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Two leaders among schools

by
14 June 2012

by Margaret Holness

THE National Teaching Schools scheme, where outstanding schools provide training and support to staff from other schools, is less than a year old. It stems from the belief that the answer to the problems that beset edu­­cation lies not in theory but in extensive experience of the chalk face.

The long-term aim is to create a network of 500 Teaching Schools which is linked to every school in the country. The National College for School Leadership (NCSL), respon­sible for the scheme, emphasises its overarching moral purpose. The NCSL deputy-chief executive, Toby Salt, puts it simply: “More and more of our school leaders are recognis-ing that they have a responsibility, almost a moral obligation, to work beyond their own school for the benefit of all.”

The first 100 National Teaching Schools were announced in July 2011. All were chosen because they met the prescribed requirements: an outstanding inspection report; ex­peri­ence of training teachers; and an outstanding head teacher.

Two Church of England schools among them were Bransgore C of E Primary School, an academy on the edge of the New Forest, and St Mary­le­bone C of E School, Westminster, which has a large sixth form.

Although one is a rural primary, and the other an inner-city, multi­cultural secondary, these schools have much in common. Both are 19th-century Anglican foundations with the original buildings still in use; both run established teacher-training courses, and have a network of partner schools, and experience in helping weaker establish­ments.

Moreover, neither are the middle-class enclaves of secularist myth­ology. Bransgore and St Marylebone both have socially mixed school communities. While some children come from affluent families, many pupils, in both schools, qualify for free school meals, and have special needs of one kind or another. At St Marylebone, many do not speak English as a first language.

Both are oversubscribed. And both have head teachers who have been designated national school-leaders by the NCSL. They also have a repu­ta­tion for innovation.

BRANSGORE itself was a “failing” school when the head, Peter Pretlove, took it over 12 years ago, leaving his former job as a local-authority inspector. Now it is a top-ranking primary, sharing its Teaching School role with a former community com­prehensive in nearby Ringwood.

It is also in partnership with 19 other schools in Hampshire and Dorset. As the hub for the South Coast SCITT (School-Centred Initial Teacher Training Scheme), it is pre­paring 35 postgraduate trainees for a career in the classroom.

Mr Pretlove and members of his staff also support another C of E primary, Oak Meadow, which was forced to become an academy after its results fell below the government benchmark — a move he regards as rather brutal. “Failing schools have enough to do to improve without taking on a new structure imposed from outside,” he says. “Fortunately, the diocese [Winchester] is the lead sponsor, and we are helping out. So we’re keeping it in the family.”

Rather like the Revd Henry Wil­berforce (son of the anti-slavery campaigner William), who founded Bransgore school in 1841, Mr Pretlove believes strongly in the place of “muscular Christianity” in driving out inequality in education.

“Christianity isn’t wishy-washy: it does mean giving hard messages that people don’t want to hear, but it’s also about meeting needs. So, if pupils haven’t had breakfast before they come to school, we feed them, and if they don’t have uniform, we provide it.”

In fact, the school goes further, keeping a store of basic household necessities — bedding and washing machines, for example — for families that need them.

ABOUT ten per cent of Bransgore’s pupils come from settled local Gypsy families, whose New Forest roots go back 1000 years. Their way of life was upset when they were moved from caravans to council houses in the 1970s, but they trust the school, and their children now attend regularly.

Two sisters from the Gypsy com­munity now work with the student teachers, explaining their traditions and correcting what they see as misleading impressions given by certain TV programmes. One of them is Ann O’Donoghue, whose three sons have all attended Brans­gore. “We talk to the students about our own experiences in education, and about our traditions, which are really valued now.”

“There’s a lot of rural poverty that isn’t widely recognised,” Mr Pretlove says. His attitude seems a 21st-century echo of the views of William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, who believed that people could not hear the gospel while their stomachs were rumbling.

But, of course, his main task is education, and at Bransgore robust efforts are made to level the playing field for all pupils. Perhaps the most unusual of several strategies that the school uses to achieve this goal is what Mr Pretlove refers to as “elocution” lessons for the younger children.

It is not that he wants them to talk “posh”, but he does want them to speak standard English. “If children say ‘innit’, that’s what they write — reinforcing disadvantage,” he says. Many also come to school with poor language skills, because they have not been talked to enough. So, each day, foundation-stage pupils en­counter “Mr Tongue”, an initiative developed with Southampton Health Trust.

The project improves children’s pro­nunciation, and extends their language. “Mr Tongue” is now the subject of a research project by staff and trainee teachers. If the research demonstrates its success, the know­how will be passed on to other schools in the network by Brans­gore’s specialist teachers.

The project improves children’s pro­nunciation, and extends their language. “Mr Tongue” is now the subject of a research project by staff and trainee teachers. If the research demonstrates its success, the know­how will be passed on to other schools in the network by Brans­gore’s specialist teachers.

ST MARYLEBONE SCHOOL is near-legendary in London. Its West End location belies the fact that 40 per cent of its students receive free school meals — a standard indica­tion of dis­advantage — and, for about half the school, English is not the pupils’ home language.

But the school’s story is not about disadvantage; rather, it is one of astonishing achievement: academ­ically, in art, drama, and music; in other stretching activities, such as its own World Challenge project, which, last year, took 13 girls on a strenuous trek in Peru; or in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme.

St Marylebone also has Specialist School status for the creative arts, maths and computing, and special needs, and trains teachers through the much-praised Teach First pro­gramme.

“I agree with the whole philo­sophy of putting schools at the forefront of training teachers,” St Marylebone’s long-standing head teacher, Elizabeth Phillips, says. “Prac­tising teachers are best placed to know what is needed, and give advice. The fact that we are a church school is separate from our Teaching School role, but it does add a spiritual dimension.”

One of the school’s two deputy heads, Peter Jordan, is in charge of the Teaching School, devoting three days a week to the job. “It’s like managing a small local authority,” he says. St Marylebone, like all Teaching Schools, is at the hub of 12 “Alliance” schools, which include two primar­ies, and a special school, as well as nine other secondaries in west and north London. Other strategic partners in­clude the Institute of Education, Teach First, and the school improve­ment organisations Babcock and e-qualitas.

THE assets that Mr Jordan calls on are, essentially, the expertise and experience of staff across the cur­riculum. Out of a teaching staff of 104, 15 are advanced-skills teachers (ASTs). Only one other school in the country has more.

“If, say, an OFSTED inspection highlights a particular weakness in one of our Alliance schools,” he says, “they can negotiate with us for help. It might mean sending in an expert teacher for a day — or for six months.” A specialist English teacher is currently spending one afternoon a week, for eight weeks, in an Alli­ance prim­ary school that wanted help with extending children’s writing.

The teacher-training programme means that, most years, the school has about 12 PGCE students, either through Teach First or through place­ments from the London In­stitute.

A current St Marylebone research project is investigating how far trainee teachers’ own classroom practice is improved by observing outstanding teachers. Other teachers are involved in research into the introduction of teaching of modern foreign languages in primary schools.

The research results will be evalu­ated by another teaching school. Teaching Schools are expected to pool skills, and support each other, as well as their alliance partners.

Not the least important aspect of Mr Jordan’s Teaching School status is balancing the books. In the first year of the scheme, each Teaching School received funds of £60,000. This allocation will be reduced annually by £10,000 until, in 2017, no govern­ment money will be needed, the Government hopes.

By then, it is envisaged, it will be self-funding. The Teaching Schools are expected to charge fees for professional advice, and run courses and conferences. St Marylebone has already had some success in this area; it is now working on a commission from a school on the south coast.

Mr Jordan says that the demands of running the Teaching School make it, professionally, the most chal­lenging job in his career so far. The expert teachers on whom the scheme relies also relish the recognition of their professional judgement, he says. But it goes further than that: “As a school, we buy into the moral purpose that underpins the whole programme.”

Mr Jordan says that the demands of running the Teaching School make it, professionally, the most chal­lenging job in his career so far. The expert teachers on whom the scheme relies also relish the recognition of their professional judgement, he says. But it goes further than that: “As a school, we buy into the moral purpose that underpins the whole programme.”

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