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Whipped into shape

A new job, a list of weaknesses and a year to improve: Douglas Blane finds out how one head turned his school around

Craig Mitchell had just started his first headship when he found out the school inspectors were coming. "I had been in the job 10 days and was thinking things couldn't get much harder," he says. "Then I heard."

A settling-in period to adapt to leading Lochgelly South Primary was a luxury Mr Mitchell could no longer afford. "Having told the staff we'd be changing things at a reasonable pace, suddenly all bets were off."

The potentially divisive effect of preparing for the imminent inspection was a problem. "That wasn't good because we had to work as a team to have any chance." He pauses, thinking back to May 2001. "It was I an interesting time."

What the inspectors found at the school in the Fife town once famed for making the dreaded tawse were "significant and long-standing weaknesses", which the new head was given a year from the report's publication to remedy. The list encompassed accommodation, resources, development planning, financial management and staff development.

The good points were the staff - described by the inspectors as "hard-working, resourceful and caring" - and the teaching, which was "good and often very good".

"That gave us a solid foundation," says Mr Mitchell. "It meant we could really achieve something if we could just become a properly resourced school with good management mechanisms."

The inspection was stressful but instructive and the report gave a clear focus for the work needed. "But it wasn't a wonderful, flowery path," he says.

"I had just completed the Scottish Qualification for Headship and without it we might not have managed. It gave me professional knowledge and ability to dig deep."

His key management tool was an action plan devised with the help of the authority's development planning adviser and the teachers. "It was 40 pages long and addressed every area, like a development plan but much more detailed. It set out the things we were going to do, identified the key people to do them and, most importantly, gave us dates to work to that were realistic but challenging.

"The big unknown was funding. For a lot of the actions I had to decide what we were going to do first and figure out how we were going to fund them later. 'Finances permitting' became a well-worn phrase."

Mr Mitchell says the first thing he would advise any headteacher in a similar position to do, before even thinking about an action plan, as soon as he or she walks through the school gates, is enlist the help of absolutely everyone.

"You have to get as many people in the door as possible, show them what you've got, find out what they can do to help. I'm talking about resource managers, local elected members, the school board, health and safety people, building and electrical inspectors. You have to shake the trees."

Between the inspectors' first and follow-up visits to Lochgelly South Primary there were a few dark times, admits Mr Mitchell. "But I knew we had turned the corner at my 40th birthday party, six months after the first inspection. I had asked all the staff to come along and was floating around keeping an eye on them. I suddenly realised we had become a very close team.

"Before that, I remember things in monochrome but from then on I recall everything in colour."

Lochgelly South Primary reports,


* A clear vision is needed of what the school should become, as well as confidence that it can be accomplished.

* A comprehensive action plan covering all areas - accommodation, resources, management mechanisms - and including deadlines should be devised. It needs to be demanding, well paced and robust: it is the key tool for driving change and ensuring staff know what the school aims to achieve.

* Staff are a school's key resource. They should feel valued and be offered good professional development. "They must be given time to adapt to change, but not too much time," says Craig Mitchell. "There comes a point when you have to say 'From now on we stop thinking about the past and look to the future.' "

* Remember, appearances matter. School uniforms, the exterior and interior of the building, the facilities in the playground all play a part in creating the intangible but unmistakable good ethos.

* Success of your pupils and teachers should be celebrated at every opportunity. Improvements raise the expectations of staff, pupils and parents. This can be frustrating but should be welcomed.

* Parental support is vital. "According to research, parents are more important to a child's education than school, so we need to tell them what we are doing, get them on board and dispel any mystery about what goes on behind the classroom door," says Mr Mitchell.

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