Take one dreary school and add a magician ...

Some headteachers always win. They can take over any school and make it a better one. How do they do it? Sarah Strickland finds out
Click to follow
Bob Salisbury, Garibaldi School, Forest Town,

Mansfield, Nottinghamshire

When Bob Salisbury took over as head of Garibaldi School seven years ago it was in a parlous state. Its reputation for vandalism, truancy and poor exam results was seemingly irreversible and the local community had turned its back on the place. "Red sky at night, Garibaldi's alight" was the saying.

Now the school is a beacon of success at the heart of a pit village struggling to recover from the decline of its local industry. While at least 70 pupils a year were once lost to neighbouring schools it is now oversubscribed. Attendance is excellent, truancy and vandalism are almost non-existent, exam results have improved by 300 per cent and the sixth form has grown from eight to more than 130. Adult learners attend classes and there is a creche for local children. Sponsorship money has flooded in, enabling great improvements to facilities. The Prince of Wales, Sir John Harvey Jones and David Blunkett have all visited, and the school has won a cluster of awards including Investors in People and the Chartered Institute of Marketing's Midland Company of the Year (twice).

A regular flow of headteachers passes through the doors of Garibaldi School, to see the miracle that Bob Salisbury has performed and to learn from his success. They could be forgiven for departing with a sense of dismay at the task ahead of them.

Mr Salisbury's extraordinary entrepreneurial spirit and unstinting zeal for fundraising are in evidence wherever you look. Here is the gleaming sports hall, converted with money from Alton Towers. Here are the showrooms built by a local furniture firm, providing a stunning modern language centre. Here is the computer room, funded by British Coal, the NUM and the UDM. Here is the conference centre, hired out to businesses at pounds 100 per day. And so the list goes on. Last year the school raised pounds 240,000 - about pounds 30,000 of it from selling tickets for Alton Towers.

Not everyone has that sort of energy, but Mr Salisbury believes heads need to be out there, constantly thinking of new ways to win sponsorship. "If you don't get money from somewhere you'll be in the same position 10 years down the line," he says. "I have no patience at all with heads who talk about initiative overload, they should get out." The "begging bowl" days are long gone, he says. Companies expect there to be something in it for them but he is not above asking for cast-offs. The school bins once belonged to British Rail, the camera film from Boots, even the display cases were once pub menu boards. "There's plenty for the asking."

A warm, bluff Nottingham man, Salisbury spent two years after university working his way round Europe on deep sea trawlers and driving lorries before returning to teach geography. Five years later, four headships came up in the Nottingham area and he was offered them all. Garibaldi attracted him because he felt it had potential. "I felt totally stifled where I was. There is nothing more frustrating than working somewhere where you can't expand ideas. I love the buzz of change and I wanted to see if you could take a school that wasn't serving its community well enough and bring it up quickly."

The answer was yes. What he had envisaged - a forward-looking school with a strong ethos, used and appreciated by its community - has evolved and Salisbury is keen to spread the good news. He is already asked to speak at numerous conferences. "What would interest me is a wider role looking at what is needed in schools in the future. There are some common values that you can transport everywhere. Modern schools need heads who have the courage to shake off the handcuffs, take risks and make mistakes."

Why has he never taken his talents to the more lucrative world of business? "I see very little difference: it's all about managing people. I would probably have made more money but I'm not really interested in that. It is smashing when you see teachers who have suddenly been given a new spurt of life and when pupils keep in touch and come back."

Marion Parsons,

The Grey Coat Hospital, London

As a voluntary-aided Church of England girls' school in the heart of Westminster, Grey Coat has never had to worry about its pupil numbers. But when Ms Parsons took over in 1986 the school was at a low ebb in its long history. The previous head had only been there for three years before leaving under awkward circumstances and had managed to make little headway in that time. The buildings were cramped and neglected, the exam results were very poor and staff and pupils alike were disaffected. Now the place buzzes with activity and optimism, facilities have improved and exam results are above the national average. Last year's Ofsted report described it as a "very good school" whose success derived from its strong Christian values, committed staff and "excellent leadership".

An afternoon in the company of Marion Parsons is a memorable experience. Her enthusiasm for life and learning is infectious, her charm, humour and energy quite dazzling.

As head of a Christian girls' school she might not meet everyone's expectations. She is stylish and glamorous, and addresses staff and pupils alike as "darling" without sounding remotely precious. "My mother was a teacher and would have said I was born to be one, too. I was always teaching my dolls and holding classes."

She came to Grey Coat as deputy head and ran the lower school for two years, a job she loved. "It was very like heaven: only 450 children on your own little patch." The offer to stand in as acting head was unexpected, but made her realise she wanted the headship full-time. She knew the school needed a good shake up. "It was dull, unexciting, dreary," she says. "It had no fun, no vision, no energy. It didn't know where it was going and staff were eager to blame everyone else. The impression they gave me was that the problems were insuperable but I saw it as a challenge."

She met the challenge by taking risks, investing in her staff, encouraging high expectations in her pupils and celebrating achievement. She is modest about her own success, putting it down to the fact that she simply loves her job and would not swap it for any other. "I don't think I've got anything, really, just an enjoyment of life, children, people, new challenges. I'm a teacher and I love learning."

Steven Andrews, Sandringham School,

St Albans, Hertfordshire

Sandringham was formed when two failing comprehensives with falling rolls were merged eight years ago. Steven Andrews took on the unenviable job of overseeing the amalgamation, as acting and then permanent head. It was a sensitive situation, with the outgoing heads still in post, staff having to apply for jobs in the new school, parents wondering what the future would hold and pupils feeling confused and uprooted.

By the time it opened, on the site of one of the former schools, the place was unrecognisable. Staff had redecorated it over the holidays. Pupils turned up in their new uniform feeling motivated and optimistic. It was already oversubscribed. By 1991 the middle classes were queuing to get their children in, despite a low position in the league tables. Since then, Mr Andrews has continued to take the school forward and exam results have soared to well above the national average.

Mr Andrews is quiet with a mesmerising manner, but happy to talk openly about his life and feelings. He still remembers the moment when he learnt he had failed his 11-plus. "My head went down into my arms and I wept." His determination that no child in his school should ever feel undervalued no doubt springs from that experience. "I think we are all capable of tremendous achievements and no one should be dismissed."

From secondary modern school he got a scholarship with Rolls Royce to study economics and finance at university but found he was far more drawn to philosophy and sociology. Resigning from Rolls Royce, he went on to get a further degree. Then he went off round the world, ending up advising businessmen in Japan on how to present themselves in the West.

A successful and lucrative future in business beckoned but something was missing. "Tugging away at me all the time was the experience of education. I realised it was my vocation. I love it because you are constantly giving something back. You have an enormous influence on the way life chances work out for individuals and can actually improve the quality of someone's life."

Mr Andrews' passion and determination have caught hold among staff and pupils, who sing his praises. When he arrived, he felt Sandringham had no life or imagination: those elements are now a fundamental part of the school.