School League Tables 1998: The way to reverse poor performance

Principal Bernard Barker and deputy Lucinda Elliott reveal how they transformed a school
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Rowley Fields Community College was required to take "special measures" after failing its Ofsted Inspection in November 1996. Only 66 per cent of the teaching was deemed satisfactory, attendance had dropped to 85 per cent and the number on roll was in steady decline. The official report commented: "Many of these weaknesses arise from serious shortcomings in the quality of leadership." A few months later, Leicester City named the college for closure as part of its strategy to reduce surplus school places.

Re-inspecting Rowley Fields in November 1998, Her Majesty's Inspectors (HMI) recommended that special measures are no longer required. Ninety per cent of the teaching is satisfactory or better, 40 per cent is good. Examination results are up 30 per cent, attendance has reached 91 per cent and the school is set to expand under a new city re-organisation plan. This is a classic Ofsted story, with a worrying school transformed in two years by special measures. How was it done?

After the trauma of threatened closure in March 1997, the parents formed an action group to provide much-needed leadership. They fought to keep Rowley Fields open and prove the city wrong. A clever campaign injected vitality into what had become lifeless corridors and classrooms.

A temporary head, drafted from another school, was swift to exploit his mandate for change. He prepared a far-reaching action plan and challenged his new colleagues to join a bitter struggle for survival. Two vice-principals were appointed internally and began to build new systems and procedures.

When city councillors decided to review all 21 secondary schools, rather than deal with individual cases, parents felt they had won a precious six-month delay. An acting principal took over in August 1997, eager to sustain the momentum generated during the spring and summer. The temporary and acting principals were both experienced heads and used their knowledge to drive the college forward, coaching the deputies and commissioning staff teams to implement the action plan.

Both heads adopted defiant attitudes, urging their colleagues to fight the negative influences which had brought them down. Clear expectations were communicated at daily briefings and regular training sessions, where the teachers agreed to a common approach to lessons and homework.

The vice-principals offered contrasting leadership styles. One supported and calmed his colleagues through blood, sweat and tears. The other swiftly measured the intricacies of curriculum development and time-tabling. A retired deputy head was hired to sort out the budget until a new finance manager could be recruited.

These leaders redesigned almost everything. Governors established sub- committees and agreed to undertake regular monitoring visits. Roles, jobs and procedures were adapted to a changed pattern. All teaching and support posts were reviewed and restructured. Office tasks and routines were re- allocated; teachers were reorganised to match a revised curriculum. A business manager was appointed and briefed to work on community fund-raising projects. An expressive arts faculty was created, to include drama for the first time.

Staff and student lesson and homework planners were introduced. A dress and jewellery code, based on colour coding, was negotiated with the student council - an important innovation. Updated phone and computer systems were installed. Open-plan suites were converted into classrooms; teaching areas were carpeted; technology workstations were ordered; dozens of display boards appeared in corridors and teaching areas.

Above all, the leadership aimed to apply plans and policies which were fair and consistent. School improvement is about giving careful attention to a multitude of apparently minor details, without losing sight of the overall pattern to which they belong.

Procedure was tightened but individuals were given more information and authority. Staff members were updated on budget, curriculum and personnel issues through a regular, published calendar of meetings. A permissive climate was created where anyone with an idea or project was assured of support. Lunchtime clubs, outdoor adventure trips, theatre visits, charity events, religious celebrations and public occasions were introduced.

Blame was avoided. Questions and debate were stimulated and the college's isolation was broken down by regular contact with local schools, groups and agencies. Through joint training and curriculum projects, primary and secondary neighbours became partners, not rivals. Children and parents were involved through the student council, open days and evening events. Newsletters, brochures and information packs kept everyone informed.

Rowley Fields is less famous than some schools in special measures because weak teaching was a bigger issue than poor behaviour. Youngsters were unhappy rather than out of control. A code of conduct was soon approved by the student council and a handful of difficult kids was removed without a media invasion. Sanctions, including exclusion, were clarified and reinforced through a standard referral form for incidents of misbehaviour.

Greater resolution was required to improve the quality and consistency of teaching. New methods and improved morale enhanced lessons overall but did not resolve a number of acute problems. Schools in trouble seem to recruit or attract more than their share of ineffectual colleagues, who appear oblivious to the disorder around them. Stress-related illness amongst vulnerable individuals was another, perhaps predictable consequence of special measures. During the first traumatic year, one-sixth of the teachers were absent on long-term sick leave. Almost half the staff departed. Direct, honest guidance helped achieve a remarkable leap in the number of lessons deemed sound or better.

Despite these positive outcomes, we believe that special measures remain an undirected weapon, likely to maim and injure its victims even as they improve them. An earlier, more focused intervention would have reduced the misery for all concerned.

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