It's a dark morning in January and the children are arriving at school, ready for the new term. They're wearing a new uniform, with a new name embroidered on a smart royal blue sweatshirt. Many other things have changed in recent weeks: the painters have been in, new furniture has arrived and a breakfast club has opened. There are new teachers and governors, too. This is Britain's first Fresh Start primary school, transformed on January 1 from Kevington primary, an 80-pupil school in St Mary's Cray, Bromley, with one of the worst Ofsted reports on record, into Manor Oak primary.
If ever a school needed a rebirth (or "step change" as the London borough of Bromley calls it) it was Kevington. One in five of its pupils had been excluded from other schools; 80 per cent were on free meals. Even now, all but 15 of Manor Oak's children are on the special needs register. Last year only 14 per cent of its 11-year-olds achieved the expected level 4 in national literacy tests; and this in a borough where the key stage 2 literacy target for 2002 is set at 90 per cent to achieve level 4 - 10 per cent above the national average.
"Bromley is one of the most advantaged London boroughs," said last year's Ofsted report. "The proportion of adults in higher social classes is well above the national average." But within the affluence "there are pockets of quite severe social deprivation".
Kevington served just such a pocket: the Cray Valley, which has what is reputed to be the biggest concentration of traveller families (housed and on sites) in Europe. It was a school avoided by those "higher social classes" and where few teachers wanted to work. "It was almost impossible just to get a body to stand in front of a class," says Manor Oak's headteacher, Yvonne Marsh. "The best we could do was get people in on supply and then ask them to stay. Over two years, some classes had five teachers, and the children were leading them a dog's life."
Then, in autumn 1998, came the Ofsted inspection that put the school into special measures. "Standards in English, mathematics, science and information technology are low," said the report. "Pupils of all abilities make poor progress in their work. Only about half of the teaching observed was satisfactory or better." Twenty-four issues for action were identified, 11 of them to improve the quality of teaching.
Kevington's existing head had left in the run-up to the Ofsted inspection. The local authority stepped in, seconding Yvonne Marsh from her long-standing teaching post in a special school. She welcomed special measures. "I felt it was the best thing to happen," she says. "It was the only way to get extra funding." Ofsted's report came as no surprise to Bromley, which for some time had been trying to convince central government that the Cray Valley needed financial support from the single regeneration budget. "We welcomed Ofsted's findings as they added weight to this judgment," says John Miller, head of planning and research at Bromley. With a new headteacher open to new ideas and a keen new link adviser, Mal Rivers, there seemed a real chance of improvement.
"My first impression of the school was of noise," says Mal Rivers. "Loud children and loud shouting from some of the teachers." Evidently, special measures on its own would not do the trick. "A number of us felt that more of the same wouldn't work," says John Miller.
The authority considered relaunching Kevington as a community school and approached the DfEE with the idea. The DfEE suggested Fresh Start as an alternative.
The necessary local consultations were held and in the autumn term of 1999 Yvonne Marsh applied for and got the post of head of what would become Manor Oak. Her first task was to recruit new teachers, as Fresh Start demands new staff on new contracts. "We couldn't afford to make mistakes," she says. "One bad teacher in a small school threatens everything."
Advertising, though, produced little result. "We offered two extra points for every teacher, but we still had no response," Yvonne Marsh recalls. One classroom teacher and two in the small EBD unit were staying on from the old regime, but Mrs Marsh needed three more class teachers. Her solution was to go out and find them. "I've got one on secondment from another school," she says, "who I knew from years ago, and another who did some supply here and impressed us."
Deputy head Mary O'Mahony was a class teacher before Fresh Start. "I love the classroom, but Yvonne persuaded me to apply. She is wonderful, very gentle, hugely encouraging and positive. It's a remarkable feeling, but not overpowering - and the children love her."
Visitors to Manor Oak see no children misbehaving (the number of teachers and assistants engaged in one-to-one chats with children tells its own story). What they do see is enthusiastic teachers encouraging their pupils to succeed. There is a well thought-out points reward system, and lots of singing - the children sing in assembly, led by a part-time music teacher, and the choir is a model of inclusion and confidence-building.
The parents seem happy too. The breakfast club has played a part, because parents tend to come in with their children. Dawn Eden, waiting for her two to eat their sausages, is keen on the changes in the school. "There's more involvement with the parents, more opportunities to be in school. You can see the teachers really care."
Wendy Berkshire, who has four children in the school, is equally bullish, and wants locals to rethink their attitude to the school. "I say, 'Don't make up your mind till you've been round. Come and have a look'. And the breakfast club is brilliant; it a real incentive for the kids to get into school."
But all this optimism cannot hide a funding problem which threatens progress at Manor Oak, and also has important implications for other schools facing Fresh Start. The problem is simply that Manor Oak is, by normal standards, too expensive to run. Teachers are experienced and, by definition, well up the salary scale - and they have those two extra points. Coupled with the small class sizes (between 15 and 25), the school has a staffing budget that no basic funding formula can maintain.
A common misconception is that the school is supported by Fresh Start money. In fact, there is no such thing. Funding for all Fresh Start schools has to come from local resources, or from existing schemes such as the standards fund or new deal (for school buildings).
Manor Oak did well enough from these. Standards funding linked to special measures brought pound;17,000 for training and resources. More than pound;80,000 of new deal money transformed the buildings. The council and the single regeneration budget provided a nursery unit, a community wing with a creche, a health clinic and a range of adult training facilities. Bromley also paid for the children's uniforms at a cost of pound;4,000, and the NHS, as part of a national pilot scheme, has contributed pound;4,000 towards the breakfast club, which most of the children attend. In all, pound;250,000 has been spent on or committed to Manor Oak, much of it on the new community wing.
However, none of this money is available for the core purpose of raising standards. So where is the cash coming from? Manor Oak is living off its fat. The Ofsted report reveals that by 1998 the governors had built up reserves of pound;63,718 on a total budget of less than pound;500,000.
"They shouldn't have done it," John Miller says, "although ironically it now cushions the school for a couple of years."
So what will happen when the fat is consumed and the governors have to cut costs? John Miller acknowledges that Bromley cannot allow the school to fail again and will eventually have to find the money. But he is concerned that schools are increasingly dependent on one-off, quick-fix bids. "When are we going to get some sustainability?" he asks.
At least Manor Oak is a changed school. Wonders have been wrought in a short time. The authority knows what the secret is, too. "You don't often find such a high-performing team in one place in such a small school," says Mal Rivers. "Yvonne Marsh is a very good team builder - that's her strength. Like Joan Sallis (a TES contributor) says, nobody's perfect, but a team might be."
The aim now is to push the school up the league tables, but that will take time. The lesson seems to be that in a small primary you can make quick improvements to attitudes and discipline, but that when it comes to test results it takes longer for the changes to work through.
"We need tolerance," says Mel Rivers. "We're not going to see a significant rise in standards for two years."
The chair of governors, Peter Newman, recognises that the school is in a long game. As Fresh Start secondary schools have found, the real challenge is to get parents to reject other schools and choose theirs, and this can only happen through word of mouth in the community. "We want this school to be the first choice for local parents," says Peter Newman.
"The staff we have are top rate and the whole ambience has changed. Now we are looking at a two to three-year target to hold on to our pupils, increase the roll to 150 and get standards up."
Yvonne Marsh longs for the kind of financial security that would give her three years of stable staffing. "If we lost just one teacher we would be back to square one," she says. But she is determined to be optimistic. "I'm not going to let the funding issue distract us. We'll do our job here and I know the authority will continue to support us as best they can."
There are 10 Fresh Start schools. Only one, Manor Oak, is a primary. Others are under consideration, but none so far has a start date.
The scheme aims to create a school and atmosphere that will attract high-quality staff to permanent posts.
It is a DfEE brainchild, but the initiative and - until the latest Budget - funding for a Fresh Start school have to come from the local authority and the school. Proposals have to be published for local consultation, but they are not subject to government approval.
Fresh Start is usually applied to a school in special measures that is still failing to make progress. It involves a change of name, a new governing body and new contracts of employment for staff - all are made redundant, retire or have temporary contracts terminated. Those wishing to stay must apply for jobs in the new school.
But, perhaps most importantly, the school must be funded properly "to minimise the possibility of failure". The Budget allocated pound;60 million for city academies and Fresh Start schools, but how the money will be split is unclear.