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Can they cut it?

Just out of special measures and with a low GCSE score, one high school decided it was time for a new style. So it was in with the NVQs - and to hell with the league tables. Harvey McGavin reports

John Salusbury didn't get much of a break this summer. Apart from a long weekend in Scotland, and a few days off to have his wisdom teeth out, he spent the rest of the six weeks on school business. There was the timetable to draw up - not easy for a novice - and then there was the altogether trickier business of reinventing his school.

A deputy head at Lea Manor high school for the past 18 months, Mr Salusbury now has a restructuring job on his hands much bigger than anything he attempted in his years as a design and technology teacher.

This is not the first time Lea Manor, in Luton, Bedfordshire, has undergone a metamorphosis; in the late 1990s it was designated a specialist language college, but in May 2000 it became one of only a handful of schools in Britain to have its status withdrawn after going into special measures.

Lea Manor's squat brick buildings are uninviting. But, inside, it's immediately apparent from the smart new reception area that things are changing here. The school has emerged from special measures with a new senior management team - the headteacher, two deputy heads and a finance manager.

Faced with a situation where just 26 per cent of GCSE students were getting five or more A*-C GCSEs, some school managers might have concentrated on getting the pass rate up. But Lea Manor has gone for practical NVQs, which make no difference at all to league tables (because, unlike GNVQs, they have no GCSE equivalence). This, says Mr Salusbury, will reinvigorate the pupils, and the school will put the failed language college experiment down to experience. "It wasn't appropriate to our kids," he says. "They didn't see themselves as linguists. But they do see themselves as caterers, builders and hairdressers."

So, during the summer, the school's dilapidated workshops - mostly untouched for the past 30 years - were overhauled. "Everything is working," says Mr Salusbury, casting a practised eye over the reconditioned lathes, drills and workbenches.

Nearby, a group of boys is building a platform which will eventually support a bathroom suite, and there are dedicated construction bays for tiling, plumbing, carpentry and decorating. Further along the corridor, a gleaming stainless steel kitchen is equipped with industrial-sized ovens, fridges and freezers and changing rooms for the trainee chefs - girls and boys.

And there's a new hairdressing salon, stylishly appointed with Italian-made fittings and furniture, where Year 10 pupils practise on wigs. The salon is living up to its name, Inspire, suggested by one of the 27 girls who chose to do hairdressing. By Christmas, Inspire should be fully functional, taking bookings from the public, with students acting as assistants to experienced cutters.

The 40-plus builders, hairdressers and caterers will receive 10 hours of tuition a fortnight in their chosen vocation and will be given time off timetable for whole-day assessments. Staff hope their positive response so far in terms of behaviour and motivation will cross over into other subjects; pupils will still be able to take up to seven GCSEs. But Lea Manor is under no illusions that the new regime will radically change its league table status. "It's incredibly irritating that NVQs score nothing," says Mr Salusbury. "But we are not obsessed with the A-C pass rate."

Mr Salusbury can trace the inspiration for Lea Manor's remodelled curriculum back to a study tour of Dutch schools, where students can take vocational options from the age of 12. It seemed an obvious solution to the problems he was seeing every day in the Bedford comprehensive where he worked at the time and where he believed boys especially weren't getting credit for their skills. "Design, for instance, was 60 per cent coursework, but half of that was folder work. Lots of the boys would do nice practical work but the folder work would let them down."

Lea Manor will use a mixture of NVQ, City and Guilds and other accreditation in order to keep written work to a minimum. "We are making it as realistic as possible," says Mr Salusbury. The construction trainees even have timetabled tea breaks.

Roger Williams, a governor for 15 years and chair for the past 10, says:

"When staff put these proposals to us, one or two governors were sceptical.

But most of us supported it." Having seen the new facilities in use, the doubters have been won over, he says. With a year left to go before he retires, he's happy to hand over the reins with the school in good spirits.

"There's a buzz about the place and an air of excitement; it's a hive of activity."

Central to Lea Manor's efforts to get back on course has been a strategy of tapping into every source of funding available. The school is on the Marsh Farm estate in north Luton, which hit the national headlines during three days of disturbances in 1995, and has since been designated one of the 39 New Deal neighbourhoods in England, receiving almost pound;49 million under the Government's New Deal for Communities scheme.

None of the changes at Lea Manor would have been possible without its pound;278,000 New Deal money, topped up with pound;100,000 from school reserves plus other cash, including awards from Bedfordshire education authority, Excellence in Luton and the New Opportunities Fund.

Partnership and community involvement - two of the key themes of New Deal - are evident in Lea Manor's plans. Some of the New Deal money is going towards employing lecturers from nearby Barnfield college, and students from the college will be coming in to use the hairdressing salon. Five new IT technicians are also tending to the technology needs of five local primaries.

"When I show parents around," says John Salusbury, "the comment I have heard 100 times is, 'I wish we'd had this in our day'. They recognise that it can work."

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