Awash with vision - and dosh

12th September 2003 at 01:00
Alistair Falk lives and breathes education, luckily for his pupils at the new West London academy.Genevra Fletcher talked to the country's best-paid state headteacher

Self-confessed workaholic Alistair Falk is the highest-paid state headteacher in the country on a salary and benefits package worth pound;120,000.

The head of West London academy in Ealing, which opened on Monday, is bemused by the media interest in his pay packet.

"I'm genuinely in this because I find education fascinating," he said. "I applied for this job because it was a fabulous opportunity, not because of the salary, which is actually a bit of a pressure. I love working with kids and being in the classroom. You never know what's going to happen next. I live and breathe education."

But the 49-year-old believes there is a big difference between education and schooling, and he hopes the academy will demonstrate his principle.

"Schooling starts and stops at the school gate," said Mr Falk. "Education doesn't. It's about preparing people for what happens at the next stage, about thinking beyond the confines of the curriculum."

It sounds great, but what does it actually mean?

The West London academy was founded on the idea that learning is a lifelong process. It is funded directly by the Department for Education and Skills and governed by a group of trustees chaired by Sir Alec Reed, founder of recruitment firm Reed Executive, who donated pound;2.2 million to the project.

The academy replaces Compton school, one of London's poorest-performing secondaries. In 2002, only 13 per cent of pupils achieved five Cs or better at GCSE. While results improved this year, 75 per cent of pupils still failed to gain a single pass in core subjects.

But poor performance is only one of the challenges faced. Forty-four per cent of pupils are entitled to free school meals, and a large number do not speak English as their first language. Pupil and staff turnover have been high in recent years.

Mr Falk believes that it is only by creating a welcoming environment for such pupils that performance will improve. "We are trying to create a school that is more people-orientated, to de-institutionalise the institution," he said.

At West London academy it is the teachers, not the students, who get up and move classrooms at the sound of the bell. The idea is to encourage the students to take ownership of their environment.

Sir Alec, meanwhile, hopes the academy will instil pupils with the seven Cs: confidence, communication, creativity, computing, comprehension, charm and coaching.

Touring the school at its official opening, he said: "I'm Mr Falk's biggest fan. I've seen him in action. He's a remarkable head. His vision, approachability and his energy make him stand out."

And Stephen Twigg, education minister, is equally confident that Mr Falk will earn his salary. He said: "He comes with a really powerful record.

He's got incredible enthusiasm and lots of new ideas."

Pupils have also been impressed. Nicole Scille, 14, said: "He's always there to talk to you, and gives you a chance to say what you want. If you did something wrong, he'd give you a second chance."

Mr Falk studied history at Cambridge before training as a history teacher and was inspired by his own experience as a pupil at City of London school.

"I did a lot of drama and had some excellent teachers.

"It was the apogee of a liberal education. We were encouraged to read and think and talk. It was certainly an education rather than schooling."

He has spent most of his 30-year career in faith schools. From 1992 to 2002 he was head of King Solomon high, a voluntary-aided Jewish comprehensive in the north-east London borough of Redbridge. His wife Judi was an assistant head there.

"She's the only person I didn't appoint," he said. "It was halfway through the first term before anyone asked: 'You're not related to Mr Falk, are you?'"

What does Mr Falk, who has three grown-up children, do when he is not living and breathing education?

"My family and my faith are enormously important to me, I'm involved in the Jewish community. But beyond that, the truth is a bit sad because education is my life.

"One of my hobbies is writing children's musicals, but even that started when I was a primary teacher and couldn't find anything for the children to perform."

Trent Austin, who teaches geography at the school, believes that there has been a noticeable change in school culture since Mr Falk's arrival. He said: "There is a real vibrance about the place now. The head is very approachable, and listens to new ideas. He's obviously a man with a plan, and the vision to achieve it. He's no different to the chief executive of a company. Hopefully the size of his salary will contribute to the credibility of the profession."

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