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Foxdenton is no ordinary school; Mel Farrar no ordinary head. Antony Dore visits the special school, recent recipient of a Charter Mark. In the foyer of Foxdenton school, there is a photograph of John Major gripping the hand of headteacher Mel Farrar. It is a photograph of which Mr Farrar is justly proud, taken on the day last October when the Oldham special school was awarded a Charter Mark, the seal of excellence granted to up to 100 branches of the public services every year.

The charter may be one of the Prime Minister's "big ideas", but has not been warmly embraced by schools. In three years, 16 have won from 187 applications - less than 1 per cent of the total schools in England and Wales. In 1992, the Cabinet Office refused altogether to say how many schools applied (75, as it later turned out). Many heads complained that they were already achieving the requirements, such as responding to users' wishes, giving value for money and improving results. Why, they asked, did they need to apply for Mr Major's stamp of approval?

There is no such half-heartedness from Mr Farrar. His enthusiasm and good humour rub off on everyone - pupils, parents, teachers and caretakers. Even visiting newspaper reporters are not immune. Not wanting to sit in his office too long, Mr Farrar pulls The TES into the dining hall. "Doesn't look like your normal school dinners does it?" he beams, pointing out that consultation with parents had produced a wider range of menus. Then it is on to meet nursery nurses, students on research projects and the caretaker ("we are all a good team here").

Just as it becomes evident that Foxdenton is no ordinary school, so it is obvious that Mr Farrar is no ordinary head. As well as being one of the first heads to study management, he chairs a local health authority, organises conferences, raises funds for his and neighbouring schools, and indulges in some mild spin-doctoring that ensures Foxdenton is never far from the pages of the local paper.

For him, the Charter Mark is a recognition of his staff's dedication to the 120 children, aged from two to 11, many with severe physical disabilities. His message to schools considering applying for this year's Charter Mark, launched by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, David Hunt, earlier this week, is to take the plunge. "We put our application together in three days because we were already doing the things it needed. If there had been a mark 20 years ago we would have applied for it then."

Mr Farrar's conversation is littered with the talk of the market place some, though not all, picked up during his study for a masters in "management by action learning". "Customers", "services", "choice", "efficiency", "market research" trip off the tongue like a company chairman at a shareholders' meeting. These are not dry academic phrases but a natural part of running a good school. As a thinking pragmatist, he knows how to play the system and is not ashamed of doing so.

When OFSTED was formed he became a team inspector, partly to find out more about how the system would work. His interest in the health side of special education led to membership of the district health authority 12 years ago. Now he chairs the Oldham Family Health Services Authority, with a Pounds 30 million annual budget. He does the work before school and at weekends, and pays his Pounds 8,000 salary into a charity which funds extra benefits for Foxdenton.

Entering the Charter Mark required sensitive political handling. "There was a lot of hesitation and scepticism at the authority," says chairman of governors Sid Jacobs, an Oldham Labour councillor and magistrate. "But the school is ambitious and the criteria fitted with the value system. The authority is pleased they won it. You can take political correctness too far."

Indeed, the school seems to attract awards. Its letterhead includes logos for Investors in People, the Toyota Science and Technology Curriculum Award and the Education Extra Award for after-school activities.

Foxdenton was opened in 1973, an open plan school built round a central swimming pool providing therapy for pupils, as well as a venue for one of the many after-school clubs. Mr Farrar, then aged 30, was the founding head. Because more than half the children have always been from outside the authority, the school lived in the world of parental choice long before mainstream schools. Through these conditions grew real parental power. Home-school books allow teachers to send back information and parents to write comments; the latest edition of the monthly newsletter runs to 40 pages, and there are questionnaires on pupils' progress.

For the past eight years there has also been an annual parental opinion survey. This is no cheap public relations exercise: changes at parental request include levels of occupational therapy and paying for taxis for parents to attend their children's reviews. Surveys also allow the school to find the right level of parental involvement, without placing too great a burden on those already having to cope with a difficult home life up to two hours travelling time away. "Our message is that you can trust the customer," he adds. "It also hedges against the vociferous minority at parents' meetings. The satisfied majority rarely speak up. You can say to a parent, 'I acknowledge your problem and we can sort it out', but 97 per cent of parents feel comfortable about what we are doing."

This year a question taken from an OFSTED parents' survey brought a low number of replies and dissatisfaction. The head sees it as ludicrous that other schools might not find that out until OFSTED itself asks the question. "Why should OFSTED be the first to know what your parents think?" The survey is also important for administrative matters. In 1986, one parent wrote "I can never get through to Mr Farrar. Does he still work there?" A chastised headteacher is now more readily on the end of a telephone, sometimes manning the switchboard himself.

Helen Crabtree, a parent governor, makes it plain that market research does not mean the school gives up its professional role. Her nine-year-old daughter Elizabeth, who suffers from the learning condition dyspraxia, is beginning re-integration into mainstream primary for half a day a week with the help of a nursery nurse. "I had to be won round to the idea by the school. It took me a year of thinking about it. This is not a case of just me driving the engine. "

More consultation comes from staff (the "internal customer" in Farrar-speak). Detailed reviews completed by the 18 teachers, 16 nursery nurses, office staff, and physiotherapists form the school's development plan, with an item from every member of staff. Deputy head Lesley Powell believes all the surveys could be equally important in mainstream schools, although she warns teachers that opening themselves to parental criticism is daunting. "It can be quite threatening. You have to be non-confrontational when people are feeling defensive."

According to Mr Farrar, schools should be driven not just by humanitarian and professional desires but by "enlightened self-interest", a longhand for fear of the P45. "You have to be in a system where you don't always have a safety net. When your livelihood depends on the outcome of your actions, it keeps you going. If parents had not opted for this school, we would not have the team we do."

The alternative to parental involvement is appalling, he feels. "During the 1970s, for the professional associations it was a private garden for us to determine what grew there without regard to the people who funded it or the people who used the outcomes."

Four days after The TES visit, Mr Farrar rings with a quote. "'Excellence is not a state.' That's mine, original Farrar, my copyright," he laughs. "You have never arrived. You may have got a bit better but you have to keep going.

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