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First failing secondary gets new broom

"The challenge for me is to take a school that is clearly at rock bottom and turn it round," said Peter Leech, newly-appointed headteacher of Glan Ely High School, Cardiff, which has the dubious distinction of being Wales' first failing secondary school.

The problems he faces are legion. Only 5 per cent of pupils achieved five GCSE grades A to C in 1994 compared with the Welsh national average of 42 per cent. The 780-pupil school has one of the worst truancy rates in Wales and last year there were a staggering 159 exclusions. It came bottom in performance tables for secondary schools and staff morale was at a low point when he arrived.

The school had had no head for 18 months because it was expected to merge with Glyn Derw, a neighbouring school on the deprived Ely estate. At the eleventh hour, the Welsh Office blocked the move. This coincided with a damning inspection in June last year.

School governors and South Glamorgan education authority drew up an action plan which has been agreed by the Welsh Office and includes improvements in the three Rs, exam results and pupil attendance. A Pounds 1 million building programme is proposed.

Reacting to the plan, Welsh Secretary, William Hague, said: "There is a great deal of work to do at Glan Ely. The school's standards have slipped to a completely unacceptable level, which children and parents should not have to tolerate. The school and the LEA now have the opportunity to put things right."

Mr Leech took up his appointment this month and has already begun the task of revitalising the place and providing the leadership that inspectors had found lacking. He will be able to draw on his experience as head of a York school with a similar reputation to Glan Ely's.

"It's early days and at this stage I want to keep it simple," he explained, "it's important to build on the enthusiasm of the fresh start. The aim is to create some clear areas of excellence, to work with the community and raise the expectations and morale of staff and kids here."

He began introducing changes from his first staff meeting and assembly. There is already a new logo (a giant "G" with an arrow pointing upwards), a ban on any talk by staff or pupils of the bad old days at Glan Ely, a school magazine that encourages contributions from primary schools and the wider community, and a painting project with children designing their own murals for the school cafe.

Mr Leech hopes the school will cease to be a last resort for parents. He would like to change its name, but that may not be possible.

Behind the scenes there is a major restructuring. The acting head and the deputy head have taken early retirement. Most of the management team will go and, partly because inspectors found too much was being spent on staff and not enough on equipment, there will be redundancies.

The new structure will involve no deputy, but will have six senior management posts known as "area quality managers". Each will be responsible for a number of departments and a school-wide area, such as curriculum review or staff development. Each will act as deputy for a term at a time.

"The team that will drive the school forward will be a small cohesive unit meeting every day. I hope this will cut the stages between policy and classroom practice so that what is decided can be quickly implemented," said Mr Leech.

A review of the curriculum is under way. There will be fewer subject options at key stage 4 and the school will discontinue A-levels in the short term. Instead, Mr Leech hopes to forge links with Glan Hafron FE college to establish the school as a base for post-16 vocational courses, perhaps specialising in engineering and media.

A merit scheme has been introduced to reward good attendance and behaviour. Discipline has been tightened. Pupils were asked for their suggestions on improving the school and a folder full of ideas was the immediate response.

Mr Leech said: "This is not a school full of bad teachers. The staff have responded well to the ideas. And this school will be going places because the kids are great."

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