DOES David Blunkett deserve a D-minus for his Fresh Start policy as The Observer claimed last week? Local loyalties apart, I don't think so.
There's no doubt that the Fresh Start option is a high-risk strategy, but there are some fundamentals which, in our experience, are key factors in getting a Fresh Start scheme up, running and winning.
Some background first: we have two Fresh Start schools. Fir Vale was the old Earl Marshal - one of the original 18 schools "named and shamed" at the beginning of the current Government's administration and, alongside Newcastle's Firfield, the country's first Fresh Start school. It serves an inner-city area and some of the most deprived wards in the country. Eighty per cent of its community is from ethnic minorities. The second, opened this month, Parkwood high, is two miles from Fir Vale and serves a large council estate that has few facilities. Its community is not so ethnically diverse, and would once have been made up of steel and foundry workers. Both schools were in special measures and losing the support of their parents and community.
Fir Vale is recovering fast. Results at five or more A*-C grades are up 6 per cent this year. The school is full in Years 7 and 8, with two-thirds from first preferences. Attendance for last year hit 91 per cent. A wretched site is just beginning to be transformed with a pound;7 million rebuild, through the Government's private finance initiative (PFI). An education action zone has buttressed some important improvements, particularly attendance. Excellence in Cities has added new possibilities to the curriculum and our local college has added post-16 and adult provision.
New investment is a critical ingredient in getting some momentum behind a Fresh Start school. There must be physical change to embody the vision that its new staff bring. But although new capital works are vital, they are not enough. We were reminded again (as everyone has always known) that quality of leadership is the critical factor. The issue for Fresh Start is how you assemble the best-quality leader and team you can find in the incredibly compressed timescales within which a Fresh Start must be built and then work. Typically, there is one year from the decision until the opening.
We found two first-rate headteachers after spending some time looking. We did not seek "superheads". We and the governors sought candidates with a track record of bringing schools in hard stations through the specil measures process. We sought candidates who had clear, simple priorities and philosophies, backed by a powerful commitment to young people.
Both heads relished the unique experience of appointing an entire staff. This isn't an opportunity that headteachers often have. Actually, Fir Vale has had two heads in its two years. Ken Cook CBE, a retired local head took it on for a year, followed by Hugh Howe, Fir Vale's current head. Both schools had previously had the quality of their teaching slated. In the event, at Fir Vale less than half of the staff were re-appointed; at Parkwood high, a third returned. We were delighted with the positive response to our policy of national advertisements for all teaching posts. Following statements from the Department for Education and Employment last spring about low-performing schools, recruitment became more difficult. To ensure a high level of interest, we developed the Sheffield Guarantee - a commitment that, if the school failed within three years, the education authority would guarantee employment and, more positively, make a commitment to the professional development of all recruits, delivered jointly with a local university.
Having generated a Fresh Start scheme twice, our experience leads us to see the following combination of factors as critical to the success of the process:
Early commitment of DFEE or education authority capital and revenue support
A skilled, multi-disciplinary LEA team - there is no substitute for this
An exceptional head who is confident about what he or she is facing
An enthusiastic staff team
A new governing body with time, patience and personal commitment. This process has produced some real heroes and heroines from local communities who have found new voices and skills
A re-stated vision which takes note of the community's aspirations for its new school. This is likely to mean simple virtues, academic success and, as one parent put it: "a reason for my child to get out of bed in the morning"
Partnerships with community bodies, universities, parents and benefactors, because people want to help and extend opportunities if they're asked.
Fresh Start makes sense only in cases where it would take too long to transform a school in more traditional ways and condemn too many children's futures. In these rare circumstances, it is a vital strategy. No government or city will accept young people significantly under-achieving any longer. People who reject this strategy risk the adoption of even less palatable ones - such as selection by ability.
Jonathan Crossley-Holland is director of education for Sheffield city council.