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Fresh Start faces soiled reputation

Inspectors are due to vet the nine schools reopened under the troubled programme. Warwick Mansell reports

THE Government's controversial rescue strategy for failing schools faced more bad publicity this week as a comprehensive closed its doors on hundreds of pupils for two weeks for "essential" staff retraining.

Governors at Islington arts and media school in north London are so concerned about an alleged breakdown of management systems that it will not start its summer term until May 15. The former George Orwell school was relaunched under the Fresh Start initiative last year.

A third of its 600 pupils - those preparing for GCSEs and national curriculum tests - are being given morning revision classes at the school.

Inspectors are being sent to all nine Fresh Start schools to check whether the policy, under which schools are re-opened with a new name, new management, often new staff and up to pound;1.5 million capital, is helping to raise standards.

Only last week, it was revealed that the first Fresh Start school, Firfield comprehensive, Newcastle, may close after persuading only 50 primary pupils to select it as their first choice this year.

And Education Secretary David Blunkett appeared to acknowledge the difficulties some Fresh Start schools experience in recruiting new staff, by promising to investigate giving new guarantees of future employment to teachers at the relaunched schools.

In March, heads of three of the nine Fresh Start schools resigned in the space of five days.

At Islington, Government embarrassment continued with news that Andrew Adonis, the Prime Minister's education adviser has resigned from the school's governing body.

And Richard Rieser, its chairman of governors, is appealing for additional financial help from the Government after claiming the school has run up a six-figure budget deficit, despite a pound;4 million cash injection from Islington council for rebuilding work since it re-opened in September.

Its former headteacher Torsten Friedag, the country's first pound;70,000 a year "superhead", resigned five months after receiving personal support from David Blunkett.

Mr Rieser told The TES that the governing body had taken its "drastic" step of sending the pupils home on the advice of acting principal Dr John Hudson and his senior management team.

He said the school had had problems with its timetabling, curriculum, disciplinary systems and attendance-monitoring procedures under Mr Friedag. Inspectors are due to revisit the school next month.

The school's 40 teachers are being advised on new curriculum plans and schemes of work, while a new assessment system and timetable are being introduced.

Despite the school's difficulties, its Fresh Start has had a positive effect on pupil numbers. Some 217 parents made the school their first choice this year, nearly four times more than in 1998.

However, across the country, the impact of Fresh Start on admissions has been mixed. Parental first preferences for the new East Brighton college of media arts have fallen by a fifth since the policy was introduced.

Christ Church Church of England primary, Reading, this week became only the second Fresh Start primary when it re-opened as "New Christ Church".

Leader, 18

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