Head of the year: He strums along to a different tune

Kevin Harcombe runs an 'outstanding' school – and has just been named primary head teacher of the year. Francis Beckett learns how he raised expectations with a little help from his acoustic guitar
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It took me a while to realise that assembly had started. No one called for silence, much less bawled out a child for continuing to talk. But slowly, I became aware that head teacher Kevin Harcombe was playing the piano at the front of the room. Then the whole school started to sing:

I will bring to you the best gift I can offer;
I will sing to you the best things in my mind.

After a couple of verses, the projection on the screen shifted, and the movement was slightly jerky, which is when I noticed two children at the front, efficiently making sure that the words on the screen kept pace with those being sung.

Then Harcombe handed out some awards: to this small one for wizardry in learning his three times tables, to that slightly larger one for learning her eight times. Parents of every child getting an award have been asked to come. If they can't come today, the award is put off until next week. Harcombe thinks it's very important that they should be there to see it. He makes sure every child gets at least two awards during the year.

He picked up a guitar. After a couple of chords, they knew what was coming, even though the words must be pretty puzzling for them:

...There's a blaze of light in every word;
It doesn't matter what you heard;
The holy, or the broken Hallelujah.

Some more awards followed, including the winner of the head's award for improved work and behaviour. Then came a difficult period song, made even harder by Harcombe's insistence that one half of the room sing the first few words of a line, and the other half the rest of it. Next was a special award, suggested by a class teacher, to a little boy who bounded to the front to receive it, "for being a pleasure to teach and for working his socks off". One more song, and the school left to a recording of Johann Strauss's stirring "Radetsky March". Some children threw their shoulders back and marched ostentatiously to the music. Most were smiling. It was a pretty good start to their working day.

As they left, two older pupils were writing up the new house points that Mr Harcombe had announced. It all looked cheerful and purposeful. "Makes you feel good all day, doesn't it?" said one of the parents as he felt in his pocket for his car keys.

Sadly, I wasn't there on a day when a teacher was going on maternity leave, or when there was some other excuse to talk about babies. That, I heard in the staff room, is something the children look forward to, because it allows Harcombe to bring out his party piece, the "Nappy Calypso". This is a song about potty training (which Harcombe can only dimly remember – his own three children are now 17, 15 and 12), written by two teacher friends of the head.

I was in my room the other day.
My mummy said she had a game to play.
She stole my nappy and began to sing
And made me sit down on this freezing plastic thing.

After this, it becomes scatological.

The Friday morning assembly at Redlands Primary School in Fareham, Hampshire, is a one-man virtuoso performance, from someone who is used to playing to difficult audiences. He helped to pay for his Sussex University degree course in English literature, and then his Masters in English Renaissance literature, by busking in the streets of Brighton, playing the guitar while his friend played the fiddle.

First, they played the crowd-pleaser to get in the money. In those days, at the end of the Seventies, their main draw was "Mull of Kintyre". "People went dewy-eyed and threw us silver. When we had enough money, we'd play what we wanted: Stéphane Grappelli, Django Reinhardt."

His first school audience was at Roedean, the top independent girls' school near Brighton. A Roedean teacher heard them in Churchill Square (always a more profitable venue than The Lanes, apparently) and asked them to come to the school and sing, for £5 and as much beer as they could carry away.

When Harcombe graduated, he was not thinking of being a teacher. It was the start of the Eighties, when the sad joke did the rounds: "What do you say to a literature graduate with a job?" "Big Mac and chips, please." He was on the dole for a while, then did clerical jobs for the civil service. In 1985, aged 28, he was back at Sussex for a teaching certificate. At first he was unsure about this new career, but soon became enthused, first by a tutor at Sussex, Neville West, and then by his placement in a Brighton primary school. Armed with certificates, he and his partner – also a newly qualified teacher – started to look for jobs in the same part of the country, and Hampshire was the first to offer them both work.

By 1995, he was head of a school in Gosport, and he moved to be head at Redlands in 2000. It wasn't a failing school, but it wasn't a particularly successful one, either. It had a poor reputation: parents would try to get their children into other schools. Inspectors called it "satisfactory" – now they call it "outstanding". As leafy Hampshire goes, it is not in a wealthy area, and one-fifth of the children are eligible for free school meals. Harcombe explains: "I wanted to be head of this school, it had a nice feel to it. There's a real sense of community around here. If you haven't got parents on side, forget it. I tightened up the teaching, and raised expectations among children and parents. High expectations is the key."

Brought up in Liverpool, with no tradition of higher education in his own family, he was inspired by his primary school teachers, and wants to do the same for his pupils. "I want people to be able to say afterwards that their school encouraged them."

Redlands is winning back the pupils who would have gone to neighbouring schools, and he can take his pick of the teaching talent locally, because he has a reputation for encouraging and supporting his staff, and giving them what they want.

One teacher says: "We wanted whiteboards and more computer equipment – an investment of £2,000 in every room. We told Kevin, and he found a way to pay for it."

The new computer room, as well as the well-equipped music room, would be the envy of many primary schools in the UK.

Staff like the fact that he wants to develop their skills, likes sending them on courses, and makes sure that they don't get stale. "He's a strong head, respectful of children, and brings out the best in children and staff," says another teacher.

Teachers also like the fact that Harcombe takes on himself the occasional child with real behavioural problems, and generally manages to do something about it. He knows that the teacher needs relief from such a child sometimes, and that the child needs special help and a lot of patience.

In the staffroom, teachers recalled one boy whom they all dreaded teaching. One day, Harcombe tactfully took him away, taught him to play the guitar, and told him how good he was at it. The change in the boy's behaviour was immediate.

Harcombe says: "Sometimes a child comes from another school with a dreadful reputation for behaviour, but he's a pussycat here because we treat him with respect and expect respect back."

He isn't a so-called superhead, rushing in and clearing out all the old staff – in fact, some of his most valued teachers were there before he was, and he dislikes the superhead concept. Nonetheless, at the age of 50 he has been named primary headteacher of the year in the 2007 Teaching Awards. His staff are delighted. The children are tickled, too. "Mr Harcombe gets in lots of newspapers and he's won awards," says Robert, one of four children aged nine and 10 who were detailed to show me round.

"He always has a smile on his face," says Hannah. She is on the school council, where "we talk about what we can do better with the school grounds". There was a little hill in the playground, now demolished, and the council is much occupied with the debate about what will replace it, she tells me.

Kayleigh explains Pupil Voice. Small groups gather with a senior teacher and make suggestions to improve things. They might say that a particular teacher's methods are not working. And changes happen. "You don't see it at once, but you do after a couple of weeks," says Kayleigh.

In the staffroom I'm told: "When we come up with ideas, he gets in behind us." Maybe that's half the secret of Harcombe's success: when pupils and teachers talk, he listens. And when he plays piano or guitar, they listen.