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Tough schools pay career dividends

If you are made of strong stuff and are up to a challenge, helping a school out of special measures can give you a boost in many ways, writes Jill Parkin

You've seen the job vacancies for schools which rather than being oversubscribed and quoting glowing inspection reports instead describe themselves as improving and the job as challenging. But would you actually apply to work in a fresh start school or a school in special measures? In a jobs market like the current one, why would anyone go for a tough post?

Lots of people do, wanting a work atmosphere which is positive rather than complacent and where new ideas are welcome because old ones have failed. The struggling school can give you a chance to make a difference to disadvantaged pupils' lives and to boost your own career.

"There is a breed of teacher vastly admired by other teachers," says John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association. "They are the ones who feel the level of job satisfaction is higher in a school in challenging circumstances."

Admiration isn't enough, of course, and such schools need energetic and enthusiastic teachers, not martyrs. So before flinging yourself into the fray, take the time to find out about the school and its problems.

Read the Office for Standards in Education report (on the Internet) and find out why the school was classed as failing. If there were serious weaknesses in your subject area, this is your chance to come up with something new. The head will want ideas at your job interview.

Ask the school for its action plan. The governors and local education authority will have drawn one up in the wake of the inspection.

At the interview, ask how much progress has been made towards specific targets. Be prepared to say how you might help.

Ask the money questions, not just about whether there are teacher incentive payments, but about what funds the school has to back up its ation plan. It may be in an education action zone; it may be applying for specialist status. Can the head obtain money for an individual initiative you might have?

Problem schools often have problem pupils. Be realistic and ask the head what support there is for teachers in terms of discipline, classroom assistants and administration staff. You can't push through your grand plan if you're always photocopying.

Find out from the head and other staff members how you would get an idea on the school agenda. Are there brainstorming staff meetings or is a case of knocking on the head's door?

Does the school have a teamwork approach, with frank reviews of how various strategies are going? Does it have input from the rest of the community?

The head is all-important and may well be recently appointed, with stacks of drive and vision. Can you play on his or her team? Do you believe he or she is up to the job of turning the school around?

Going down the challenging route - assuming you can stand the pace - can pay career dividends, with accelerated promotion in the improving school and an impressive CV for later.

"Heads really rate applications from those who have been successful in difficult schools," says John Dunford. "Other things being equal, that can be what gets you the next job. But there's more to it than that.

"A lot of the most exciting and forward-looking work in teaching happens in challenging schools, where there is less pressure from parents to conform to past practice.

"Of course, you have to be made of strong stuff to be able to create a good learning environment for disadvantaged children in a school classed as failing. But if you can do it, the rewards are tremendous.

"And it's schools like that where teachers often build up the best relations with pupils. Those difficult kids are the ones a few years down the line who'll buy you a drink in the pub."

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