Fir Vale school, in a run-down part of Sheffield, had a prestigious early morning visitor yesterday. The school building was opened for the day by the Queen, who had come at the invitation of headteacher Hugh Howe. Pupils in this inner city area were "stunned" to learn she was coming, says Hugh Howe. "It's an enormous honour for the school."
The royal visit came in celebration of a remarkable success story. Until five years ago, Fir Vale, in the poor north-east of the city, was called Earl Marshall school. A school had stood on the site since 1895. A century later, Earl Marshall, built of local stone on an unfenced, sprawling plot, had succumbed to a depressing cycle of falling numbers and growing demoralisation. Its headteacher had been sacked and the school was in special measures. Then came what for some schools has proved the final blow: an official, government-imposed Fresh Start.
The Fresh Start recipe - new leadership ladled on top of the existing staff and student body, stirred up with a programme of hasty building works and topped off with a large dollop of local and national scrutiny - has often proved fatal. One of the first Fresh Start schools - Firfield, in Newcastle upon Tyne - closed its doors last year. East Brighton College of Media Arts and Islington Arts and Media school (IAMS) both returned to special measures after their Fresh Starts and went through a succession of headteachers before, in the case of IAMS at least, finding a way out of their difficulties. Telegraph Hill school in the London borough of Lewisham was closed in 2001, after a brave attempt at re-engaging disaffected children.
But Fir Vale, an 11-16 comprehensive with more than 700 students, followed the classic Fresh Start formula - and succeeded.
Whether change is measured by exam results - the proportion of pupils getting five A*-C GCSEs reached 25 per cent last summer - the waiting list for Year 7, or the piano music floating through the entrance hall as students practise on a baby grand, Fir Vale has transformed itself. "It's real," Mr Howe repeats, indicating the resource room full of on-task students, the boys playing football in the chill of a spring morning, students running towards the gate to avoid being late.
The evolution - from a school where buildings were decrepit, behaviour was wild and confidence on the floor - came about, says Mr Howe, through "a series of small steps" in which the Fresh Start framework was sometimes helpful, sometimes not.
Hugh Howe, 45, came to Fir Vale in September 1999 after five years as head of Deansfield school in inner-city Wolverhampton. It helped, he says, that he came to South Yorkshire from the West Midlands. "It's an advantage to come to a new authority. It means you're not caught up in the baggage of the past."
The final days of Earl Marshall had been bitter, with the head, Chris Searle, sacked and the school facing closure. Mr Howe took over one year into Fir Vale's relaunch, from the temporary stewardship of Ken Cook.
Fir Vale was then only half full and Fresh Start was a high-profile New Labour policy. "It was big news," says Mr Howe. "The package was the closest you're likely to get to starting a new school. There were opportunities for innovation and a large black population caught up in a school being named and shamed, in a spiral of deprivation and under-achievement."
For Year 11 pupils, Mr Howe was their fifth headteacher since starting secondary school. Fresh Start was an attractive idea but untested as a policy. "The idea of starting again was good," he says. "But not enough thought had gone into it. It's the same children, often the same buildings, and some of the same staff. And there isn't a manual on how to do it."
Much rested on the headteachers who led the process. The first of Mr Howe's small steps was creating a vision. "Unashamedly," he says, "we took up attainment. Children should leave with more than they arrive with. Let's be forward-looking and inspirational, and let's aspire to be the best." He is "not uncomfortable" with the discredited tag of superhead. "The leadership must be effective. Not necessarily inspirational, but tangible and able to make things happen."
Around half the staff from Earl Marshall had been reappointed to Fir Vale when Mr Howe arrived. While some new staff were persuaded to come to the authority with the guarantee of alternative employment should the school close down, Mr Howe took his chances, with neither a safety net nor a fixed-term contract. "A lot of people were anxious as to how long I'd stay," he says. He looked for "quality teachers with a passion and a love for their subject".
Following the resignation of three Fresh Start superheads within five days, the policy was relaunched in 2000 with more funds for schools. An extra pound;400,000 over two years enabled Mr Howe to boost salaries by 5 per cent during a crucial period. "I had the flexibility to handcuff a few people," he says. Despite some difficulties in music - currently offered only to key stage 3 - and science and maths, Mr Howe says recruitment and retention are no longer problems. "There are great opportunities here for people with the passion to buy into the idea of inner-city schools." Three teachers are here on the graduate training programme.
Three out of four Fir Vale students are Muslims, with second and third-generation Pakistanis the largest single group, but with some Yemenis and Somalis. More than three out of four speak English as an additional language and about one in 10 are refugees or asylum-seekers, living in what the head describes as a "harmonious, but polarised" community.
The school's population and fortunes mirror the experience of this part of Sheffield. Handsome detached houses on the hill above the school give way to smaller workers' cottages further down; the steel industry here brought wealth for some, and, when it collapsed, left poverty in its wake. Sixty per cent of Fir Vale's children are entitled to free school meals. Now the drive for regeneration in Sheffield is reflected here. Around pound;15 million has been spent in a private finance initiative rebuild of Fir Vale.
House prices locally have jumped from pound;10,000 for four bedrooms a few years ago to pound;90,000 now. "That's not just the boom," says Hugh Howe.
"The school is part of the regeneration strategy."
Fir Vale's new accommodation - a classically PFI-styled, long, low, modern building with landscaping front and back - makes a resounding statement.
But the physical structure, says the head, is just one element. "You can use a building like this to promote the idea that things are going to be different." The transition period, while the new school was built, was difficult. "At one point, all PE was off-site. That was our biggest challenge."
Trust in the school has grown locally. But Fresh Start in itself did not make that happen. "The difficulty was getting the community back on our side," says Mohammed Ziarat, whose three children and two sisters have attended the school, and who now trains mentors to work there. "We were never going to do that by just changing the name, opening the doors and saying this is a new school."
Instead, Mr Ziarat and Mr Howe knocked on doors and listened to concerns about teaching, behaviour, truancy. Mr Ziarat says: "The message got out that something was happening at Fir Vale." Year 9 parents' evening demonstrates the success of their strategy, as Somali women fragrant with sandalwood listen to the head's PowerPoint presentation on GCSEs while their children translate. Afterwards, Somali and Arabic translators are on hand for teacher consultations; three-quarters of Year 9's records of progress are collected from the table.
"Everything changed," says Malika Abdullah, who has three children aged 12, 13 and 16 here. "Before, the school wasn't safe. Now, I see my kids working."
A prime requirement at Fir Vale was behaviour management. The staff used "assertive discipline" - a clear system of expectations, rewards and consequences imported from the United States - to "establish a culture so that teaching could take place", says Mr Howe. The head made half a dozen permanent exclusions in the first year, down to three last year.
With 40 per cent of young people on the special needs register, mainly for moderate learning difficulties and emotional and behavioural problems, the easy atmosphere continues to be worked at. An on-site learning support unit managed by Julie Elshaw is supplemented by a local authority initiative called Cellar Space, in which students get one-to-one attention.
Although Fresh Start means automatic removal from special measures, as the "old" school is closed down, it also entails termly monitoring visits from HMI. "We found it very positive," says Mr Howe. "It's support. But it's also about challenge and accountability."
The lack of any blueprint made room for the Fresh Start unit at the Department for Education and Skills to try to empower schools individually, he says. "We've embodied a principle of working with the DfES, the local authority and the school community. Partnership here is not a cliche rolled out because it suits."
In summer 2001, the inspectors stopped their termly visits. But in the autumn, Ofsted arrived. "It was a little early," says the ever-professional Mr Howe, "from a point of view of motivating staff. Because that generates a huge amount of work and we'd only been in the building half a term." But Ofsted drew a line under the school's troubled recent history. In a positive report, the inspectors found that Fir Vale was "a good school with many outstanding characteristics". Compared with schools with similar test results two years previously, the GCSE results were "well above average" and Mr Howe's leadership was "outstanding". Ofsted was sufficiently impressed to have recently returned - this time sending a film crew to make a training video on good practice.
Mr Howe believes Fresh Start has had a bad press. "We're an example of where it can work. We're always going to find ourselves in challenging circumstances - we can't change the environment out there, or the housing situation. We can't say results will rise and rise - but the school is now recognised in the community, in the city, and nationally."
It is also recognised at Buckingham Palace. The Queen took home a piece of technology coursework as a souvenir of her visit - a cushion made in one of the school's new workshops. The maker, one of last year's GCSE students, was "glad it's going to a nice home".
* CASH AND CRASH: THE STORY OF FRESH START
* Nineteen secondaries have had Fresh Starts since the programme was introduced in 1998.
* Two - Firfield in Newcastle and Telegraph Hill in Lewisham - have closed.
* Four were placed in special measures: Telegraph Hill (closed), Islington Arts and Media, Kingswood School in Hull and the East Brighton College of Media Arts. All are now out of special measures.
* Around pound;13.5 million for budgets and pound;48.6 million for capital projects has been allocated to secondary Fresh Start schools.
* Fourteen primary schools have also had Fresh Starts. They have received pound;5 million for budgets and pound;12.1 million for capital projects.
* Although no secondary school has been placed in Fresh Start since September 2000, there are plans for two new Fresh Start secondaries next autumn, in Thurrock and Walsall.