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BBC 'reneged' on Islington deal

Warwick Mansell reports on the bitter row over the filming of 'Head on the Block', the story of a Fresh Start school.

THE television documentary charting the chaotic relaunch of an inner-city comprehensive has been condemned as "unrepresentative and biased" by the school's chair of governors.

Head on the Block, which began on BBC2 last night, will have made depressing watching for anyone connected with the Islington Arts and Media school, the former George Orwell comprehensive in north London.

The school was given a pound;4 million re-launch, led by pound;70,000-a-year "superhead" Torsten Friedag, under the controversial Fresh Start scheme last September.

But the documentary revealed how things were starting to go badly wrong even as the school prepared to be officially opened by Education Secretary David Blunkett.

Pupils were sent home on the first day of term because building work was not finished, while timetabling problems meant many were sent to the wrong classrooms weeks after the school had opened.

Future programmes will show children boasting about not attending lessons, and a parent declaring that there was a "race war" in the school, after a fight between Turkish and black youths.

Mr Friedag appears as an increasingly desperate man. The second episode ends showing him with his head in his hands as staff argue over a strategy to solve the seemingly intactable timetable problems.

But Richard Rieser, chair of governors, said the BBC had reneged on an agreement to film the school for the whole of its first year.

The result, he said, was a documentary which concentrated on the first two terms' difficulties without showing improvements made by a new management team appointed after Mr Friedag's resignation in March.

Attendance had improved markedly last term, the timetable had finally been sorted out and the pupils had been given programmes of study.

The film-makers had also failed to depict good things going on in the school last autumn, including a successful end-of-term concert, or reflect the fact that other parents did not believe pupils were involved in a race war.

Mr Rieser added: "The film-makers were far more worried about showing that Fresh Start does not work than presenting a balanced view about the way the school is going."

A BBC spokeswoman said the film-makers did not accept that they had broken an agreement to film for a year. They had not set out to portray the school in a bad light and had reported teachers' enthusiasm for the project when the school opened.

She added: "We do not accept that race issues were exaggerated in the programmes. The issue was opened up as a debate, with fair coverage given to the view that there was not, in fact, a race war going on in the school."

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