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18 JULY 2000
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school communities

Climbing Everests at William Gee School

A large school undergoes a rethink of its mission. Steve Cook, Headmaster of William Gee School, reports ...

Anyone who experienced Chris Bonington's recent address will have appreciated the difficulties facing climbers attempting an assault on the world's highest mountain. It was clear that the only people who would succeed would be teams made up of:

1. Skilful people, with

2. A clear vision of what they wanted to achieve, who had

3. Planned carefully but flexibly to allow for challenging circumstances.

They would need to have:

4. Total commitment to each other as a team, and

5. The very best equipment.

Every day, schools face a Mount Everest as they strive to achieve the very best for their pupils, often in very difficult circumstances and without adequate resources. At William Gee School, an all-boys comprehensive school serving the City of Hull, the Investment in Excellence programme has helped us to face our Everests with confidence and an expectation of success. In September 1993, the whole staff spent two training days together trying to create a shared vision of "What is a great school?" and “What do we need to do to make William Gee a great school?" Out of these two days came a five-year School Development Plan which acknowledged that:

"The only way that a school can achieve its aims is through the efforts and commitment of its teaching and non-teaching staff" and ...

"Synergy – with everyone pulling in the same direction – would enable the team to achieve results way beyond the sum of the individual contributions."

We also agreed on five' core objectives' for the school:

  1. To establish a management and staffing structure to support the effective development of the school.

  2. To initiate a professional development strategy to maximise the effectiveness of the school's greatest asset – its staff.

  3. To improve pupil self esteem, motivation, attitudes and behaviour.

  4. To increase the effectiveness/ appropriateness of the learning activities offered to the pupils.

  5. To make the physical environment safer, tidier, more attractive and more stimulating.

That was the easy bit done. We now had a picture of the side of the mountain we wanted to climb. But how were we going to get to the top, which looked pretty daunting!

We had a good start because we had an excellent skilful team of teaching and non-teaching staff. After our two days together we had started to create and share a vision of how the school would look in the future. As the leader of the “expedition" I had decided on the route we would take – the slightly longer but safer Investors in People route. This required that everyone in the organisation would know (and share) the objectives of the school. That each individual would know what their role was in trying to achieve these objectives, and that everyone would be involved in the training needed to enable them to do their job successfully.

Next was the commitment to each other as a team. We had ensured that every member of staff, teaching and non-teaching, had shared in those first two training days. Previously as in many schools, the non-teaching staff had felt something like second class citizens. We established a set of values for the school which we have tried to live to since.

A recent school inspection confirmed this:

"There is a clear set of values for the school community and the pastoral care system is good ... moral development is accepted as an important principle in school life and much energy is being used to publicise the school's values and make them explicit."

All we were short of now was the right equipment; even skilful people cannot operate successfully without that. For us, the right equipment was the Investment in Excellence program, giving us the tools to succeed.

Starting point
Formerly Hull Grammar School with five hundred years of history, the school had lost its name and identity in the Hull Schools' reorganisation. The almost totally new staff drawn from all over the City pulled together to achieve a good deal of success. Over the next five years the pupil intake started to change with an increased proportion of youngsters with learning and behavioural difficulties arriving each year. By 1993 there was a significant feeling of “We might be fighting a losing battle here".

Investment in Excellence (IIE) has given the staff the tools to change, it has helped us to regain control of our lives and the confidence to believe that we can succeed and continue to improve each year.

First the Senior Managers were introduced to IIE. Next IIE was offered to a small number of teaching and non-teaching staff. The resultant buzz produced more requests than places and the only way demand could be satisfied was by offering IIE over two weekends. Since staff were giving up two full weekends it seemed only fair to make it a really positive experience. We booked the whole of Rudston Walk Hotel, a beautiful small country hotel with excellent food – a fair exchange for their commitment!

The results exceeded all expectations. The experience of twenty four people from the same school working and living together for a weekend engendered such a 'team spirit' that it actually enhanced IIE itself as they shared the experience. Their responses back at school were so positive, we arranged a second programme for many others who now wanted to experience the programme for themselves. Also, this method enabled almost all of the staff to experience the programme in a much shorter time, with less disruption to lessons.

Staff growth
Once staff had experienced IIE there was a significant 'whole school' change in attitude. Relationships among staff and between staff and pupils started to focus on the positive. Anyone slipping into a downward spiral was lifted by others.

An internal inspector's evaluation commented.

"Not surprisingly the impact of IIE varied by individual: for some the impact was profound, for others the IIE 'message' confirmed previously held beliefs and values. Without exception, those interviewed in the school were positively disposed towards the training and all staff claimed that it had impacted on their professional work and personal life in some way."

A common feature was a desire to take on extra responsibility and a realisation by staff that they could achieve higher standards, 'become excellent'. The many positive quotes from staff included:

Several teachers spoke of a more positive atmosphere in the staff room:

We now wanted to enable the youngsters to access the curriculum. A start was made in Year 7 (11-year-olds), who experienced a modified “It Starts With Me" programme. The results were almost unbelievable, and post-programme tests of self esteem showed an average increase of 20%. Many visitors have been to the school to speak to teachers and pupils about their experiences and the effect of these programmes on their lives. An Education Officer from Avon spoke to some Year 7 boys and afterwards said “I felt quite immature alongside them." Boys have learned to evaluate feedback and make a conscious decision whether to accept it or not. They are more confident and have learned to reduce confrontation and increase co-operation.

Our inspection report confirmed:

"There's is little evidence of bullying but any bullying that occurs is dealt with quickly and the positive behaviour policy has encouraged pupils to be more proactive in handling situations that may arise."

We spent two days recently revisiting IIE with the staff and refocusing the vision. We then set up a trial of a new upgraded version of Pathways to Excellence (produced by one of our staff) with our Year 10 (14-year-old boys).

We don't know where all this will end. What we do know is, as Chris Bonington said, “There is always another mountain to climb." The difference now is that the staff and pupils at William Gee enjoy climbing mountains together.

From Education News

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