John Viner reflects on his headship tenure at Draper Mills Primary, in his final article about turning the troubled school around. Here he highlights the importance of the way to deal with people as a way to affect change

Drapers Mills Primary School is located opposite a fine example of a preserved Kentish smock mill. When I applied for its headship, I was responding to an advert that suggested the pupils needed someone to put wind in their sails. Now that I am approaching the end of my tenure, I look back and wonder if I managed to stir up a gale or a storm in a teacup.

Stretching myself
Why go for another headship in your fifties? I was asked this question a few times by people. They were right in one way: I would certainly have experienced less stress if I had continued at the successful church school which I led for 14 years. But perhaps we all need a bit of stress to stretch us, force us out of our comfort zone and make us reach that little bit further.

It was in 1980 that I was first appointed to headship, of a tiny village school, nestling high in the North Downs, where I lived in the school house and made sure the boilers had oil in them. I progressed to my headship of a four-form entry junior school via a dilapidated Victorian three-decker in a socially deprived area. The latter was celebrated in an issue of Junior Education under the banner ‘scandal of our squalid schools’. But it is the five years I spent at Drapers Mills that have been the most challenging – and the most rewarding – of my career.

Challenging ideas
I had never given much serious thought to emotional literacy before taking up the post at Drapers Mills. I had read Daniel Goleman on emotional intelligence, and it seemed to make sense; I had met Jenny Mosley and understood about circle time; I had made a study visit to Canada to look at playground peacemakers; I had also worked with a psychologist in the authority to train peer mediators. But somehow, I didn’t really see this as emotional literacy.

Working at Drapers Mills made me question what I previously thought that I knew, both about school leadership and kids’ behaviour. When it came to social deprivation, Margate was in a whole different league from anything I had known before: drug dependency and high crime rates fed into a lack of community self-esteem, leading in turn to aggression, violence and a lack of respect. There were times, I confess, when I wept and said to my wife, Liz, herself a teacher; ‘I can’t do this – it’s just too hard!’

An aspect of emotional health is resilience, and the resilience I needed to deal with the situation began to grow when I realised that, while it was natural and appropriate to draw on my professional experience and knowledge, it was work on emotions that was going to help us fix our broken school. I certainly did not realise the impact that emotional literacy has on fixing broken kids and, just perhaps, helping to fix a broken society.

Where people want to be
These past five years have seen the school transform from its post-special measures blues to a place where:

  • kids want to be
  • people want to work
  • the ‘outstanding’ word crops up from time to time in our Ofsted report.

I confess to a degree of smug self-satisfaction when I compare what Ofsted (Inspection no 312927) found to what the local authority were telling us. That is not to rubbish the authority completely; we had fantastic support from a panoply of people who were really committed to achieving our vision and who, coordinated by an intelligent and equally committed school improvement partner, really helped us to deliver.

Those with whom we had issues tended to be those who failed to grasp the importance of our journey towards emotional literacy, and who focused more attention on quantitative measures than on the quality of children’s lives. When our lead inspector asked if being emotionally literate meant we used the SEAL materials, it was a joy to share with him the much bigger picture: how when we said that, at Drapers Mills, every child really mattered, this was something that went to the heart of all that we do and believe in.

Dealing with people
What I have learned from my five years at Drapers Mills is that it’s the way we deal with people that changes things. I have also learned a lot about how to:

  • establish good systems that really help effective management
  • hold people accountable more effectively
  • insist that high standards and high expectations apply to everyone.

But hard messages do not require a hard messenger; to achieve improvement everyone needs to sign up to it, which is something you cannot achieve through confrontation. What is it that the Bible says about being as wise as serpents and gentle as lambs?

As I look round Drapers Mills, I see how it is by making explicit our commitment to behaving in an emotionally intelligent way that we have turned this school round. So perhaps we did manage to get the wind in our sails – they’re still going round, after all.