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Steep hill to climb

Elaine Williams meets Michael Bell who is leaving the head's chair at a top school to lead a failing Cumbrian comp

MICHAEL Bell is nothing if not self-possessed. When he announced he was quitting the headship of the Liverpool Blue Coat school, one of the most high-achieving state schools in the country, to take over a comprehensive in special measures on the edge of Carlisle, he was ready for the inevitable response of "You must be mad!"

Nor could the move be explained through the lure of any Government-led incentives. He was not going in as a "superhead" or any such thing. A slightly raised salary of pound;70,000 could not have been the spur.

So what lured him to leave a selective school, secure in its reputation, to steer an unremarkable comp whose claim to fame is being the only Cumbrian secondary to fail an inspection?

Michael Bell says that he wished to return to Cumbria - he was a pupil at Nelson Tomlinson school, Wigton, which gave him the wherewithal to read modern history at Durham University - and put something back into the region.

Although in special measures, he believes Morton school - which he joins in January - has enormous potential. While its GCSE results at 38 per cent A* to Cs seem very poor it "could be worse", according to Bell.

The school looks well-cared-for, there are no signs of vandalism and the children appear well-behaved and it has sizeable grounds.

When he was called for interview he asked two Year 12 pupils to show him around. He said: "I chose them because they obviously cared enough for the school to come back into the sixth form."

Bell also found a committed staff working hard to pull the school out of the special measures imposed in 1998, with the introduction of individual pupil target-setting and improved assessment. No head alone, he says, can turn a school round. They have to have the staff behind them. Morton seemed a risk worth taking.

The headship had been advertised three times before it was offered to Bell. He is reassured, he says, by the fact that governors had a clear idea of what they wanted.

During the past few troubled years the roll, which has a capaity of 1,200, has fallen to 800 and teachers were made redundant this year to clear the deficit budget.

Bell, aged 50, said he had felt the need to take on a new challenge as an issue of professional integrity, different from the challenge he had faced when he took over at the Blue Coat and before that in Yorkshire at Castle Hall, the Kirklees comprehensive he was head of for nine years.

By the time Bell left Castle Hall, 60 per cent of pupils were achieving five A to C grades at GCSE and the school had received an Investors in People award, had gained language college status and was two-and-a-half times oversubscribed.

When he took over at the Blue Coat, 94 per cent of pupils were receiving five GCSE A to Cs. Three years later he has raised that to 98 per cent and last year A-level UCAS points averaged out at 27.4, the highest ever.

Bell is a great believer in value-added and a devotee of the A-Level Information System, the Year 11 Information System and the Middle Years Information System supplied by Durham University's curriculum, evaluation and management centre. For most of his time as head he has used these systems to provide a baseline to lay down detailed individual pupil target-setting and monitoring, a policy which has undoubtedly reaped rewards.

When he took over at the Blue Coat it was obviously successful, but then as a selective school it should have been. He was not going to let things rest there. He said: "The agenda for me was 'were we giving value-added. Were we as good as we could be?'" Obviously not. Bell introduced development planning, appraisal, school planners and individual target-setting and things got even better.

He said: "Now I want to prove myself in a different context again." His immediate task when he takes over at Morton school is to get the school out of special measures "quickly". In the longer term he is looking for performing arts status for the school. "The issue here is to raise pupils' self-esteem," he said. "The extractive industries in Cumbria have all declined. We're not just talking about community theatre here but equipping pupils with skills for the future."

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