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In the shadow of the sword

The Education Secretary hails it as a success, but others are not so sure.

When Richard Warne accepted the job as head of Ashburton high in Croydon, colleagues called him one of the bravest men in education.

He knew the school was on special measures when he applied and he still had time to withdraw when ministers put Ashburton on the list.

He said: "It was daunting. All of a sudden I was head of one of the named and shamed schools, and aware that if Ashburton was not improving within three months then I might be out of a job."

This week the school was listed as making "reasonable progress". Inspectors found its education was improving, but noted that the school had to tackle its deficit. This is likely to be done through restructuring staffing and reviewing the curriculum, Mr Warne said.

Outwardly, the school appears problem-free. The pupils seem well-behaved in lessons, they wear uniforms and their exam results are improving.

Last summer, slightly more than 20 per cent of pupils gained five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, compared with 12 per cent two years ago.

Ashburton was declared failing after an inspection in October 1995. Inspectors diagnosed poor literacy, underachievement and bad behaviour.

In December 1996 the local authority stepped in and appointed an acting head - former National Association of Head Teachers president George Varnava - who was brought out of retirement.

Mr Warne, who took over as permanent head in September after Mr Varnava had arrested the decline, said the last inspectors' report two weeks ago showed significant improvements.

He is heartened that inspectors acknowledged the huge improvement in teaching and learning, and pupils' behaviour and self-esteem.

Mr Warne said that public criticism of the school by ministers had meant that teachers had lived "under the sword of Damocles".

"It was different for me because I was going into a new job, with different perspectives and refreshed for the challenge ahead," he said.

His SMART (special measures action recovery team) adviser is William Atkinson, the head of Phoenix High in Hammersmith and Fulham, itself a former failing school.

Mr Warne said: "He cannot run his own school and mine at the same time. I suppose one has to have self-belief. I am not arrogant enough to think that I cannot learn from other people. It has been good to bounce ideas off each other."

He added that he was pleased with his school's appraisal this week, but was disappointed to see that improvements in pupil behaviour and attendance had not been mentioned.


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