July 3, 2008

In It for the Long Run

South West Headteacher of the Year Steve Baker did not rest on his laurels after he was presented with a trophy in the teaching profession's equivalent of the Oscars.

He was crowned the best headteacher of a secondary school in the region at a glitzy afternoon shindig held at Torquay's Riviera Centre.

Most professionals - journalists especially - would have written off the day and come back home worse for wear on a late train.

But the principal of Lipson Community College went straight back to school with his Plato trophy in hand, attended a governors' meeting, a school awards ceremony and then went to a rehearsal for a play. That finished at about 9.15pm.

Judges said that Mr Baker, 50, had led the school to a host of accolades and created a real buzz around the campus, breaking the mould and pushing the boundaries.

Lipson Community College is used to taking success at the awards in its stride. The awards scheme has only been running 10 years but there are seven regional winners on the staff.

Much as Alex Ferguson's players at Manchester United have gone on to manage their own clubs, nine of Mr Baker's staff have gone on to be headteachers elsewhere - including John Didymus at Ridgeway and Wendy Brett at Sir John Hunt.

The school was one of a handful in the country to be awarded an outstanding grade in every category at its last Ofsted inspection. These are the highest possible marks from the education watchdog.

No wonder Mr Baker gets animated at mention of the 'F' word - not to mention the 'C' word.

His message is that Lipson Community College is not failing and it certainly is not going to close.

He said parents had been worried about the school's future after education minister Ed Balls launched his National Challenge.

Under the scheme, schools where fewer than 30 per cent of youngsters fail to get at least five C grades in their GCSEs, including English and maths, could face closure or being taken over by private firms as academies, or form trusts.

Lipson Community College and five other Plymouth schools found themselves in that category: but, he said, the school had already launched its own plans to become a co-operative trust and Plymouth City Council had also unveiled its own education strategy.

Mr Baker said: "We have 1,400 students at this school. The idea that we will close is absolute nonsense."

Too much of a politician to attack the Government, Mr Baker instead produces heartfelt letters from students and parents in support of the school.

Year 11 girls Jessica Smith and Megan McCarthy said that the school was "being victimised by a failing Government to win back voters", and described their school not as a "Government-run building" but as "a family".

The school has sent a detailed information pack to parents outlining its future plans.

As a trust school, it would not be getting into bed with a private company which would supply most of the governors and control policy, as would happen were it to seek academy status.

Trust schools would continue to be maintained by the local authority but would become foundation schools supported by a charitable trust. The trust's governing body would employ its own staff.

Mr Baker said that securing trust status would not make much difference to the day-to-day running of the school.

He added that the school was looking to forge links in the trust, including with its feeder primaries, Plymouth College of Art and Design, the Racial Equality Council and the Barbican Theatre.

Mr Baker said he was still confident of hitting the heights being demanded of him by the Government.

"Three to four per cent of students used to get the magic five A to Cs", he said.

"Now half our students get that each and every year.

"The Government was threatening to close schools that failed to reach 20 per cent of students achieving A to C grades, not including English and maths.

"Ten years later, we are more than double that figure. We are going to hit this challenge and move on."

Education is an ever-changing world incomprehensible to most people of Mr Baker's age, who did most of their learning sitting in rows in front of a teacher in a classroom.

That was a time when bright students in good schools could do well just by learning facts and regurgitating them at exam time in a coherent way.

Those who could not left school at 16 with few qualifications and went straight out to work.

Some students at Lipson today are learning Japanese without the help of a teacher, studying using an IT package in their own time.

The school works together with Plymouth High School for Girls and Estover Community College to deliver something like 60 or 70 qualifications post-16.

Even closer to the cutting edge, the college is a 'System Redesign School'. It is one of 12 schools with outstanding Ofsted reports challenged to dream up the schools of the future.

Mr Baker said: "Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, where all students follow a set timetable, students would follow their own learning programmes and would be able to take exams whenever they are ready."

It's all a long way from Mr Baker's own education in Lancashire, where his father was a sheet metal worker

"While poor, we were rich in love", he said. "The family believed in education and what schools could offer; they believed that schools could transform lives."

He attended a secondary modern school and then transferred to Blackpool Grammar School.

He puts his love of running, a passion since the age of 10, down to one of his teachers; Margaret Thatcher awarded him a cross- country prize there in the 1970s.

Mr Baker taught in his first school in Lancashire for 10 years, taking geography and geology classes, running Duke of Edinburgh programmes and taking the cross-country and soccer clubs.

He went on to be a deputy headteacher in Rochdale before making the long journey to Plymouth.

"It was the school ethos that attracted me", he said.

"I felt that it matched my own values. I left a lot of good friends behind but it was a nice new challenge."

He started at the school 13 years ago, as one of the youngest headteachers in Plymouth. In September he will become the longest- serving headteacher in a Plymouth secondary school.

Mr Baker admitted it had been daunting when he started.

"I took advice from a deputy headteacher and he said that it was like eating an elephant; it's a big job, but one you can do in small stages."

One of the first things Mr Baker did was to form a partnership with Plymouth High School for Girls, with pupils swapping sites to do courses at specialist facilities on each campus.

Lipson then won specialist status as a performing arts college in 1998, alongside Estover Community College, two of only six or seven in the country at the time.

A whole new wing of Lipson Community College was opened five years ago, boasting a new reception and wide, light corridors, in stark contrast to the narrow, darker passages in the main school.

It boasts a first-class theatre, where schools minister Jim Knight once sat - before his Government publicly reduced the school to one single measure of one set of exam results.

Mr Baker said: "We are now able to offer some high-level performing arts courses, in music and drama, visual arts and dance."

He admits that having three grammar schools in a small city must take away some of the best academic performers from other schools, thereby affecting their exam results, but he said that the issue of grammar schools, which Labour used to threaten with abolition, had been 'parked' to one side.

Mr Baker said he preferred to concentrate on the high level of co- operation between a diverse range of schools, which was unusual for a local education authority.

He added: "Plymouth is doing better than the national average, which is quite incredible for a city of such deprivation. "Some schools are going to serve far greater areas of social deprivation than others and will appear to be doing less well in raw score terms. The people of Plymouth know that."

The level of co-operation between schools, the city council and further education councils has helped Plymouth to become one of the few areas in the country which will be teaching all new subject areas in the new 14 to 19 diploma.

The diplomas can be studied alongside conventional GCSE or A- levels, or instead of the traditional exams from September, initially for a small group of students.

The intention is that they will offer young people more choice and a chance to develop relevant work-related skills. The first students will be studying society, health and development, construction and the built environment and engineering.

Students will travel across the city to use specialist facilities, such as a bricklaying area, in different schools.

Mr Baker said: "We are ready for diplomas in Plymouth in terms of what we would like to achieve and how we would like to do it. There are quite a few logistical issues involving moving children across the city when children move from one school to another.

"These are little things such as uniform and differences in behaviour and discipline policies.

"There will be teething problems but all of these things can be resolved."

The diplomas could deliver the death-blow to league tables of exam results, ranking schools in order like football teams.

Detested by teachers, they have been modified by the Government to include new measures such as CVA so as to become more complicated and harder for most parents to judge accurately.

Mr Baker said: "If we have students studying chemistry at Plymouth High School for Girls, they aren't assessed. They are completely taken out of the equation for the league tables.

"We may have a dance class of 16 in Lipson, but because only three are our students, it appears that we have a dance class of three.

"The whole system should be measured, not just an individual school.

"Finland is top of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co- operation and Development) rankings for education by a long way. Finnish schools are measured by their contribution to the system as a whole, not as individuals.

"They trust their teachers to get on with the job, and as a result they lead the world."

He said that including diplomas in tables would make them impossible to read.

Mr Baker said he was also upset with a watering-down of the rigorous inspections by Ofsted.

He said: "We used to have 20 inspectors here for a week; now there are just four for a day and a half. They judge you by just a few criteria."

In common with several Plymouth headteachers, Mr Baker is a serious long-distance runner who has several marathons to his name. Now just in the veterans' category, he triumphed in that grade in a half-marathon in Ireland.

He said: "I still like to run two or three times a week; it gives you long-term goals. You have to stick to a training programme to build up to your distance."

Amazingly, he stops long enough to take part in rehearsals for a forthcoming production of Rebecca with the Western College Players.

Mr Baker said: "The first time I appeared on stage I was really scared, but now I really enjoy it."

The school uses something called the theatre paradigm, where people work together as a team to a high standard to get the job done on time: or, as Ed Balls and Jim Knight should know, the show must go on.

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