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Triumphs over adversity

One of the last initiatives to be undertaken by the National Commission on Education was to investigate why some schools seemed to thrive in the face of insurmountable obstacles. Eleven prime examples were selected to study the phenomenon. Maureen O'Connor reports.

It may not appear on any check-list of school improvement, but a willingness to be scrutinised by the deputy governor of the Bank of England, executives from BP, IBM and CIBA-Geigy, and a clutch of high-flying educationists has to be a compelling indication of self-confidence. To welcome them in and come up smiling, says even more.

For its final publication, the National Commission on Education asked 11 eminent educationists to pick a school which, in their view, was showing signs of success in the face of considerable difficulties. They were to recruit an industrialist and someone concerned with community regeneration and between them, try to come to some conclusions about why some schools flourish "against the odds".

Professor Peter Mortimore, for instance, took Howard Davies, ex-CBI and currently at the Bank of England, to Burntwood School in South London. John MacBeath of Strathclyde University recruited the managing director of a local development company and the chair of a business training consultancy to look at a special school in Fife. And Anne Sofer, Director of Education for Tower Hamlets went to Columbia Primary School with the chief executive of the Bethnal Green City Challenge Company and the head of community and educational Affairs for BP.

Brigid Beattie, head of Burntwood, admits that the fact Howard Davies was in the illustrious group of visitors, led to a certain amount of nervousness at her grant maintained girls' comprehensive but she none the less agreed to participate in the project because of her high opinion of the Commission's previous work.

"We knew that the team were all of a high quality and we were not surprised when they asked searching questions. We knew that they would want to talk to the pupils and the non-teaching staff so that anything the management said would be closely checked."

Professor Margaret Maden of Keele University, who co-ordinated the project for the Commission, felt that once the schools had got over their initial nervousness they quite liked the idea of being picked out in this way. Some inevitably were anxious about being exposed to the public gaze, especially as more than one had previously had an unhappy experience with the press. But overall the reaction was positive.

The schools chosen for the series of case studies deliberately spanned the age and ability ranges and the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. They included an isolated primary school in the Welsh valleys, an integrated secondary in Northern Ireland, a special school in Scotland, and English primary and secondary schools ranging from inner city London and Birmingham to industrial Cleveland and a council estate so far removed from Bristol that some children had never been to the city centre.

What the schools have in common are pupils suffering from the disadvantages of high levels of unemployment, poverty, social deprivation and prejudice - both racial and religious. Two of the schools were in areas hard hit by the demise of coal-mining, two had a significant proportion of children from ethnic minorities, where English was not the first language. Others were multi-ethnic. In five, more than half the children were eligible for free school meals.

In spite of this deliberate diversity, each team concluded that their school was indeed successful, and in quite similar ways.

Taking into account the varying adverse circumstances in which the schools operated, it was obvious that the meaning of "success" had to be carefully defined. In terms of secondary examination results, a spread of between 20 and 50% GCSE A - C grades is a wide one. But in all the schools, Margaret Maden concluded, "there is a powerful experience of moving forward, of achievement and of irresistible optimism. There are quite clearly, strong visions of further success at work".

The executives persuaded to help the project were high powered and full of goodwill but they did not necessarily know what they were letting themselves in for. "I think the process brought them face to face with reality," commented Roy Jobson, Manchester's chief education officer, whose team went to Crowcroft Park Primary School in Longsight. "I think they were shocked by the buildings, by the turnover of children and the sheer numbers of deprived families. "

Viv Bingham, one of Mr. Jobson's recruits, had just retired from his job as personnel director for the Co-operative Wholesale Society. He was drawn in because of his involvement with the local TEC and education and business partnerships in the city. He ended up with what he thinks will be a permanent relationship with the school.

"This was one of the most enjoyable and instructive jobs I've taken on in many years," he says. "What has become very apparent in schools now is that the nature of headship has changed. People are becoming heads who have been good teachers, but they are taking on a management job. The skills they need are not that much different from those needed by managers in other areas: organisation, motivation, leadership and good marketing skills in relation to the community and to parents. What we found at Crowcroft Park was extremely sound management of an excellent team".

The head of Crowcroft Park, Heather Stemp, found the inclusion of non-educationists on the team invaluable. "Inevitably they looked at our management and finances and that made me clarify my thoughts. We couldn't take anything as read." She welcomes the fact that Viv Bingham is continuing to visit to offer general help and support.

One of the unexpected facts thrown up by the case studies was that a significant number of the schools which were now flourishing had been through some sort of trauma in the not-too-distant past. Two had been threatened with closure, two had gone through amalgamations, two had been pilloried in the press, another had had a serious fire, and the one special school had suffered badly from "special school stigma" before turning itself around.

The pride and sense of ownership which parents now felt for that school was much the same, except perhaps even fiercer, as that felt by most of the parents with children at all the schools, some of whom went to considerable trouble to get their children there. As one parent at Lochgelly put it: "Parents are proud of their children and proud of the school. They used to be embarrassed about saying their children went there."

Publicity is generally regarded by schools as something to be tolerated rather than welcomed. Some of these schools have good reason to know that it can be double-edged sword. The Sutton Centre, an 11-18 community college in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, had been vilified as an out-of-control "progressive" nightmare early in its history. It dropped into the town like an alien space-ship, its current head comments wryly. Twenty years later it still has to overcome the lingering prejudice of a traditional community to which it is unusually exposed, with its site open and available to the town. (There are 40 exterior doors and 2000 adults use its facilities each week.) Crowcroft Park also faced the ill-will of the tabloids when it was taken to court by a right-wing group over its multi-faith approach to religious teaching a case the school won. Coming at the same time as the introduction of local management of schools and open enrolment, this was a challenge which required considerable stamina, mutual support and resolve to overcome.

Given this experience, it is perhaps surprising that some of these head-teachers should have been willing to put their heads on the block again by accepting the NCE's accolade of "success". What, one must ask, was in it for them?

Andy Mortimer of Sutton Centre is distinctly up-beat about the whole enterprise. It was, he says, "a damn sight more enjoyable than an Ofsted inspection." He is unusual amongst the heads in not seeing his catchment area as particularly difficult or tough. Students do feel the self-doubt which can come from long-term unemployment, but the school goes out of its way to ensure that this is not allowed to undermine their own self-confidence, he says. The odds he sees his school fighting against are much more to do with a rapidly changing system. Recently this has meant the loss of GCSE course-work and modular programmes which his students had found particularly motivating.

He found his industrial visitors especially helpful in their comments on links with the community and with local business, and in their comments on work-experience. The whole exercise, he says, was morale boosting at a time when further funding cuts are threatening some of the things the school currently offers.

"Our students enjoy this place," he says. "They're upfront and frank. The fact that we are open in the evenings and whole families use our facilities encourages ownership of the place." He had no worries about high-powered visitors coming in and talking to anyone they chose.

Penny Bentley, head of Columbia Primary School in Tower Hamlets had more reservations before she let the NCE over the threshold. "It is pleasant to be recognised, but there is an understandable feeling amongst teachers that they don't want to set themselves up as better than anyone else. In the event we went ahead because we felt we would like to see what the school does publicly affirmed, and we were happy to pass on any good practice we have here that is useful elsewhere."

In the end, she says, the school was pleased by the experience. Their visitors may have been captains of industry but they did not act that way, and because they came from different backgrounds, they noticed things which the school might not have done. "For instance, in a school with a high proportion of children from minority communities, we are concerned with racism, but our visitors asked us what we were doing about gender issues. I think the experience made us look at ourselves with different eyes. " Yvonne Jeffries, head of Haywood High School in Stoke-on-Trent, admits that she felt apprehensive about allowing industrialists into school, but was quickly disarmed. "They admitted they knew nothing, they were sensitive, and in the end were positive and proactive about the school," she says. "Being able to talk to people of that calibre and discuss problems was enormously enriching," Mrs Jeffries says. "I think the whole school benefited from that level of outside interest. The pupils, too, gained from being encouraged by successful people from outside."

Talking to the people involved, it is striking to what extent they all emphasise that their "success" is part of an on-going process. Yvonne Jeffries defines her school as one which had got into a spiral of decline and was now in a spiral of success, still with a long way to go, but at least now on the right road.

In her conclusion Margaret Maden also emphasises the questions which are still left unanswered by this NCE project, such as the qualities head-teachers need, about the pace of change, about where investment might be targeted to help schools improve, about a school's expectations.

"Change is a continuous process," she says. "Schools often take two steps forward and one step back. It doesn't necessarily depend on a charismatic head but there are some interesting questions to be asked about whether these heads' previous experience, often in successful but very different schools, is crucial." At Crowcroft Park, Heather Stemp still thinks that her school is in no way unusual, they were simply lucky to be picked on for the NCE exercise. "But that was 12 months ago. It is vital to keep developing. We are constantly seeking more effective ways to help children learn".

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