Top marks for a lesson in leadership

Top marks for a lesson in leadership 
 
The Herald
28.06.06
 
 
This Glasgow secondary school has just received an unprecedented outstanding report. Why? Jennifer Cunningham spent a day with the pioneering headmaster who turned it around.


It is 7.30am and Bruce Malone’s tall frame is at full stretch in the large central hall at St Andrew’s Secondary School in Carntyne, Glasgow. With the help of senior janitor George Ross, he is putting the latest batch of commemorative snaps on a display board. This time it is of the graduation mass, which took place two days earlier. The photographs of the prom the night before that, with sixth-year girls in their ball-gown finery, are already on the wall.


‘I could get someone else to do this, but there is a certain art to it,’ he says, demonstrating immediately the hands-on (some pupils might argue controlling) style of the headteacher, whose school has just become the first in Scotland to achieve five ‘excellent’ ratings from the inspectors. As we head towards his office, he adds that the job sometimes seems to run round the clock. He’s normally in school by 7am, he says, although later the janitors tell me that 6.30am is not unknown, and there are a number of evening commitments apart from the prom. Tonight there’s a retirement dinner for a member of staff; then the school show is on for three nights.


The headteacher’s office is right opposite the front entrance of the school, which was built four years ago for £12m under the public-private partnership. From his desk in the corner, at present crowded with cards congratulating him on the inspection results, he has a bird’s-eye view of teachers, pupils and visitors as they come in and go out. Whatever he’s doing is interrupted with waves, greetings and updates as staff arrive for the day.


Around 8am he has a daily meeting with the senior deputy head, Ken McCrossan, and takes time to check his e-mails and phone parents who want to speak directly to him directly. If necessary, he schedules 7am meetings with parents whose work commitments mean they are not available during the day.


Between 8.30am and the bell at 8.50pm, Malone moves out to the gate to greet children coming in. He keeps up a near constant stream of ‘Morning boys. Hi there, girls.’


The friendly tone is punctuated by a beckoning gesture every so often as a child with a tie at half mast is asked to tighten it up. They know what he’s going to say and a few habitual offenders sidle past in the hope of avoiding censure. Few escape. For my benefit, a couple of individuals are also singled out for their achievements. A girl who is in the school’s very successful basketball team is going to have a trial for a Scottish team place and a boy who is the percussionist for the school show is passionate about playing the drums. ‘I think he could make it as a professional musician,’ Malone says when he’s gone. If he does not, it won’t be for lack of encouragement in his early years.


A few younger boys are stopped and asked: ‘Where were you at lunchtime yesterday?’ since reports of a group hanging around further afield than the neighbourhood shops have reached the head. One protests that he wasn’t at school because he was sick and the head changes tone. After he’s gone, Malone says that his actions will at least prevent any future excursions.
He’s evangelical about behaviour standards – and that starts with uniform. No deviation is tolerated.


A small lad wearing trainers is asked why – and told to get himself some shoes by next term.


‘St Andrew’s is a package. You can’t pick and mix. You have to wear uniform and you have to accept that we have very high standards for all our pupils,’ says Malone, who aims to get 99% of pupils in full school uniform and, extraordinarily, achieves this target. Perhaps this is because he’s not afraid to say that if you don’t like it, you can go elsewhere. As he speaks, his point is underlined by the arrival of a coach, paid for by parents to bring their children from outwith the catchment area.
 
We return briefly to the office to check for urgent messages and e-mails before he takes assembly. There is a year group assembly every morning in the oratory with a prayer and an address on the theme for the week. Malone welcomes the relatively small group of fifth and sixth-year pupils (at this point in the term, some are away on trips), leads the prayers and gives them a short address on the need for everyone to take responsibility for their own health. Then they are dismissed to a talk from a Strathclyde University contact about a scheme for future engineering students to spend a salaried year in industry first.


‘It’s a great scheme, but I secretly worry whether once they are used to earning money, they will be reluctant to go back to education,’ he says as we head back to the office, this time for him to broadcast the morning prayer over the tannoy. With more than 25% of the school’s pupils now going into higher education, university links are keenly cultivated. National exam league tables are measured in percentage terms of the S4 roll, which means St Andrew’s, with a catchment which includes a number of areas multiple deprivation, won’t be at the top. Yet a significant proportion of their fifth and sixth- year pupils do well.


By 9.30am it’s time for a morning catch-up with his administrative staff. With a school roll of 1600, the office is large and busy. The staff includes two attendance officers who follow up pupils who have not been registered that morning. Then his recce round the classrooms begins. Since they moved into the showpiece building, headteacher, staff and pupils have all become used to giving visitors a guided tour, but they are also used to the head’s habit of looking in unannounced as he regularly checks the progress of this vast learning operation. They’re unfazed when he introduces a stranger and encourages me to chat to children in second year English classes. In each one, the atmosphere is of quiet concentration. ‘In core subjects such as English, we put them in classes according to ability at this stage,’ explains Malone, adding that those who are really struggling are also allowed – with their parents’ permission – to drop Spanish for extra English and maths.


As the bell sounds for the end of the first period, the head stations himself at the junction of three corridors. His large presence is enough to ensure orderly progress is maintained and there’s no shoving. Within about a minute, we have a group of four girls behind us, who have been told to present themselves when they think their ties are the right length. As the stream of pupils thins out in front of us, the head turns to the tie-adjusters, who are now happily assisting each other, and slightly raises his voice from his normal low, calm tone. ‘Girls, what do you think this is – Topshop?’


They pass on quickly, knowing when they’re beaten. My protestations that teenage girls throughout the country have an ability to combine wearing their ties at half mast while still passing their Highers cuts no ice at all.


On tour again, he shows off the impressive facilities in the computer, music and art departments. There are state-of-the-art computers in each, with software which allows composition. ‘The senior management team came in during the holidays to install the programmes, in order to get them up and running,’ he says. In fact, the school is exceptionally well-provided for in terms of ancillary staff. There are six technicians, a health promotion officer whose positive messages replace those of the traditional school nurse, and a business manager, who has responsibility for liaison with the primary and nursery schools which make up the St Andrew’s ‘new learning community’.


Malone returns to his office for another check on phone calls and messages and a second cup of coffee, which is his fuel for the day. My questioning about the recent inspection is interrupted by a warning to drink up because the morning interval is coming up at 10.45am, and we are due back out on surveillance duty.


For 15 minutes, pupils from all years mingle in the hall or the area immediately outside, chatting or munching snacks provided by the kitchen. They range from rolls and sausage to crisps, with only a few chocolate-covered bars in evidence. Water is freely available all day, as well as milk and orange juice at break times.


Malone slips off into the crowd to buttonhole someone he wants to speak to. Ken McCrossan, the deputy head, has positioned himself strategically to prevent people cutting across the doorway as people go out and in. He has been teaching at St Andrew’s for 26 years – 11 of them before Malone’s arrival as head. Is it true, therefore, that the head turned round an under-performing school? ‘The numbers speak for themselves,’ he says of a roll that has doubled and attracted placing requests from outside the catchment area. The secret cannot be simply defined, he says, except as leadership.


Observation suggests it is largely due to Malone’s tangible presence. Discussing the inspection, Malone says that the inspectors’ approach of going unannounced into classrooms for unspecified lengths of time more or less mirrored his own. He has no hesitation in opening a door and asking a teacher who is in mid-sentence if everything is all right.
So does anyone ever say no? ‘Sometimes, a teacher will say they have had to warn a particular group of pupils about their behaviour,’ he says, in which case, he has no hesitation in walking in and sorting them out.


At 12.50pm, it’s lunchtime. Malone does not eat in the canteen, although he encourages his pupils to go for one of the healthy-eating options prepared by the kitchen staff. If they choose one of the main courses or a mix of soup, sandwich and fruit, they earn points which lead to covetable prizes including Ipods and Xboxes. His normal practice is to go to the neighbourhood shops, not only to keep an eye on his charges, but to warn off the local neds. ‘Our children are told to ignore them, which they do, but it can be quite difficult if they know them from outside of school,’ he says.


Then he’s in the dining hall distributing tickets for the matinee of the school show, but ‘certain people won’t get them – and they will be told why’.


By 3.30pm, he’s out at the pedestrian crossing to make sure everyone goes straight across the road, with no danger. It’s Friday night, and next week is the last of the term. He’ll take a week off and then it’s back to school to plan for next year.


This Glasgow secondary school has just received an unprecedented outstanding report. Why? Jennifer Cunningham spent a day with the pioneering headmaster who turned it around.