infant + department, but to spell out serious shortcomings, such as a fall in children's+ level of achievement in higher reaches of the school.However, contrary to + newspaper reports in the wake of Mrs Black's suspension, the report is expected+ to stop short of condemning Clackmannan Primary as a sink school where + children run wild and bullying is rife. Clackmannanshire's education director, + Keir Bloomer, refuses to apologise for the authority's tough line. "The + threshold for intervention used to be in my view outrageously high," he says. + "We should be prepared to intervene in schools, not just when money goes + missing or a boy is assaulted.'' His first loyalty, he says, is to the children+ at the school and then to their parents. Had he allowed school unrest to + simmer away for another 10 years the education of a further 500 to 600 children+ would have been blighted. As for potential criticism that his action has + undermined an already badly demoralised profession, Mr Bloomer - a former + deputy general secretary of EIS -maintains the reverse is true. "Ultimately the+ esteem in which the teaching profession is held, probably even the financial + value placed upon them, is dependent on the public thinking a good job is being+ done," he says.Clackmannanshire's action reflects a new climate of opinion in + Scotland. This has been partly stimulated by recent international research on + maths and English and HMI publications suggesting that Scotland does not have + the education system it thought it had. Parents who have been encouraged by + government to take more of an interest in their children's education have also + contributed to the change in mood. And the wider community, including business,+ is calling for greater accountability.Mr Bloomer does not hesitate to rattle + cages. "There is a complacency about the Scottish educational establishment, + thriving on this myth that Scotland has world-class education. For the first + time we now have a dent in that confidence and some self-criticism. I welcome + this.'' If other educational authorities follow Clackmannanshire's lead in + tackling failing schools, suspension will not be the only possible form of + action. Clackmannan Primary became top priority for the area's new summer + school, which helps under-achieving children to make up ground. A new maths + programme has been given immediate and full funding. Extra clerical support is + in place and, most significantly of all, one of the most experienced + educationists in Scotland is in situ. Glenda White, a former college lecturer + and chief inspector of Strathclyde, may in effect be a one-woman hit squad, + but she is remarkably popular in the school community. Teachers, pupils and + parents all seem to speak of her with approval. White after Black seems to be + day after night.Mr Bloomer, who worked with Miss White at Strathclyde, + persuaded her to delay her retirement to come to Clackmannan. One of her first + exercises was to ask children to make a list of all the positive points about + their school. Teachers also found themselves in the unfamiliar situation of + being consulted. The result of Miss White's work is a plan of action which + seems to mirror points highlighte d by HMI. She has done the spadework which + will make the new head's task nowhere near as daunting as the HMI report is + likely to suggest. As Mr Bloomer says: "Thanks to Glenda, there is an + opportunity for any reasonably good headteacher to come up after a year, + smelling of roses.'' Certainly the new headteacher will inherit a staff among + whom morale is surprisingly high, considering the public panning the school is + likely to receive on Tuesday. Although there is some apprehension and + uncertainty because no head is yet in place (deputy head Bruce Caldwell was + standing in until last week), staff say they are happier now than they were 12 + months ago. However, they are also at pains to point out that Mrs Black had + many positive attributes as a headteacher: she was friendly, hard working and + an efficient administrator and budget controller. Pastoral care was excellent. + If the child of a member of staff fell ill, she would unfailingly give + permission for the staff member to go home. She was also generous with her + sympathy and time if anyone in the school community suffered a bereavement. Mr + Bloomer also acknowledges that Mrs Black cared about her school: "No one is + ever 100 per cent to blame when things go wrong, and Mrs Black was as concerned+ as anyone about the deterioration. She did not want to sweep matters under the+ carpet.'' Few in the school community wish to add to Mrs Black's misfortune by+ spelling out the less positive traits which led to the authority's request for+ her resignation and offer of a temporary job away from the chalk face to mark + time before her 50th birthday and expected retirement early next year. However,+ during discussions with people involved with the school, a picture gradually + emerges of someone who found it difficult to delegate work and to listen to the+ views of others. "Out of her depth'' was one of the more pointed assessments. + Policies might have existed on paper, but they did not have the wholehearted + support of staff, who had not been consulted. On discipline, for example, Mrs + Black tried to "cater for the needs of the needy'' and "instil + self-discipline''. But implementation of the policy was inconsistent. Teachers + frustrated by disruptive children in class would send them to the head's office+ - only to see her offer them tea. Indiscipline might also be repaid by the + chance to kick a ball around outside for 10 minutes. A chance to cool off was + the reasoning. Although there were no outrageous incidents, discipline seems to+ have broken down progressively over the past year, disrupting the education of+ many children. When the teacher of a class with a significant rowdy element + went on prolonged sick leave, a younger class suffered a succession of + temporary teachers as their own teacher was nominated to deal with the + disruptive class. Alastair Todd, chair of the school board, describes the + younger children as "Israelites in the desert, wandering about leaderless. + Parents were upset."Matters deteriorated to the point where Mrs Black lost the + confidence of many parents and allegedly every one of her 16 teaching staff. In+ the first eight months of its existence, the local authority received + complaints from 10 parents and four teachers. HMI allegedly provided evidence + that reform would be ineffectual without a change of head.Mr Todd says that the+ sudden suspension and subsequent inaccurate press reports shook the entire + village, but he does not regret the suspension. "At the end of the day, there + are 350 kids' education at stake.'' He adds that he has been surprised and + pleased by the council's "open, honest and thorough'' approach to the problems.+ Mr Bloomer says: "The message from this is that this authority takes its + responsibility seriously, even if on occasion it produces adverse publicity.''

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