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Improvement against all the odds

Geraldine Hackett on the struggle to save a "showpiece" secondary school. On the days he arrives at Battersea Technology College feeling he is battling against terrible odds, Bob Pope can take heart from the fact that inspectors have told him the school is at last showing signs of improvement.

The school which the south London borough of Wandsworth once boasted would be a showpiece local authority technology college was identified almost 16 months ago as one of the country's worst.

According to the inspectors' report, students frequently disrupted lessons; others regularly played truant, and 82 had been temporarily excluded in the previous 12 months.

By the time Mr Pope arrived as principal at the beginning of the year, the school was still in a state. It may have been the threat that the Government had the power to bring in an education association to take over the school that galvanised Wandsworth into negotiating an early retirement package with Michael Clark, the previous principal and star of the BBC documentary, The New Principal. (The cameras followed him round the school as he told glum teachers they would have to re-apply for their jobs).

Much of Mr Clark's two-year legacy, influenced by his commitment to Kaizen - self-improvement Japanese-style - is being swept away. In particular, his staffing structure, which effectively left the school without any clear line management, has been scrapped. The action plan has gone the same way.

The college never delivered its promise of being a centre of excellence for technology - it has no industrial sponsors and the extended school day did not mean extra tuition, only that the school remained open for longer hours.

Even the experienced Mr Pope - he has been a head for 15 years - admits that he had not been prepared for the scale of the school's problems. Pupils had been allowed to cross the boundaries of acceptable behaviour; under-achievement was endemic.

The hardest day was March 13 when pupils staged a mini-riot in protest at rumours that a popular swimming instructor was to be sacked. The school was closed and pupils allowed back in phases over a couple of days.

There is no disguising that it is a tough job - high levels of stress and long hours - and the governors have not persuaded Mr Pope to extend his contract beyond 12 months. He has taken a year's secondment from his headship at Lanfranc school in Croydon and, unlike others head-hunted for difficult schools, did not negotiate a premium salary. He is getting just over Pounds 50,000. It is a job for a younger man, says Mr Pope, 51.

He has permanently excluded around a dozen pupils and more have been excluded for short periods. About 40 per cent of students are black, mainly Afro-Caribbean, and they are well represented among those who have been excluded, but that is no different from the national picture.

The last monitoring report from HM inspectors, while acknowledging improvement, pointed out that there remain a core of pupils who are disruptive. The pupils have been identified, put on daily report and, in the last resort, excluded.

Numbers are down to 550 even though the school is surrounded by council blocks. Only 90 applications have been received for the 150 places available in September. The school has lost almost a dozen pupils since January.

There has to be another upheaval for staff as Mr Pope unravels the existing structure to impose a more traditional management with familiar titles such as heads of department. It is demoralising for the teachers, but Mr Pope suggests they accept it has to be done.

Staff are interviewed before jobs are opened to outsiders. So far, 12 senior appointments have been made - six of which went to existing teachers. There is little doubt that at the end of the process some teachers will be made redundant.

By the start of the next academic year, the school will have come close to conforming to the strategy of closing down and starting again that Professor Michael Barber of Keele University outlined in his recent TESGreenwich lecture. There will be a new team with a new principal.

According to Mr Pope, there are no quick fixes. The closest he will come to embracing one theory is his stress on improving lessons. Four experienced teachers - paid for by Wandsworth - have been helping to sort out schemes of work and working with teachers in classes.

"The process is cumulative. The school is now a calmer place and everyone is trying harder," he says. "It is clear that the kids are capable of achieving higher standards."

In theory, Battersea has only until November to show that it can provide adequate education. The Department for Education expects to give failing schools two years before other options are put in place - the options being either an education association or closure.

There is still a long way to go and the Education Secretary may feel she has to act tough.

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