'An awful long way to go'

Graeme Paton finds daunting problems at 'the worst school in England' - but meets a new head who is convinced things can get better

It is 3.15pm and the pupils of New college in Leicester are leaving for the night. At the front of the school, a group of teenagers kick a ball against the wall as one shouts obscenities at a lad hanging out of a first floor window. Inside the main entrance, or at least what I think is the main entrance, there are similar scenes. Almost all pupils are in white trainers, with no discernible sign of school uniforms. One girl shouts "fucking slag" at a teenager, others are play fighting and one boy has his mate in a headlock.

A boy, aged about 16, grey hood pulled over his head, has his back turned to the door I have just walked through and is repeatedly bashing it with the sole of his foot. As I knock on the door of the deserted old "reception" a young girl approaches.

"Sir, is anyone in?" she asks. "I don't think so, is there another reception in this school?" "Dunno," she says - before kicking the door five times with the full force of her small foot.

It is almost five minutes before a teacher points me in the right direction - the reception moved to a new multi-million pound block at the rear of the school in September. A short walk through a series of unspectacular, 70s-style corridors, takes me to the calm surroundings of the modern, air-conditioned new block.

Here, children, almost outnumbered by teachers, appear better behaved. One holds the door open as I am led into the well-furnished new reception and the large, bright library, where I meet David Kershaw, the school's new executive principal.

All things considered, this seems like an appropriate introduction to the 1,600-pupil New college: a failing school, named as possibly the lowest-achieving in the country in last week's GCSE league tables, but with signs of a positive future.

"The children of this school have been failed in the past, I'm not going to hide from that," says Mr Kershaw, who joined this month after 43 years in inner-city schools.

"No one is underestimating that this is a school with some huge problems, but I am optimistic we can address them. We have got an awful long way to go, but just in the few weeks I have been here I have seen signs of progress.

"We have had a good response from parents to help out at the school and we could not have asked for more from the local authority."

This is Mr Kershaw's 15th media interview since league tables last week named New college as one of the five worst-performing schools in the country: only 10 per cent of pupils gained five good GCSEs last summer.

The school also had the worst value-added score in the country and the highest truancy rate, with pupils missing an average of 13 half-days a year.

The results topped a turbulent few years for the school, which was placed in special measures in 2003, just four years after it was created under the Fresh Start initiative. Last month, Ofsted said there had been no progress since it was placed in special measures in 2003.

The number of students at New college fell from 1,579 in November 2004 to 1,204 last November.

But there are surely fewer people better qualified than Mr Kershaw to lead New college out of a rut. The straight-talking tall Yorkshireman, who briefly played professional football for Huddersfield Town in his late teens, led the much-praised Coundon Court school, Coventry, for 22 years.

Shortly after his departure the school, which has more than 1,700 pupils, was praised by Ofsted as "very successful".

Now aged 63, he has spent the past three years as an adviser to failing schools in Bradford. Last year Bradford Cathedral school was named among the 100 most improved in the country.

One of his first tasks, on joining New college at the request of the Department for Education and Skills, was to evaluate the school alongside Jane Brown, the interim principal. He was not impressed.

Four key areas, he says, are in need of urgent attention: teaching and learning, behaviour, attendance and the professional support of staff. In short, pretty much everything that makes a good school.

Mr Kershaw also identified staff shortages as a major hurdle. Last year, up to 15 supply teachers were at the school in any one day - that number is now down to one following a recruitment drive.

The school has linked up with the successful Caludon Castle secondary, Coventry, which has seconded three senior teachers to New college for one day a week.

The city council is also talking to the Church of England and David Samworth, chairman of the manufacturers of Ginsters pasties, about jointly-sponsoring the school as an academy.

Mr Kershaw, a Methodist, says it was another sign of the enthusiasm in Leicester for New college.

"People across the city are committed to seeing this school work. When I was in Bradford I happily worked with the C of E and academies, so I have no problems with working with them in Leicester," he said.

He is aware of the hurdles he faces but, despite spending four decades in education, shows no sign of slowing.

As we talk in the library, he chastises a boy for attempting to appear in our photographer's shot and outside he orders two boys on mountain bikes off the school grounds.

"I think I have got about two years left in me at least," he says. "This is undoubtedly the biggest challenge of my career - but I am relishing it."

* graeme.paton@tes.co.uk

Turbulent history

September 1999: New college is formed as a Fresh Start school following the closure of Wycliffe, New Parks and Alderman Newton comprehensives.

February 2002: Judith Mullen, New college's first head, resigns.

August 2002: School registers worst GCSE results in Leicester (14 per cent of pupils achieve five A* to Cs).

September 2002: Jim Collins, new head, sends 100 pupils home for not wearing uniform.

October 2003: Leicester council asks Ofsted to put the school into special measures after 13 per cent of pupils gain five good GCSEs.

December 2003: Ofsted imposes special measures.

April 2004: Jim Collins quits and is replaced by Allen Andres.

February 2005: Almost 40 teachers threaten to strike after 12 assaults by pupils in the autumn term.

March 2005: Governing body disbanded and replaced by a 10-strong interim executive board, chosen by the council.

July 2005: The Church of England and David Samworth, a millionaire meat magnate, express interest in sponsoring the school as an academy.

October 2005: Allen Andres quits after school says 13 per cent gained five good GCSEs - then admits it was 10 per cent.

January 2005: David Kershaw, executive principal, and Jane Brown, interim principal, take over New college.

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