Joan McVittie: 'We all want the best for our pupils'

The new headteachers' leader has transformed a failing school and counts the controversial Ofsted head as a friend. But that doesn't mean they give each other an easy ride, she tells Richard Garner.

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It could be a daunting moment for the two 15-year-olds concerned. They will have the task of chaperoning 900 or so headteachers at the annual conference of the Association of School and College Leaders this weekend – and introducing guest speakers such as new chief schools inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw and Education Secretary, Michael Gove.

It will in a sense, though, mark a coming of age for the duo, Mehreen Sattar and Jack Buck Reed, their school and their head's attempts to turn it round. The head in question is Joan McVittie, head of Woodside High school in Tottenham, north London, and the president of ASCL.

Aged 59, Joan arrived as the new head six years ago when the school was languishing at the bottom of the league tables. She had toyed with the idea of taking on a headship in the leafier suburbs but decided that the pupils there could succeed without her help and opted for one more challenge before retirement.

Now, despite the deprived neighbourhood it serves, Woodside does better than the national average in securing five A* to C grade passes at GCSE including maths and English.

Joan can recall regularly getting calls from the London Evening Standard and being asked what she thought about the rankings "as the head of the worst school in London".

"What had happened was there had been an absence of leadership and the teachers' unions had stepped into the void and were managing the school," she explains. "I had to take back control of the school myself and introduce my own initiatives. I also listened to the children. They said 'change the name', 'give us a new uniform', so I did."

It had been called White Hart Lane school and the reasons for the pupils' request were twofold: one, they felt the image of the school was poor but two, many of them were Arsenal fans and did not like the association with Tottenham's home ground.

In addition, she brought five teachers under the Teach First scheme into the classroom. "They had a really 'can do' attitude," she says, "and were soon arranging a joint production with St Marylebone Church of England school at the Roundhouse. It was music and dance and it gave the pupils a lift."

It ended eventually with the school being given an outstanding ranking in its latest inspection by Ofsted. Here is the rub, though: it won an outstanding nomination despite not being ranked in the top sphere for teaching. This has meant it will have to be reinspected by one of her guests at the conference, Sir Michael Wilshaw, who has decreed that – in future – no school can be ranked outstanding if its teaching is not also outstanding. "I didn't feel like quibbling with Ofsted at the time," says Joan. "We had been given a top ranking in everything else and it seemed churlish to quibble with them over that." She has, however, asked for a re-inspection in an attempt to get teaching-school status for Woodside High.

Her path and that of Sir Michael Wilshaw have crossed several times and she counts him as a firm friend. She was called in by him during his spell as head of St Bonaventure' Catholic boys' school in Forest Gate, east London (where his efforts in turning it around earned him a knighthood). She was head of biology for two years and saw the results improve from 30 per cent of pupils getting five A* to Cs to 62 per cent. Later, she became his deputy when he was seconded to Eastleigh school in Canning Town to turn it round. She eventually became its head.

"He has an uncanny knack of knowing when you might need help," she says. "If you do, the phone rings and it's him."

That is not the side of Sir Michael that too many heads have seen in the three months since he succeeded to the post of chief inspector, with his insistence on no-notice inspections, warnings that there are 5,000 heads who are not up to scratch and abolition of the term "satisfactory" to describe a school and its replacement with "requires improvement".

"He's a very good headteacher but he is creating havoc for me," she says. "People say, 'can't you keep him under control?' but the Government cannot control him, so there's not much chance that I can. He's a maverick. He's actually putting out the concerns about the quality of education that some people have. What he's got to remember is that the majority of heads and schools have actually moved a long way and are making really good progress."

Which brings us to the second keynote speaker at her conference – Mr Gove himself. She lists the concerns that heads have over the Government's reforms: teaching standards, the exam and national curriculum reviews, changes to pensions. "I think there has been a huge amount of fluctuation and change in the system," she says. "It makes people feel very uncertain and threatened. Take the pensions situation: there's a realisation that things need to change but that's just one more thing for people to deal with."

The ASCL has eschewed industrial action – unlike the other major headteachers' organisation, the National Association of Head Teachers. That does not mean, its leaders argue, that they are happy about the situation.

"Michael Gove came to my school and my children liked him but he is responsible for some of the negativity that's been created. We all want the best for our children and we want to support colleagues in schools that aren't doing as well as they might."

A different approach to the iron fist, which is more like a velvet glove, might reap dividends, she argues. She recalls when the London Challenge, which first introduced the TeachFirst scheme to London schools, was launched.

"Failing schools were called the keys to success," she says. "Just imagine if you were asked to take on the job of heading a failing school, wouldn't you feel better about the challenge if it was put to you what you were doing was part of the key to success? That was one of the reasons that I agreed to take on my present school."

This weekend's conference in Manchester has all the hallmarks of being a landmark occasion for the education system. It will be the first time heads, the chief inspector and the Secretary of State have engaged in public debate since the full extent of the Government's agenda was realised.

Let us hope that the chaperones from Woodside High School remind all the participants, who are the most important people in the education service, what they should all be really about.