Young heads run free

28th May 2004 at 01:00
NQTs swoop in to rescue departments. Martin Whittaker reports

Name: South Tynedale middle school.

School type: 9-13 middle school.

Improved results: Improvement measure* in key stage 2 test results up from 217 in 2000 to 255 last year.

Proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals: 11 per cent.

Hayley Robertson admits she found her first year of teaching tough going.

As a single mother of two, being a newly-qualified teacher was hard enough.

But in that first year she jumped straight into the deep end carrying an extra weight of responsibility as head of music.

And she was not alone in learning to sink or swim. Her colleague Ray Gordon began his NQT year as head of information and communications technology.

Hayley, 30, reflects that the year before last they were both humble trainees at St Martin's college, Carlisle. "You're there seeing all the roles of teachers and you think - wow! But we did it in our first year," she says.

"It was quite daunting. But although it was a tough year and it was a lot of work, it really set high expectations which we can continue with now."

The two subject leaders are among a core of new teachers who were brought straight into roles of responsibility at South Tynedale middle school.

At the same time this small 9-13 school in Haltwhistle, Northumberland, has seen a dramatic turnaround in the past three years. In 2001 the Office for Standards in Education identified it as an underachieving school. It was near the bottom of the key stage 2 performance league tables for Northumberland's 45 middle schools and was given two years to turn itself around before another inspection.

Today the school is near the top for attainment at KS2 and 3 within the education authority, while its performance in KS2 tests has steadily improved. Last year 81 per cent of pupils achieved level 4 or above in English, 78 per cent in maths and 96 per cent in science. Its improvement measure* (an aggregate of the percentages in the three subjects) has increased from 217 in 2000, to 255 in 2003.

Meanwhile an Ofsted inspection last year declared it a good school in which pupils of all abilities achieve well and make good progress. The school sits on a hill half a mile from Hadrian's Wall. It has a huge catchment area, stretching nearly from Durham up to the Scottish border. A high proportion of its 250 pupils live out on hill farms and some travel for over an hour by bus. Headteacher Mike Routledge joined the school three years ago after a varied career which has included teaching in both primary and secondary sectors, working for an LEA advisory service and running teacher training at St Martin's college.

"When I arrived I think there was a perception in school and outside school that things weren't right," he says. "There were some fantastic teachers doing a brilliant job. But there was inconsistency - some strong departments and some weak departments. And a lot of energy was being channelled, but not always in a co-ordinated way.

"What we were able to do was to build on the existing strengths of the school."

With the changes, six members of staff left. Mr Routledge began restructuring staffing, clarified the role of the management team, and established specific job descriptions for teachers. The school also reviewed and clarified its policies and procedures. "I think it was restructuring that clarified roles and responsibilities within the school," he says. "Once they're clarified it's much easier to set up lines of accountability and to monitor and evaluate."

He and his management team also decided to bring in some new blood. The school needed new heads of ICT, music, and PE, and decided to fill the posts with NQTs. Over the past two years he has appointed half a dozen newly or very recently qualified teachers to head departments. "It was a positive decision to bring them in," he says. "The interview process was quite strenuous so that we knew that we were getting potentially very effective teachers and very good subject leaders.

"We also interviewed experienced people, so that's quite a challenge - to get into the school they had to persuade me, the interview panel, the governing body. They had to convince those people that they were actually better and could do the job better than those people they were in competition with.

"So it's hard to get in, but once you're in we have the mentoring systems to make it work."

How did the more experienced staff take it? Didn't bringing in NQTs - albeit mature ones - as subject heads leave some disgruntled? "I think that depends on the attitude of the staff you've got. The ethos of support in this school existed even before I arrived. The senior staff in school are a very upbeat bunch. They are very professional."

Mike Routledge says their appointment has helped uplift the whole staff, but they did depend on a high level of support from colleagues. "It keeps their vibrancy and enthusiasm going, but it does create workload for the senior staff. We need to be conscious of that."

Ray Gordon, the school's 37-year-old head of ICT, came into teaching late after leaving school at 16 with no qualifications, serving in the Royal Navy and working as a driving instructor. He says when he arrived the school had one room with 15 computers and a few others around the school.

He has since had the chance to oversee development of ICT across the school, with a newly-furnished computer room, a computer suite in the library and a new suite in the science room.

Every teacher has a laptop and projector and from September every classroom will have an interactive whiteboard.

How did he take to coming in as an NQT and subject co-ordinatorp?

"I was warned that it would be difficult in the first year, but I was up for the challenge. Coming in at the middle does help you learn much more quickly."

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