Well-bred accents ring out across the lobby of Wimbledon high school, in south-west London, as leggy girls in navy uniforms move between lessons, the sleeves of their jumpers pulled down over their knuckles. In the school office two alumni, down from university for the holidays, greet each other with a langorous embrace and exchange stories of life without the parents. Outside, a mother in Alice band and pearls waits to see the head at her Wednesday afternoon drop-in session.
But in her study, where Christmas cards crowd together on the bookshelves and a student's powerful life drawings adorn the walls, headteacher Dr Jill Clough insists there is more to Wimbledon high than Sloaney stereotypes. "It's multicultural," she says briskly of the pound;2,000-a-term London day school for girls. "They come from across the city, experience the running fights that are going on. They've got to learn to adapt to exactly the same environment as anybody else."
Nevertheless, to the outside observer, Wimbledon high ("educating lively, intelligent and forward-looking girls since 1880", boasts the prospectus) is a place of privilege and perfection. Well, near-perfection - last year, 99 per cent of its GCSE students achieved five A* to C grades.
It's all a long way from the chill winds of the Whitehawk estate, home to East Brighton college of media arts (13 per cent A*-Cs last year). If the name is familiar, it should be. East Brighton was one of the clutch of failing schools ordered to make a Fresh Start by David Blunkett, a high-profile rescue mission that was to be led by "superhead" Tony Garwood. That was the plan, anyway. Garwood lasted just 18 months, before quitting in March 2000, and three months later East Brighton became the first Fresh Start school to be put in special measures.
On Monday (January 8), in a move as precipitous as anything on a Snakes and Ladders board, 56-year-old Dr Jill Clough waves goodbye to the cosy world of Wimbledon to take over as head of East Brighton. Why? (It can't be for the money. Her pound;65,000-a-year package is "in line", she says, with the salary she was picking up at Wimbledon.) "I have a strong desire to make a real difference in the lives of children of a community that don't have the advantages that I've had," says Dr Clough. "Because I know the difference that a good education can make." The move "feels overwhelmingly like a vocation".
Jill Clough didn't expect to get the job. Although she believes her experience of headship in two independent schools (before Wimbledon she was head for eight years of a Surrey boarding school) will be at least partly transferable, it wasn't a view she expected others to share. After all, she hadn't taught in a state school since 1969. "I wouldn't have applied for the job if I didn't think I could do it," she says. "But I didn't expect to be welcomed back by the maintained sector."
For the past three years she has represented the independent sector on the professional and managerial committee of the Secondary Heads Association. She says the experience convinced her it was possible to bridge the two sectors. "I found that what I was doing at Wimbledon, the questions I was asking, were absolutely pertinent for them. That we were in the same enterprise. Which led me to know that I could do it."
It's a bold claim. East Brighton has been a head's graveyard in recent years. Before Tony Garwood there had been Libby Coleman, who resigned as head of the then Stanley Deason school inFebruary 1998 after three years, claiming her health and career had been ruined. After Mr Garwood's departure, Clive Frost, director of the local education action zone, stepped in to run the school until last December.
But despite East Brighton's bloody recent history, Dr Clough describes her new job as "my present to myself". An English graduate who taught initially in Birmingham state schools, she says she got into the independent sector by accident and has a nagging social conscience which will now be assuaged. She has already stated publicly that she expects to spend "at least five years" at East Brighton.
"One of the things the head has to do is beam out passionate conviction," she says. "I'm very keyed up for it. It has got to work."
Already familiar with the area ("I'd driven through it, walked across it") from her holiday home in Brighton (now her only home), her first move after being told she'd got the job last summer was to talk to health workers on the estate, who described a community of teenage parents and young grandparents, blighted by poverty. "I had an instinct that in managing this I have to approach it differently," she says. "This is about a culture and I want to understand it from the other end."
Nevertheless, she is at pains not to stereotype the catchment area of her new school, saying hopefully that the post office on the estate is not barred and that she spotted hanging flower baskets last summer. "You're not struck by immediate signs of physical poverty. Some parents do live in nice homes, with books. But there are some deep-dyed problems."
One of the first challenges is to gain trust. She hopes that health visitors, priests and others in the community will say to parents, "Go and talk to her, she's all right". She plans to hold meetings in the clinic or community centre if necessary, to get round the fear parents have of setting foot on school premises. "I want families to know who I am, and that I have gone to meet them on their terms."
A divorcee with three adult daughters - aged 31, 29 and 23 - Jill Clough knows how vulnerable parents are when talking to teachers. "We're at our least rational as adults when we're talking about our own children," she says. This applies to the independent sector too, where she believes the emotional temperature is greatly raised by the financial investment.
But as head she knows she has to be realistic. "For the first time in my life I have understood that there is no point in making promises to a community which has had a lot of broken promises. I know you can make a school an emotionally safe place, and it's one of the prime requirements for learning. But where there is such a huge discrepancy between human potential and what people achieve, the school cannot do this alone."
Cynicism about what can be achieved is not limited to those outside the school. One teacher with 20 years' service at the school told her that she would be his ninth head there. She acknowledges "weariness and disbelief" among some staff.
Jill Clough knows she will have to change, but at East Brighton, as at Wimbledon, she intends to be at the centre of the school (a new office has been built to make this literally true) and set exacting standards for all, starting with herself. "Nothing is too good for the children," she says. "I will not be counting hours."
Her resolve is stiffened by her Christian beliefs, a social conscience implanted by her own Bristol girls' grammar school ("an education that said you had to look at the social value of what you were doing") and support from the local authority and governors. "I get a huge sense of collective wish that the thing will work," says Jill Clough. "We will need enormous empathy - and nerves of steel."