Better, but some heads are bitter

14th November 1997 at 00:00
The Education Secretary hails it as a success, but others are not so sure. Josephine Gardiner opens three pages of reports on the policy of identifying failing schools which include visits to the schools themselves (see below and next page).

Almost exactly a year ago, the furore surrounding the "worst school in Britain" - The Ridings in Halifax - was at its peak, dominating the media and provoking the Conservative government into an orgy of blame, most of which landed at the door of the local education authority.

Within a remarkably short time, under the leadership of a determined, media-friendly new headteacher parachuted in from a neighbouring school, the "school from hell" had been kick-started along the road to salvation, although it is still under special measures.

It is impossible not to suspect that the Labour Government had The Ridings in mind when ministers decided to draw public attention to 18 schools under special measures and said to be dragging their heels in the drive to improve.

The thinking seems to be the same as that of Alcoholics Anonymous - that only by admitting that one has hit rock bottom can the first steps to recovery be made. Another way of looking at it is that any failing school can improve given enough attention, money, a new head and plenty of goodwill.

The decision to name the 18 schools, taken on May 20, just three weeks after Labour was swept to victory, was "not taken lightly" said David Blunkett at the time. It was intended to demonstrate that "persistent failure will not be tolerated by this Government", and that all the promises to be tough on educational failure before the election were not empty ones.

Six months on, only one of the 18 is to close, and that was on the cards before the schools were identified. On Monday, David Blunkett and Stephen Byers said that only two schools were now giving "cause for concern" and argued that the progress made by the others proved that the application of pressure and support had "galvanised" the schools into accelerating their own improvement.

To emphasise that this was a day of celebration rather than humiliation, chief inspector Chris Woodhead shared the platform to announce another 15 schools are to come out off special measures, bringing the total to have come off to 55. So the so-called "naming and shaming" has proved so successful that David Blunkett has said that the exercise may be repeated.

But the schools themselves are less certain. The head of Morningside primary, Jean Millham, turned the tables on the Government by very publicly condemning the "naming" policy as a destructive waste of time.

Lloyd Marshall, the head of Dulwich high school, sounded uncompromisingly bitter about the whole experience. Dulwich (formerly William Penn school) was judged to have made "reasonable" progress, but its "viability" has been left to the local authority, Southwark, which will decide on Tuesday whether to invest money in the south London school or consult on closure.

Dulwich, says Mr Marshall, has improved more dramatically than any school on the list; the proportion of pupils gaining five or more A* to C GCSE passes has jumped from 9 per cent last year to 22 per cent this year, putting it third in the borough's league table. The intake target, always a problem in this school, has almost been met.

"We have had a Herculean task in a climate of hostility and blame. If the Government claims that it has contributed to the improvement in these schools by naming and shaming them, it shows that it is not living in the real world. It's ridiculous," he says.


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