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From gold dust to the culture of blame

A headteacher's industrial tribunal hearing is proving a mirror to education's troubled times, reports Nicolas Barnard

In 1988, Earla Green was the education world's equivalent of gold dust - a black female headteacher in an inner-city London comprehensive. In 1991 she earned plaudits from the Mail on Sunday, no less, for turning round her troubled Haringey comprehensive.

But in 1995, she was suspended as head of the Langham School following an inspection by HM Inspectors. Governors decided to act after being told the forthcoming Office for Standards in Education report had identified the school as "failing". Now the endgame of her turbulent decade has started at an industrial tribunal hearing in a dusty office off Russell Square.

An over-promoted head with a siege mentality, incapable of running a tough school despite the best efforts of governors and inspectors to help? Or a talented head who was undermined by jealous and divisive staff, unsupportive governors and her local education authority?

Officially, the case, believed to be the first involving the former head of a failing school to reach an industrial tribunal, revolves around the "irretrievable breakdown in trust and confidence" between school governors and Ms Green after she failed to produce a report allegedly ordered by the governors during the crisis that followed Langham's disastrous OFSTED inspection.

Ms Green claims unfair dismissal, saying she has been made a scapegoat by a local authority and governing body which failed to give her support and funding.

But behind the forensic examination of minutes and the poring over timetables of events, lies a bigger issue - the blame culture that now permeates the education system.

Despite the rhetoric that flows when a school fails its OFSTED inspection - the pledges that the school is pulling together and looking forward not back - someone always carries the can. And, as Alan Boyle, the chief inspector in Haringey, reminded the tribunal, that someone is usually the head.

OFSTED reported recently that "in all but a few cases" the head leaves either just before or immediately after a school fails an inspection. Some retire, some resign, some - like Ms Green - are pushed. Changes planned by the new Labour government will make the position of poor heads and teachers even more precarious.

Or in the analogy of Kuttan Menon, who is chairing the hearing, heads have become like football managers. Labour's programme of actions to lift failing schools - issued along with last month's list of 18 failing schools - also suggested changing the head. Earla Green is fighting that consensus.

It is perhaps a fight that has more to do with pride and principle than reward. She was reportedly offered up to Pounds 60,000 to settle in advance. The most the tribunal can award is Pounds 12,000, and although it can technically order reinstatement, in practice that rarely happens. No one would expect it to happen here.

She was buoyed up during her suspension by a vociferous backing campaign including pupil strikes and public meetings. But there was no one by her side this week in room 12 at the North London industrial tribunal headquarters.

Langham serves a deprived area in national terms, but one seen as relatively affluent for Tottenham. Ninety per cent of its 900 pupils come from ethnic minorities, with Turkish and Kurdish the largest groups. English is the second language for 80 per cent of pupils - 60 languages are spoken.

Last year the school was threatened with being taken over by the second of Gillian Shephard, the former Education Secretary's, "hit squads". It was reprived at the last moment, and last month was notably absent from the new Government's list of 18 schools on special measures which supposedly failed to improve. Many children are refugees, some attending school for the first time. Others have been excluded elsewhere. Half receive free school meals, a quarter have special educational needs. Buildings are described as "grim".

OFSTED described Langham as "improving" in November 1993, but with major weaknesses including the management and the quality of teaching. On a return visit a year later, it declared it failing.

The verdict was given in oral feedback in January 1995. Governors and LEA staff feared the school could be taken over and even closed. Haringey says Ms Green was asked to meet her management team and prepare a report within a week assessing OFSTED's verdict and laying out a timetable for developing an action plan.

But the following week it became clear that not only had the report not been prepared, but Ms Green had not even met her senior management team. She had failed to attend a weekend conference with her colleagues. Mohammed Mehmet, the chair of governors, said that when senior staff had tried to talk to her, she had locked her door.

Ms Green and her deputy head were both suspended a week later. The deputy, Sean Wilkinson, later agreed to quit before disciplinary action started.

Behind that timetable lies the stuff of any head's nightmares. Both sides agree Ms Green was undermined by sniping staff who regarded her as over-promoted and simply not up to the job. Ms Green complained of racism - Mr Mehmet said he could find no evidence of that, but agreed that some senior staff simply refused to co-operate.

But he told the tribunal: "The head's role is to deal with that. She had to find means to prevent staff frustrating her because of her race. If she failed to do that, she should get help."

Mr Mehmet said senior staff did not appear to know their job descriptions.

Funding from Haringey council was irregular. "But that was not the core of the problem. A school is responsible for putting in place its own monitoring processes to know what money is there. When I came on to the governing body, the deficit on a Pounds 2 million budget was Pounds 100,000-Pounds 250, 000. That's enormous."

There were other problems. Mr Boyle told the tribunal: "Nobody could provide a definitive list of who was supposed to be there. Some pupils turned up who weren't on the register. Others were on the register who hadn't turned up for more than six months."

Ms Green argues those were areas for which other senior staff were responsible. OFSTED's written report refers to poor leadership by the senior management team. Haringey says that is a direct criticism of Ms Green.

At one point, Mr Menon asked Mr Mehmet a blunt question: "Who was Ms Green's line manager?" Mr Mehmet, a former Haringey chair of education and now assistant director of education in neighbouring Hackney, replied that the governors were responsible in some areas, the LEA in others. Haringey inspector Alan Boyle, asked a similar question later, put the responsibility squarely with the governors.

Mr Boyle could see the school deteriorating throughout 1994. But OFSTED's findings came as a major shock to Mr Mehmet. "We were totally unprepared for the HMI's feedback," he said. "It was a devastating blow to the governing body, in part because we had had no forewarning from the head."

The school had been following an action plan drawn up after its inspection in 1993. "I made a point of raising (the action plan) at every governors' meeting," Mr Mehmet said. "Every time she just reassured us matters were in hand and progress was being made."

Haringey and Mr Mehmet say the school is now unrecognisable. The deficit is gone and key stage 3 results are on the up - although GCSE results remain poor.

The school may well be taken off special measures before Earla Green's case is resolved. The hearing is growing like Topsy - Haringey has up to nine witnesses lined up, Ms Green says she is prepared to call up to 40. As The TES went to press, the proceedings were expected to be adjourned for several months.

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