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Fresh starts are hard to find

As Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools has pointed out, there are signs that standards are improving, thanks, he suggests, to Government reforms. But a few schools seem immune to the effects of the national curriculum, parental choices, inspection, tests and league tables, local management, market pressures, the improved training of teachers or whatever else it is that elsewhere is improving pupil achievement.

Labour's David Blunkett has already focused attention on these "failing" schools. Officially, the known number is small - perhaps one in 600 - but however few, it is a few too many. For it is not schools which are being failed, but the children in them. And we should face a few uncomfortable facts about that failure.

The first of these is that although most of the few are in difficult inner city areas and have to contend with appalling social and economic problems, that does not make failure inevitable. It compounds its effects and fails those least able to help themselves, but there are plenty of schools in similar or worse circumstances performing superbly against the odds.

Second, though money may be a factor, more of it is not the panacea many would like to believe. The difficulty many city technology colleges have had in establishing themselves as "beacons of excellence" despite starting with a clean sheet and generous funding attests to that. So does the Pounds 3 million extra which is said to have been poured into Battersea Technology College since it was first identified as failing in 1989.

The third is that tackling the deep-rooted problems of these schools takes time and requires experienced and highly motivated staff. It calls for clear objectives and purposeful leadership; heads and governors who see what is needed and communicate it infectiously to others, including parents. It requires the interests of pupils to be put first. But it also depends on staff teamwork and solidarity rather than macho management destroying morale simply to create the short-term illusion of effective action.

The problem is that all these things are just what failing schools lack. David Blunkett's Fresh Start proposal seems more like a statement of that deficiency than a solution to it. You only have to begin asking who will decide when such a cathartic response is necessary and from where new teams of highly-skilled professionals will come to see some of the difficulties of Fresh Start.

Faced with the same questions, the Government has not used its education association or hit squads so far and has tacitly accepted that it takes time and support to turn a school round, and that the necessary recruits are not easy to come by.

But it is the local authority, with powers to appoint more effective governors and to monitor and support ailing managements, which must accept ultimate responsibility for rescuing schools from a cycle of failure. It may be authorities failing in this which need the fresh start.

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