Beaten by the system

She took on a school in a desperately difficult area, energised its teachers and engaged the pupils. But Pat Denton couldn't win over the people in suits
Click to follow

September 2000 marked the start of my first headship and the beginning of the end of my career in primary education. Bradley Junior serves a difficult area. Positioned low down on the national deprivation scale, Deighton, in Kirklees, scores far higher than average for armed robberies, teenage pregnancies, domestic violence and child abuse. A high percentage of black and Asian people creates a wealth of cultural opportunity, but also racial tension and gang warfare.

September 2000 marked the start of my first headship and the beginning of the end of my career in primary education. Bradley Junior serves a difficult area. Positioned low down on the national deprivation scale, Deighton, in Kirklees, scores far higher than average for armed robberies, teenage pregnancies, domestic violence and child abuse. A high percentage of black and Asian people creates a wealth of cultural opportunity, but also racial tension and gang warfare.

I had spent my career in "nice" schools, and had not experienced the anger and self-hatred I found in children and parents who would often come to school drunk or stoned. I was shocked by the teaching style in use: every class organised in rows, lessons conducted in silence, a huge reliance on worksheets. No evidence of collaborative work, practical experiences, or discussion times. Lessons were quiet but no fun. Children went out for playtimes and used their pent-up energy to knock seven bells out of each other. The teachers were good people, and were doing what they needed to keep control. But it meant that children hated coming to school, were bored silly by all the copying out they did, and attendance figures were dreadful. Behaviour outside was awful. Things had to change, and change they did. I organised training for staff. Lessons became more practical and enjoyable, and the predicted behavioural difficulties from less self-disciplined pupils was met with an extra adult in each class.

Achievement in SATs was poor. These children were bright, but had no self-confidence. Parental expectations were low. There were no jobs, so no reason to learn. Children would not risk writing down or saying anything that might be wrong - they might look silly or be laughed at.

These were not ordinary children; many were damaged young people who had no self-esteem. Several attempted suicide and too many were on the child protection register. Incredibly, though, there was an abundance of talent: these kids could dance and sing, and when they did, they came alive.

My vision was clear: encourage the pupils' talents and make school the place they wanted to be. We put on concerts and shows for parents, and saw a huge response. I really think we could have become a centre of excellence for dance. We organised lessons for dance, drumming, gymnastics, and drama; we took groups climbing, camping and walking, we arranged experiences in ethnic arts and crafts, and entered our choir in festivals.

I thought that if we increased the children's confidence by giving them the chance to do things they were good at, and which they enjoyed, we could make them feel better about themselves, and academic work would become less threatening. We would see standards rise.

June 2002 brought an Ofsted inspection. Pupils don't react well to people they don't know, and if they don't immediately take to someone, they will give them a hard time. But the inspection didn't go too badly. One of the Ofsted inspectors said I was doing the right things; I was on the right track and things were beginning to improve.They were putting us into "serious weaknesses" to ensure we got the support we needed from the authority.

The report gave positive feedback on music, ICT, equal opportunities and extra-curricular activities, but the main concerns were behaviour and attendance. I was expecting another inspection in two years' time, but didn't know there would also be a monitoring visit by an HMI very soon, and that it would be rigorous. One local authority contact officer, new to the role, went through my evidence file, and said it was fine. Actually, it wasn't; I know now what I should have done, but she, too, was new to all this, and had no idea how detailed it needed to be. When the HMI came, things spiralled down quickly.

He was small in stature, but large in self- importance, and carried an air of authority along with his clipboard. Some of our pupils mocked him, disrupting lessons to test his reaction. If you wanted respect from these children, you had to show it to them first. He had a similar effect on me; he made me feel like a country bumpkin. He disagreed strongly with my vision. I had to stop all extra-curricular work with music and dance until SATs results were up to national averages. We had made dramatic progress with attendance and behaviour, but he was not interested, and slammed the school into special measures. If we didn't come out of special measures in two years, the school would be shut.

Again, simple soul that I am, I expected support from the authority, but was summoned to the head of School Effectiveness's office and told that if I didn't pull my socks up, I would be out on the grounds of incompetence. This despite the fact that other schools in the area were struggling. Another primary and a secondary school had also gone into special measures - and heads were rolling. Three had mysteriously disappeared, going home one day and not returning.

We were winning, I thought. I had the staff on side, producing detailed lesson plans each week, and putting on extra maths and English lessons. They were working well as a team, with no sick leave, and somehow maintaining a happy atmosphere. I had put aside my resentment and was working flat out to do exactly as asked. One of the authority's contact officers gave me tips on how to win over the HMI. Give him good coffee, she said, and decent biscuits. Let him feel cosseted - he likes that - and tell your staff to dress well.

We were spared that, because the next term's visit, in May 2003, was made by a female HMI. She told me I had put the right things in place. Again I was summoned to the Grim Reaper, and was congratulated this time. We thought we were safe. The final blow came in July, when the SATs results were worse than the year before. By September, I had become public enemy number one again. Another summons; this time it was made clear that I was not up to the job, and was offered six months pay in lieu of notice. My union's advice was to take it and go; if I tried to fight, the authority would go for incompetence and I'd end up with nothing but a breakdown. The authority needed a scapegoat, and it was me. I took the offer and walked out.

I care deeply about the staff and pupils and feel I let them down. I'm sure my replacement will make an excellent manager, but friends tell me that the school has lost its soul. What lessons have I learnt?

To survive as a head in a difficult area you must stop caring about people, stop trying to make a difference in the community and stop being honest and above board. Be hard and unapproachable; care for nothing other than exam results, cheat if necessary - and you've cracked it.

education@independent.co.uk

Comments