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A nonsense of closure

The school compared to a slug has been closed, but reports of its 'failure' are fraught with misunderstanding, writes Andy Schofield

Why do state schools fail? Jill Clough has the answers after reflecting on her two years as head of East Brighton college of media arts (known as Comart), which she left in 2002 (TES, November 4).

Comart finally closed in the summer, with record pass rates of 43 per cent of pupils achieving five or more A*-C grades at GCSE - up by more than 300 per cent on the previous year after a two-year partnership with another comprehensive in Brighton: Varndean, of which I am head.

National GCSE results are published later this month, and the real scandal is that they may show that the most improved school in the country has just been shut down. An isolated, needy area of Brighton has therefore lost its secondary school - a novel take on community regeneration.

So what was it that really caused the school to fail, and ultimately close?

Jill Clough is right to point out the myriad difficulties she faced, but her story is just one of many human tragedies that have been played out since a relatively successful school went into a period of decline in the mid-1990s.

A previous head at the school, Libby Coleman, serialised her dramatic accounts in the Guardian. So-called "superhead" Tony Garwood suddenly left for Spain in a week when two heads of Fresh Start schools elsewhere in the country also resigned.

But nobody has heard of Karen Lees, deputy at Varndean and acting head at Comart for its final two years. Her time at the helm was quickly overshadowed by the decision of a panicky local authority to close the school, but what should not be underestimated is the achievement of the talented and committed staff and students who saw it out to the end - as well as the partnership with Varndean that achieved such amazing results.

The focus has generally been on the heads, coupled with headlines and myths - most recently about why the school was doomed.

A primary pupil likened Comart to a slug in research into why the school was unpopular. This comment, in a serious report to a meeting of the governing body, was then leaked to the local press, further undermining the fragile confidence of the school.

The slug surfaced again in last week's TES headline, while Jill Clough's book is another analysis of the school conducted in public.

If you criticise your school's intake or the numbers of students with learning and social difficulties, or try to impose a Church of England-backed academy, then you risk alienating the very community you serve. This is not a sound recipe for building consensus and support.

Nobody can force parents to choose their local school. Comart's decline took about 10 years, and you can't turn round a reputation overnight. What you can do is run a school sensibly, without gimmicks, to tried and trusted principles, and make sure that the learning, behaviour and results improve.

It's been done elsewhere, and now it's been done at Comart.

The students, staff and the community that the school serves have not been treated with understanding by the powers that be. Neither have questions about school improvement been addressed intelligently.

Fresh Start didn't work - not least because it was based on the idea of getting rid of as many of the existing staff as possible.

The idea of becoming a "media arts college" was based on a scheme from the London borough of Islington but was crass in its conception and execution.

A local authority scrutiny committee looked into what had gone on, but failed to spot that they were part of the group responsible for the Fresh Start in the first place.

The school's future seemed to have been secured by its inclusion in the Brighton schools private finance initiative deal, but that all turned sour with the demise of Jarvis. Three years after signing the contract, the council pushed through the closure of the school and then had to pay pound;4.5 million to Jarvis for the privilege.

How does such short-term opportunism remotely resemble the strategic planning that local authorities are meant to promote?

Once more, a scrutiny panel has produced a highly critical report, but the lack of accountability is damning. What Comart needed was to be well-led, both at headteacher and local authority level, and to stop trying to be something that it is not.

Through partnerships such as the one with Varndean, schools that need help in the short-term, or maybe even the foreseeable future, can be regenerated.

What is so wrong with a school that provides education for a local community, even if some in that community have serious needs and issues, or the school is quite small?

It has been done elsewhere in the country, but the tragedy of Comart is that nobody was able to get it right before it was too late.

Andy Schofield is head of Varndean school, Brighton and Hove

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