Alarm at ultimatum to failing schools

9th September 2005 at 01:00
Ruth Kelly wants to give headteachers a year to turn the corner. One, who did it in 11 months, isn't sure she's right. William Stewart reports

Lyn-Marie Hollinshead would have had no problem meeting the Government's tough new one-year deadline for failing schools.

As an experienced head she was drafted in to take over the troubled Simpson school in Milton Keynes last year and led the primary out of special measures in 11 months.

But she has mixed feelings about the new threat from Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, to close failing schools that do not show adequate progress in a year.

"My initial reaction is that all pupils deserve a good education and it is important to improve failing schools as quickly as possible," she said.

"But there is a huge amount of pressure with the whole process of moving forward a school in special measures and I am not sure whether Ruth Kelly's deadline will help or hinder that process."

Ms Kelly prefaced her announcement with talk of schools that had been in special measures for as long as six years.

"That just can't be right because it might be the entire length of a pupil's secondary education," she said.

But in Mrs Hollinshead's experience most schools are not allowed to fail for a year without making significant progress.

She was brought into Simpson school as an interim head by Milton Keynes council in February 2004, five months after a damning Ofsted report placed it in special measures.

Inspectors had identified problems with pupil behaviour, standards in English and maths, management and leadership and the quality of teaching across the school, which has around 250 pupils, many from deprived backgrounds.

"There were significant issues," said Mrs Hollinshead. "It was a school that needed to move a long way, and quite rapidly, for the sake of the children."

The authority had offered some behaviour support since October, but essentially she was starting from scratch. She began by tackling the behaviour and confidence of pupils who were fighting among themselves and challenging teachers.

Mrs Hollinshead also worked on management and staff, who she said were talented but needed their roles clarified. The final piece in the jigsaw was the appointment of new permanent head Lynn Collett at Christmas, who inspectors felt could take forward the improvements that had been made.

Originally Ofsted, the authority and Mrs Hollinshead - now head of Wavendon Gate primary, Milton Keynes - estimated it might be Easter 2005 before the school moved out of special measures. As it turned out, inspectors gave it the all-clear in January.

"We set very clear targets," she said. "But it might been have very different if they had been externally imposed. They were based on what we knew about the school and the right rate of progress.

"Fast isn't always best because these things need embedding."

Her sentiments are likely to be shared by Alastair Falk, who was told this summer that Ofsted had serious concerns about his West London academy in Ealing.

The head - who with a pound;120,000 salary is thought to be the highest paid in the country - told The TES that it took five years for an academy to turn round a failing school.


Leadership 37

Special measures: key facts

* Latest Ofsted figures show that at the end of March there were 285 English schools in special measures: 156 primaries, 96 secondaries, 20 special schools and 13 pupil referral units

* The total was down from 314 at the end of December, with 46 schools coming out of special measures in the interim, 23 going in and six closed

* At the end of March, 295 schools in England were deemed to have serious weaknesses, down from 302 in December

* A further 60 schools had been found by inspectors to be underachieving, while six secondaries had inadequate sixth forms


What leading figures in education said about Ruth Kelly's plan:

"Ofsted's evidence over the years would suggest that if no progress has been made after one year in a failing school, it is unlikely to happen."

David Bell, chief inspector

(But his aides said there was no suggestion that schools in special measures making "some progress" after a year would be subject to closure, a different emphasis to the "significant" or "adequate progress" used by Ms Kelly. )

"Experience shows that it takes on average 18 months to turn around what is deemed as a failing school and that is with considerable support. This move is cranking up the pressure on headteachers, who rarely survive these circumstances, and will do nothing for recruitment."

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers

"There must be a strong suspicion that this is a ruse to increase the number of schools that can be turned into academies, so that the prime minister's target of 200 academies can be met."

John Dunford, general secretary, Secondary Heads Association

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