When Heather Du Quesnay arrived in Lambeth in March 1996 as the new director of education, one third of the borough's schools - some 30 primary, secondary and special schools - were failing or had serious weaknesses. The Office for Standards in Education was so concerned about the high proportion of poor schools that it had already begun an unprecedented borough-wide, accelerated one-year inspection programme.
Lambeth and the north-east London borough of Waltham Forest were, in fact, the only two authorities in the country thought to be in such straits that they needed immediate attention.
Mrs Du Quesnay found that Her Majesty's Inspectorate had designated five or six schools as failing and one secondary school had already been shut. By the time the inspection process was completed in December that year, a total of 13 of Lambeth's approximately 100 schools - 10 primary, two special schools and one secondary - had been put on special measures. The HMI also had serious concerns about a further six schools and Lambeth itself had other worries about another 10.
The failing schools had weak teachers, low levels of student attainment and poor standards of pupil behaviour. In some instances pupils were docile but not learning much; in others they were out of control, almost to the point of insurrection, said Mrs Du Quesnay. She felt the borough was steeped in old Labour attitudes enshrining the importance of equality of opportunity and political correctness at the expense of quality outcomes, standards and excellence. Mrs Du Quesnay says that the accelerated inspection programme marked the nadir of Lambeth's fortunes as an education authority. "The whole system in Lambeth touched rock bottom then," she said. "It was a defining moment."
Headteachers in the strong schools rose to the occasion and resolved to work with OFSTED to rescue the authority's failing schools. They set up a steering group to liaise with the inspectors service and met Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, and Mike Tomlinson, OFSTED's director of inspection, to discuss issues about the inspections, including consistency, accuracy and protocol.
At the end of the programme, OFSTED shared its overview of the authority's educational strengths and weaknesses with councillors and officers. Martin Clarke, the headmaster of a Lambeth primary school who convened the heads group, says: "We talked about what we needed to do to raise schools from a satisfactory to a good level. We learned a lot."
In the following few months various arrangements were made to help individual schools. At the same time Mrs Du Quesnay continued to rebuild the education department into a workable and supportive service unit.
In 1997, OFSTED agreed to second Martyn Cribb, a senior HMI working for its school improvement team, to Lambeth for six months to help the authority raise the performance of its failing schools. He and Mrs Du Quesnay set up a strategy group to support special measures schools and, more broadly, to identify and monitor all schools in the borough suffering from serious weaknesses.
Each school had its own action group, comprising the headteacher, the chair of governors and an adviser to liaise with the strategy group and appropriate authority officers. The groups regularly reported to the strategy group on how their schools were performing in terms of exam results, pupil exclusions, pupil attendance and budgetary performance.
The headteachers at most of the severely failing schools were replaced. Where possible, weak teachers were offered support and guidance about how to improve, but in many cases poor teachers were encouraged to leave. Attracting competent new staff to Lambeth was a challenge: officers used their personal network of contacts to find candidates and, in some cases, salaries were raised to attract suitable headteachers. In the one case where no new head has been found, the school is still on special measures.
With Mr Cribb's help, the borough's advisory and inspection service was reorganised. It used to be staffed by subject specialists but most have now been replaced by former headteachers who work as primary, secondary, special educational needs, literacy, numeracy and early years advisers.
The inspection process had revealed that many schools did not have a systematic way of monitoring their performance. OFSTED was at that time preparing materials to help schools evaluate themselves and Lambeth organised a three-day self-evaluation course for heads and senior teachers with the help of eight HMIs.
"What was wonderful," says Mrs Du Quesnay, "was there actually seemed to be a degree of mutual respect built up. The heads were very appreciative of the experience, wisdom and insight that the HMIs brought, but the HMIs were also very impressed with the commitment, enthusiasm and vigour of the heads and senior teachers."
Michael Gibbons, head of Bishop Thomas Grant RC School in Streatham, an 11-16 grant-maintained comprehensive, said the course put heads and senior teachers into the position of OFSTED inspectors. His school now has a programme of internal inspections. Senior managers formally inspect one department each half term, using the OFSTED criteria of quality of teaching, pupil response, attainment and progress. The head then writes a report, discusses it with the department head and makes recommendations for improvement.
Mr Gibbons says that the self-evaluation training has been useful in focusing minds on improving the quality of teaching, which in turn leads to improving the quality of learning in the classroom.
Many schools have set up a regular programme of classroom observation and some heads set targets for staff improvement.
Mrs Du Quesnay says: "Our experience in Lambeth tells us that frequently it is the capacity of the school to coach newly qualified or under-performing teachers in the day-to-day interactions with pupils that makes the difference between success and failure."
The authority has adopted the national targets of 80 per cent and 75 per cent of pupils respectively achieving English and mathematics at level four at key stage 2 (age 11) by the year 2002. All Lambeth schools have also been asked to set individual targets. The authority's results last summer indicate that it is making more rapid progress in science and English than the national average, but is making slower progress in maths.
In 1997, 14 Lambeth schools had 40 per cent of the children not achieving level 4 at key stage 2. One year later, however, there were only 10 schools where 40 per cent of the pupils did not reach level 4.
Since 1996, eight schools, including the Lilian Baylis secondary school which was named and shamed by Stephen Byers when he was School Standards Minister, have come out of special measures. Two primary schools are still on special measures, two primaries have been closed and another primary has been proposed for closure. A plan to close seven primary schools and build two or three new amalgamated primaries would tackle the problem of surplus school places - Lambeth has the second highest number of surplus primary places in the country - and continue the process of weeding out some of the weaker schools.
Mrs Du Quesnay says the accelerated inspection programme prompted the start of a critical change in the culture of the education authority and its schools. The emphasis now is as much on standards and achievements as equality of opportunity. And now that Lambeth has a much more effective education department and fewer poor schools giving cause for concern, the next step will be to raise levels of attainment in all of the authority's schools.
"I think we shall have a very exciting time," Mrs Du Quesnay says. "We are determined to set targets for 2002 which correspond with national targets. We feel we have to challenge ourselves and challenge the children to believe that they can do as well as any in the country. We may not get it but it is terribly important for educational expectations in Lambeth not to be constantly depressed."