31 Mar '13

News Failing schools and shifting education policy: lessons from my headship

In 2007 RJ Mitchell primary school in Essex was under threat of closure. Head Barry Read explains why he took on the job and how he turned the school into a shining example of success

Can you tell us a bit about your teaching background?

My mum is a teacher and when I finished my history degree I went along to work at her school as a midday supervisor, that's when I found out I wanted to teach. I started off as nursery teacher in Camden. Then I met an Essex girl and went to Southend where I got a job at Vange primary school. In those days I worked with lots of older teachers and on courses I was so often the only man in the room - but I didn't want to be judged on my novelty factor. I do think my background in foundation has had a huge impact on me. It's the home of personalised learning. If the kids are into dinosaurs then you set up a dinosaur table. Foundation is where all the questions start, all the thinking and the 'thunking' can begin, so don't stop there.

Was it your plan to become a head?

Not really but it happened. I went from nursery to head of key stage one and then became a deputy head in Thurrock for nearly five years.

In 2007 RJ Mitchell Primary school was under threat of closure with a low satisfactory rating. Were you the head at that time?

No, I came a few months later. The school had just seen off threat of closure after the parents marched to the town hall. When I came the school was very old fashioned. No one had really looked at the SATS results or seen the downward trajectory. There were no schemes of work and the management was very top heavy. The aim of the school had been to keep the kids squeaky clean and silent. Some very good staff had really been bullied by the previous management. So I arrived to quiet and ordered children and a fairly low morale despite surviving closure. It was a challenge but I knew I would love working here. I could see where I could make changes and I liked the staff I met. My deputy head had been acting head and was rather hostile to this blue eyed boy coming in - but she was due to retire in July when I started in January. It was a difficult first few months. But other staff would take me aside and back me up. We have a magnificent SEN coordinator, Margaret McCarthy, without whom we couldn't have come so far. In the September I appointed my new deputy, Kevin Lee.

How important is a supportive and like-minded deputy and SLT?

Vital. With Kevin I could see immediately there was a connection. We thought alike, we have a similar vision. When I'm not here I know Kevin will make similar decisions to me. As a head you need to rely so much on your SLT.

How did you start building morale of teachers, parents and pupils?

In this school, the pupils and parents weren't the problem, it was the policies of the school that were at fault. For example the parents had to drop their (in some cases crying) children off at the gate and were not allowed in the classroom. The parents really wanted to be more involved, they felt so ostracised. One parent wrote to me and said I had put the heart back into the school - I kept that note, it meant a lot to me. The pupils were very quiet. I like children to talk and want them to enthuse about their learning. I want deep thinking. As a nation I think we like shallow thinking and find deep thinking rather awkward but children naturally want to ask questions and I'm all ears.

What's your management style?

When you do your head training they talk about leaders who are too collegiate. But I don't think this is possible. If you are like me and are passionate and care deeply about things and people, well why shouldn't you share that with your staff? So why is Dylan William's Assessment for learning worth doing in class? Because it will yield great results in the classroom. If you take the time to explain the reason why doing something is important and teachers can see it will help, they will want to buy into it. I try and start from the positive, so look at the children who have made excellent progress in your class, can we try and work out how to make the magic work for the pupils who aren't doing so well? If people are involved in the process then it's more likely to work. Communication is never perfect, you've got to keep trying.

What are your key strategies for moving the school forward?

It's been a combination of factors. We have a great team here and we have worked really hard to get our 97% in English and maths. There's no doubt that our partnership with EdisonLearning has really helped us raise the bar.

EdisonLearning is our school improvement partner (SIP). It is a private company so you have to buy into them and it's not cheap to start with but worth every penny. When we first started with Edison it cost us £25K a year because we were a single school in the area signing up, normally three schools will club together. But now we pay £5k a year on an advisory level and it makes a huge impact. They work with the school on a five strand approach; leadership and management, core learning skills, learning environments, student and family support system and a connected curriculum.

It takes a lot of work off our shoulders so we can get on with running the school. My SIP used to be another headteacher but she had her own school to run so when Ofsted asked her about specific issues with years 3 and 4 she wouldn't know in detail which doesn't look good. Sometimes you visit schools and feel the headteacher is on the edge and really needs that critical friend.

How difficult is it to be a head these days?

I love my job so much. It frustrates me to hear people be so negative about teaching even though I know it's a hard job. I'm saddened by headteachers who have been flattened and lost the will to fight. I'm a trade union man and do believe we've got to fight the fight. When I'm presented with a new strategy from on high the first thing I do is question: "Is it statutory? Do I have to do it?" When you delve a bit deeper you often find that what comes as a rule actually isn't one. A great example is pay reviews. You are actually allowed to keep the point system - even though it's presented as a fait accompli that you can't. As a head you have to stand up for your rights and the rights of teachers at your school and what you believe in.

You have to have a good management structure. You have times when you feel everyone around you is giving you a hard time. At the end of the day all the government wants is the scores on the doors - if you can get the results then there is room for manoeuvre.

How do you keep on top of all the changes in education?

What I'm learning, and I wasn't good at this in the beginning, is you have to stop, pause and reflect. As a headteacher problems hit you thick and fast. It's tempting to firefight and deal with these as quickly as possible but it's not always the right thing to do. Sometimes you can make decisions too quickly. Getting a good Ofsted does buy you reflecting time, it's much harder when you are in special measures.

The support of other heads is really important. I've just taken the chair of Headspace which is an organisation set up to help heads help each other. A group of heads across boroughs meet up once a term away from school, usually in a hotel, and have a morning together to off-load and talk about the issues that come up when you are a head in a place where you feel comfortable. Heads of schools have so many people to deal with and often don't know who to trust fully with confidences.

How positive do you feel about the future of education?

I'm positive about the future despite the challenges. I know it's really hard and so many things are thrown at schools but you can make most of them work for you and your school. For example the ridiculous phonics tests in year 1. After all the upset about it, ask yourself what difference has that made to the school? Not much. The new primary curriculum is another example. It's going to be hard and I totally disagree with the philosophy behind it, I don't think children should learn lists of dates and kings and queens, but we're not going to stop being creative because of the new curriculum.

There are great frustrations in the job. I have experienced rude and difficult Ofsted inspectors, I even complained about one once - not that it was upheld or even acknowledged. But I do my best to raise above other people if I need to. If I feel I've acted professionally then that's fine. You have a lot of power as a head and you have to work with the system. Anyone who has been in the game for a while will have seen many politicians, education secretaries and policies come and go. What about Rose's new curriculum? It was beautifully printed out and sent to every school then the Conservatives won the election and just stopped it before we'd even had a chance to digest it. When Tony Blair was elected it seemed we were on the brink of a bright new future, but it's unbelievable how little impact was made on the system. We've got to work through it and work out how we are going to inspire those little people we've got running around in our playgrounds. That's why we became teachers in the first place.

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