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A teaching knight's day to remember

Ever since a smitten female journalist invited him (in print) to come live with her and cure her local schools, Geoff Hampton has been a bit wary of the press.

Even without smitten journalists, becoming the first knight to head a state school since 1966 has embarrassments enough. There is the "Sir Sir" problem, for a start. But Sir Geoff, who received his knighthood at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday - an historic occasion rendered even more so when the ceiling collapsed - has not suffered too much. The reaction of his students at Northicote School, Wolverhampton has been "really marvellous" and his 46 staff, though they tease him mercilessly, are thrilled to bits.

A Wolverhampton man born and bred, he has been especially touched by "the number of people who've taken the trouble to come into the school or to greet me out and about and say how much it's meant to them - a wonderful and quite tangible spin-off," he says.

But he has done something wonderful and quite tangible for the area, the deprived suburb of Bushbury. Forget Office for Standards in Education reports and league tables: the sign that you have really turned a school round is when local estate agents tell you that proximity to it has become a selling point.

Of course, proximity to a school only matters if it is oversubscribed. Four years ago, that was far from being the case. After a damning OFSTED report in January 1994, it was named as Britain's first failing school and numbers reached an all-time low of 520.

The Ofsted inspection took place only two months after Geoff Hampton had come to the school as head, replacing one who had been there for 27 years. He had not come far: from two comprehensives in neighbouring Dudley, where he had risen through the ranks from craft teacher to deputy head. In fact, the only time he has been out of this particular neck of the West Midlands was when he did his Cert Ed at King Alfred's College, Winchester.

His first line of attack at Northicote School was on visible things: redecorating the defaced walls, getting rid of graffiti and broken windows, introducing a uniform and smart school bags. Then came a new management structure and clear disciplinary codes. And all the time he was out and about in the school, enthusing teachers and students.

Sir Geoff doesn't do paperwork during school hours and a motto on his wall says "A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world".

Northicote came off special measures in November 1995. Numbers have risen steadily since 1995, now stand at 650 and are expected to peak at 850. Attendance has improved dramatically and exam results, after a few years of going up and down, are expected to rise from 12 per cent getting five A to C grades last year to 30 per cent this summer, when the first Geoff Hampton cohort goes through.

Teachers often dislike one of their fellows being singled out for praise. Has he noticed a narky reaction among colleagues?

"I'd be the last to know," he says, "but I have to be sensitive to that. I would regard this knighthood as very much a team effort - as much for the parents and students as the staff and governors and, of course, the education authority. Therefore I can rationalise it and understand it and, I hope, stand there with a good grace and accept it."

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