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Failing schools look to charismatic heads

The search for radical solutions to the problems of failing schools is not confined to Labour's frontbench. The immediate threat facing those local authorities where a failing school has been identified - that the Government could use its powers to remove it from their control - has meant a desperate search for solutions.

In the case of two London schools, the local authorities are putting their faith in charismatic heads. Hammersmith council has recruited 44-year-old Jamaican-born William Atkinson, who even before taking up the post at Hammersmith school announced that its name is to be changed and that a small group of pupils are likely to be expelled.

Wandsworth council has agreed that the new head of Battersea Technology College, Bob Pope, can insist that all staff re-apply for their jobs. The same exercise was carried out by his predecessor, Michael Clarke, who left by mutual agreement with the local authority. This time, at least nine of the existing school's staff will have to leave to make room for the teachers who are being brought in from other schools. So far the vice-principal and two of the three new heads of department are external appointments.

At Hammersmith, Mr Atkinson is costing the council above the odds for a 700-pupil secondary school. He is to be paid around Pounds 60,000 - roughly a third more than the standard rate.

In return, he has arrived with a strategy that has the backing of the council. The school is to be called Phoenix High School and there is to be a thorough facelift of the premises paid for by the council.

Already he is projecting the image of the head prepared to take action. In an interview with the local paper, he said: "I expect to have to exclude permanently a number of youngsters soon after I arrive."

It would appear Mr Atkinson has not underestimated his task. The Office for Standards in Education inspection report noted that the number of exclusions from the school is extremely high.

Inspectors found that pupils ignored rules and behaved aggressively towards each other, verbally and physically and teachers often let such behaviour go unremarked. A few pupils were difficult to manage in all their lessons.

Even more damagingly, inspectors reported that some teachers lacked confidence that it was possible to shape a well-ordered community within the school.

Similar disruptive behaviour was found by the inspectors of Battersea Technology College. That report notes widespread verbal abuse and pushing and hitting among students. In lessons students were noisy, disruptive and rude to teachers.

The council had head-hunted Michael Clarke, but he has now left after fewer than three years in the job. Mr Clarke had a reputation for being a tough manager and his confidence was such that he allowed in television cameras to watch him restructuring the entire staff.

The arrival of his replacement, Mr Pope, from Archbishop Lanfranc school in Croydon, was marked by such serious disruption that the police had to be called and the school closed for two days. Pupils were apparently protesting at the possibility that a popular teacher might lose his job in the restructuring.

There are no easy solutions to the problem of failing schools. Councils are having to come to terms with the fact that desperate measures are often also very expensive. The Blunkett option of closing schools and re-opening them under new management may not be any easier.

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