Where others see failure, she finds gold

25th February 2000 at 00:00
Yvonne Bates, one of teaching's most practised trouble-shooters tells Gerald Haigh why she has taken on ailing schools

IMAGINE taking on a failing school, turning it round, then handing back the badge of office and riding off into the sunset towards the next challenge, like a strong silent character in a Western.

Could it turn out to be a career do you think? A future for young teachers to dream about? One of the parents at Sir Frederic Osborn school in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, certainly suspected Yvonne Bates of being just such a mercenary when she arrived there in 1998 to her second trouble-shooting headship.

The parents Bates recalls, did approach her to say: "You're somebody who goes around dealing with problem schools. I had to reassure her that I was here to stay."

She won her trouble-shooting reputation when, in 1997-98, she led a very high-profile turn-round of the named-and-shamed, media-excoriated Lilian Baylis school in Lambeth, south London. The story of how Bates led that school out of special measures, and away from the threat of closure, has been told a number of times. It was a remarkable achievement.

Even more remarkable, perhaps, in terms of a chosen career path, is the fact that she would go straight from Lilian Baylis - which was a one-year secondment - to a permanent post in another school in special measures when, in the words of a former fellow Hertfordshire head: "She could have had any headship she wanted, really."

Part of the answer lies in the oft-misunderstood word "vision". It may be relatively easy to perceive what a school could become but the real talent lies in being able to see what has to be done to take it there. To the Lambeth shopkeepers and to the local newspaper which consistently headlined the word "failing", the school was a dreadful place of ill-behaviour and underachievement.

Bates though, had taken the job because she could see the glint of gold. Not least, she realised that, although acutely conscious of the "failing" label, the children were very committed to their school. "They were powerfully loyal, and the teachers were so committed to their future." All her antennae, in fact, told her that success was possible."The basic ingredients were in place. I thought: 'This can be done'." Closer analysis went further, and showed that achievement was by no means as bad as the raw league tables made out.

"OFSTED said the children were underachieving. Simple analysis showed that they were not. Many children were making progress way above what you'd expect." At the heart of her approach, then, was to present Lilian Baylis not as a failing school but as an improving school - she eventually convinced the local newspaper to make the descriptive change. Her mission was to conjure the same vision in the hearts and minds of her pupils and teachers.The key was to concentrate directly and relentlessly on teaching.

"They needed to know they were good teachers. I told them that we would focus on teaching - talk teaching, talk about our engagement with children in the classroom. That, after all, is what we like doing."

It clearly has to be more than talk, though. So, she says: "We did a lot of formal, focused observations, with agreed objectives. Each would be followed by a minimum of 20 minutes of discussion." The teachers responded to this - a discussion about teaching, about which bits of an observed lesson have worked best, will usually interest good teachers more than any discussion about, say, the wearing of trainers. The pay-off comes in improved classroom work, followed by higher teacher and student self-esteem, better attitudes and improved behaviour.

It all sounds obvious enough. What makes it work, though, is the quality of leadership, and on her record alone Bates stands out as someone who knows how to find the best in teachers and pupils.

Ironically, she did not plan on being a teacher at all. The idea was that her first in maths and psychology would qualify her to be an educational psychologist. To do that, though, you have to do some teaching, so she got a job as a maths teacher in Brent. Within a very short time she realised that she did not need to go further. "I loved teaching, and I found I could do it," she says.

After a couple of moves, and within a few years, she was head of maths at Barnwell school in Stevenage. "It had a falling roll and a poor reputation. The challenge was to take the maths department forward, and that's what we did."

In 1993, eight years into teaching, she went as deputy head to Nobel school in Hertfordshire, where the head, Martin Titchmarsh, was half-way through a seven-year programme of lifting GCSE results from 17 per cent to 55 per cent A-C grades. It was a powerful apprenticeship in the science of school improvement.

Titchmarsh, now head at Broxbourne School, recalls: "We were dedicated to improvement at Nobel. Of everything we did we asked: 'If it's not about improvement why are we doing it?" The next step for Bates, clearly, would be headship, though the plan was to wait for the right one to come along.

Then, in the late summer term of 1998 she was actually in the head's office at Nobel when he had a call asking him about the possibility of his coming to Lilian Baylis. "It was a case of 'I can't, but I know someone who can."

After Lilian Baylis what next? On her record she would have been a strong candidate for any headship. She applied, though, for Sir Frederic Osborn, another school in special measures - and this time a permanent post. Why do such a thing?

She is quick to quell any suggestion that she went around looking for a "failing" school.

"I didn't know it was in special measures until I was half-way through the interview. By then I'd already formed an attachment to the place and seen the potential, so the news didn't deter me." Again, what she saw was not so much a set of problems, as a portfolio of opportunities. A neighbouring school was closing, for one thing.

"It was going to go into a period of rapid development," she says. "There would be massive growth, a building project, and the opportunity to recruit staff and double the intake."

The immediate priority, though, is to extricate the school from special measures, and here the approach has been similar to the one used at Lilian Baylis - to recover pride in the school, and to focus tightly on the point where teacher and child meet in the classroom.

"We've used feedback from HMI to guide us in what to concentrate on - so the first has been about pace and challenge. It's been intellectually interesting to try to understand just what 'pace' is for instance." She herself teaches mathematics for three periods a week - partly because she is good at it and partly because it gives her a direct stake in the school's core activity.

"I'm a member of the maths team, and the day I get the exam results I have a personal interest as well as a school-level interest."

Sir Frederic Osborn, though, is clearly not Lilian Baylis, and Yvonne Bates has found the response to be different.

"It's taken longer to make the children latch on to the message of pride," she says. Much of this she puts down to the high level of staff turnover in recent times - there were nine supply teachers in the school during the inspection which put the school into special measures. Many children had come to expect that their teachers would come and go.

She is working to put this right, and is doing her best to recruit good, committed staff.

She is in no doubt that there are people who want to work with senior management teams who are striving for improvement. She says: "We didn't mince our words when we sent out the literature to job applicants. When they came for interviews they saw all the school, the challenges and priorities. We emphasised that the whole focus was on children enjoying their learning and on teachers enjoying their work with children. That was the agenda, and I think that people understood that."

Yvonne Bates is one of 17 heads who describe their experiences in "Living Headship: Voices, Value, Vision", for the British Educational Management and Administration Society, published by Paul Chapman.

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