Hit squad's target wins reprieve in climbdown

An inner-London comprehensive due to become the second school to be taken over by a Government "hit squad" was given a dramatic 11th-hour reprieve last week.

The decision by education minister Robin Squire not to send an education association into the Langham school in the London borough of Haringey has been interpreted as a government climbdown. Haringey Council had threatened to seek a judicial review if the decision had gone the other way. The education association - the same team that closed Hackney Downs school last year - had been due to take over on August 1.

The chairman of governors, Muhammed Mehmet, was told in a letter from the Department for Education and Employment that the Secretary of State had noted recent signs of improvement, such as a drop in permanent exclusions, better key stage 3 national test results and more GCSE entries. But the letter warns that the power to send in a hit squad remains until the school is taken out of special measures. "The Secretary of State will pay particular attention to the report of the next HMI monitoring visit in November."

The letter also criticises Haringey Council for expressing doubts over the reliability of the last monitoring report by HMI in March this year. "The Secretary of State considers that the action of Haringey LEA in impugning the validity of the HMI monitoring report was unjustified and reprehensible. "

Opinion differs as to why the Government backed off. The DFEE says that it was not given enough information about the remedial measures that were under way by March, but other sources allege that Gillian Shephard was not made aware of the facts of the case by her own staff. Haringey MP Bernie Grant alleges that the decision to call in a hit squad was "political mischief - the Government wanted to flag up failure in a Labour authority."

The Langham was originally told that it was failing after a visit by the Office for Standards in Education in November 1994. Only half its lessons were satisfactory, said the report, senior management was inefficient, attendance too low, the rate of permanent exclusions too high and exam results poor, with just 9 per cent of pupils gaining five A-C GCSE grades compared with an average of 27.5 per cent for Haringey and 43.5 per cent nationwide. The staff then passed a motion of no-confidence in the head and the deputy, who were subsequently suspended by the governors.

In March this year, the inspectors returned and decided that the school was not improving fast enough. Since then the governors, parents and Haringey council have been conducting a vigorous campaign to keep the school under local control.

The new headteacher, Richard Dix-Pincott, appointed three weeks ago, said: "Nobody was disputing that the school should be under special measures, but this school always had a commitment from Haringey, the governors, staff and parents to improve it. If a school is abandoned by the LEA, one can see the logic of an education association. It would be useful if criteria were published for deciding when an education association should be considered. "

He also pointed out that 80 per cent of the pupils at the 900-pupil school do not have English as their first language. The Langham takes a large number of refugees and first-generation immigrants - including Kurds, Somalis, Bengalis and Turks - many of whom only stay for a while before being moved to another borough. This, said Mr Dix-Pincott, makes it difficult to assess how much effect the school is having on pupils' progress, especially when it is measured by exam results. He hopes that the school will be out of special measures by next spring.

Jacky Tonge, director of education for Haringey, said that the school had been operating under "a sword of Damocles" which had made recruitment difficult. "Having so many ethnic groups in a school is always seen as a disadvantage, but provided the curriculum is properly directed for every child, so nobody is held back, it can make the school interesting as well as challenging - a bit like the United Nations."

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said that "the lesson for LEAs is that giving up in the face of government hostility is not the answer".

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