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The shock of the new;Profile;Interview;Judith Mullen

Judith Mullen is breaking new ground this term: the former president of the Secondary Heads Association has been headhunted to transform three failing Leicester secondaries into one successful school. Wendy Wallace meets a woman who describes her new role as 'more chief executive than headteacher'.

It's the first full day of term at New College, Leicester. The floors are polished, there are fresh carnations in the entrance hall. The teachers are in suits, sporting sharp haircuts. "Oh crikey," says one, as the swing door closes behind her. "And it begins."

For this brief moment the "new" in the name of this 1,650-pupil school is right. New College opened this term, taking pupils from three Leicester secondary schools closed last summer. Principal Judith Mullen, immediate past-president of the Secondary Heads Association, was headhunted to lead the transformation of three failing schools into one successful one. In her office, where good luck cards are ranged along the windowsill, she holds a brief, last-minute meeting with three vice-principals. "Right," she says in conclusion. "Do you want to go for it?" And they're off, slightly edgy hosts at the party which is the opening of a new school.

What was New Parks comprehensive - now New College north and central sites - has been repainted, carpeted and equipped with new laboratories and ubiquitous ICT facilities. Workmen are still wielding pickaxes outside reception and preparing flower beds for planting, while plumbers finish off the showers in the new changing rooms. Last year the site was "absolute degradation", says Judith Mullen, with anarchic student behaviour to match, but now it is a source of pride. She is thrilled with what she calls "the quality of learning environment".

New College south site, formerly Alderman Newton's school and right next door to the old New Parks, was not in such a bad state of repair - or morale - but has also been spruced up. Just under pound;1 million has been spent on the two sites, with more than pound;3 million more budgeted by the city council for new buildings and further improvements on this 45-acre slice out of the west of the city.

That was the easy part. Now Judith Mullen and her 160-strong teaching and support staff must radically change the attendance records, behaviour and performance of the same students.

Children of the New College have already been "refurbished" - in the black and white uniform code most are observing - but with a poverty-ridden catchment area, adjustments to their self-image and expectations will take longer to achieve.

The school serves large council estates populated mainly by white, working-class families. While many parents are keen for children to succeed, others have an adversarial relationship with school which began, often, when they were pupils themselves. "There's been a huge, huge underbelly of failure," says Judith Mullen.

Year 11 gather in the hall for an address by year head Neil Wilkinson. "Welcome to a brand new college," he says, and the students listen in silence, large numbers of staff posted around the edge of the hall, as alert as lion tamers. Latecomers drift in as Mr Wilkinson talks of their "corporate identity" and urges them to make the most of their last year of compulsory education.

Outside in the hall, Sarah from Year 11, and her boyfriend Martin are perched on the edge of a table, wearing the stunned expressions common to new parents. Martin cradles their four-week-old baby while Sarah tells Judith Mullen of her plans to return to do her GCSEs. She is given warm encouragement.

The task facing Ms Mullen is large. Officially in post only a week, she has been team-building and planning since mid-August and did the "this is the vision and ethos" talk with staff just before term started. "It was like doing assembly," she says.

She will be breaking new ground in the principal's role; with New College consisting officially of three federated schools - the north and central sites catering for parallel intakes of Years 7-9, while New College south is home to Years 10 and 11 and a sixth-form centre - she describes her role as more chief executive than headteacher. "I was frustrated sometimes last week because the 'vices' were doing things I would have been doing, like timetables, rotas, the diary. I had to tell myself that's their job not mine. Mine is the big picture."

Ms Mullen borrows from the terminology and the style of New Labour, referring to "the project" and remaining chipper at all times. She and the staff must create the new school against the backdrop of a recent past which has been bloody, with few prisoners taken.

A highly critical Ofsted report this summer on the performance of Leicester (a unitary authority only since April '97) found that one in four of the city's schools was failing or had serious weaknesses, and that the local education authority lacked the expertise to raise standards. Education director Tom Warren resigned shortly afterwards. Six secondary schools were closed and staff had to re-apply for their jobs. Not everybody was re-appointed at the same level of seniority, and some noses are out of joint.

Ms Mullen - whose staff were appointed by a consultant principal and shadow board of governors before her arrival - professes herself delighted with her team but knows she has feathers to smooth. "Some staff will be angry and upset," she says. "But I'll try and give them the chance to put their hands up for something." Unfortunately, the DFEE booklet on her bookshelf, Dealing with Troublemakers, extends only to pupils.

On top of this, some parents and pupils of the third school subsumed by New College, Wycliffe community college - now designated New College Leicester, Wycliffe site - have been unwilling to accept the closure of their school.

Wycliffe was in special measures and failing, with only 2 per cent of pupils gaining five GCSEs at A-Cs in 1998. But it was improving, and families on the highly marginalised north Braunstone estate cherished it. With the site due to be phased out of use at the end of the academic year - and Years 7 and 10 pupils already transferred to the main site two miles away - about 60 children stayed away in protest in the first days of term. A board bearing the school's new name was torn down and returned one night to the main site, daubed with an uncomplimentary message.

Matters are not helped by a history of feuding between children from Wycliffe and the other schools, which stretches back over decades and which rendered the park between them a no-go area. Now children from three schools with a tradition of animosity must come together. Year 9 student Stacey Klifton, aged 13, says: "It was weird. We'd been apart for so long it was strange to be put together, after all the fights that had been going on. It's better than I expected."

Judith Mullen calls in on an assembly where year head Steve Wainwright is informing students that "much will be strange and new. Don't look at the past. The past is gone". Ms Mullen adds a few words, congratulating the children on their good behaviour - although true to her collegiate style, she leaves the reins in the hands of the year head.

Half-an-hour later, she revisits the same hall where Mr Wilkinson is giving the same message to a different group of Year 8 and 9 students. Suddenly it's groundhog day, as he says that "much will be strange and new". Judith Mullen gives them the same speech: "From this morning, your behaviour will be as immaculate as it is now. You'll be attentive, you'll listen, you'll work hard and you will do very well."

Further down the corridor a teacher's voice drifts out of a classroom. "Everybody in the school is expected to do homework." The intensity of the staff, the way they are willing students to broaden their horizons, is palpable.

Everybody has mucked in to get the new school ready. Business manager Maurice Allen spent his Sunday morning marking out the football pitch, as evidenced by his sunburned nose. A room which was a paint store last Friday is a pristine office for vice-principal Simon Catchpole this Monday morning. Back in her office, Judith Mullen is on all fours under her desk, re-connecting the laptop she takes to and from the Leicester flat she has rented until she can move from Cambridgeshire with her husband, an education officer.

The improvement strategy features big planks - close monitoring of attendance, continuous assessment and an intense focus on literacy and numeracy - and smaller ones - soft drinks machines, no smoking anywhere on site and no pupils out of classrooms in lesson-time. "I don't want to see four children carrying a PrittStick," she says.

Teaching groups will be small - 23 on average - and the authority is investing in staffing levels. A complicated management structure encompasses a senior team, leadership team and management team, plus a series of consultation and task groups, and the whole will interact with the education action zone.

But the glittering mosaic of the big picture is inevitably subject to the small tarnishes of real life. Halfway through the first morning, word comes that the refusenik parents and students from Wycliffe are willing to come and have a look at the main site. Judith Mullen organises a minibus in minutes, and marshals senior staff to act as tour guides. "I have to respond positively," she says, brushing her hair and re-applying her lipstick before she goes out to welcome them.

But the parents come in recalcitrant mood and stand in the lobby with arms folded, looking for trouble. "They'replaying football in the hall," says one. "I've seen enough." Unfortunately, and contrary to the orderliness of the rest of the school, some children are. But Judith Mullen didn't come this far without being a fighter. "I admire the fact that these parents care so much," she says, back in her office, jacket off.

She spent last year travelling at home and abroad for the SHA. After leaving leafy, advantaged Melbourn Village college in Cambridgeshire, she had decided that she didn't want another headship. But when she was approached to head New College, she responded to the challenge. "To come and see the potential was incredibly exciting," she says. "It then became almost like a mission." Although her contract is open-ended, she has told staff and governors she intends to stay only five years, by the end of which she will be 55.

"It's not easy," she tells a friend on the phone near the end of day one in this year zero, as a workman towers above her on a ladder putting up curtains and vertical blinds. But she makes it look as if it is.

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