Big in Brighton

1st December 2000 at 00:00
Appointed when he was only 30, headteacher Antony Edkins has turned round his south coast comp by emphasising old-fashioned values such as good manners and pride in appearance. But this former RE teacher has a thoroughly modern attitude to management and communication. Wendy Wallace visits a school where everyone is a leader

When parents sit in headteacher Antony Edkins's office and weep because their child has been allocated a place at his school, he proffers a tissue with one of his big hands and a cup of tea with the other. Then he takes them on a walk around the school - at which point their spirits tend to lift considerably.

Mr Edkins has put much time and effort into overcoming the legacy of poor results and bad behaviour at Falmer high school, Brighton. The Fifties classroom blocks are devoid of architectural interest and could do with a coat of paint. But they are litter- and graffiti-free zones, peaceful, with the corridors full of students' bold and accomplished artwork. All around the school, children open doors for visitors unbidden, offer greetings, make eye contact and smile. Year 11 prefects and school captains - recognisable by their blue sweatshirts - show a proprietorial pride. "It's one of the largest school sites in Britain," says 15-year-old vice-captain Natalie Glaskin, gesturing over the waterlogged swathe of playing fields and woodland in front of the north building. "This way, ma'am," says Remzi Mehmet, also a vice-captain and also 15. "Did you have a good journey?" Some schools take in Year 7s with these social skills written into their bones. But not this one. Falmer high recruits from the Whitehawk and Moulsecoomb estates in east Brighton, where a raised middle finger is as likely a salute as any. "It's taken months and months," says the head, "to train children in manners, to give them the art of small talk."

Antony Edkins came to the 700-pupil, 11-16 comprehensive in 1998 as a supernumerary deputy, after it had been placed in special measures. His job initially was to harry staff and students, to support the head Susan Wright in an emergency standards-raising campaign. "It wasn't a popular role," he says. "But it was about working towards very particular outcomes." In October 1999, Falmer high came out of special measures. The following Easter - after long deliberation followed by a "moment of certainty" in a tea garden by the Blue Mosque in Istanbul - Antony Edkins agreed to take over as head.

The task now is to sustain and build on the improvements already made, and Mr Edkins is playing a different game in school. "Very tight management and high intervention levels work for a short time but cannot be sustained," he says. "It exacts a price, in terms of energy levels. You can't win hearts and minds by constant intervention and management." (As, he told a fringe meeting at this year's Labour Party conference in Brighton, this Government has demonstrated.) Mr Edkins, whose interest in school management is backed up by an MBA and the national professional qualification for headteachers - as well as occasional lecturing at Brunel University's school of education - is curiously reluctant to claim any credit for the "sea change for the better" identified by HMI at Falmer. "The school's success is down to my staff, and the kids," he says. "Everybody in the school is a leader and a manager."

At only 31 years old (30 when appointed) he is one of the youngest heads in the UK, but makes light of it. "It's not something I think about," he says. "We play to each other's strengths, and age doesn't seem to be that important." He says the most important qualification for a headteacher is the ability to listen. "Staff said, 'We can teach these children - if they behave'." In response, he has made improvement of behaviour and achievement a priority. "Your 15 minutes of misbehaviour are up," he told children in his first assembly as headteacher. Any child assaulting a member of staff is permanently excluded. "I won't have it. We are a comprehensive school, not a holding station," he says. The word, he believes, is out. With only two fixed-term exclusions at Falmer this term, the number of pupils barred from school is at a nine-year low. In the corners of his office are desks where students who fail to meet the required standards can be sent to work.

And then there are manners. Mr Edkins has embarked on a campaign, mainly through assemblies, to give pupils this bit of "cultural capital", which he views as a vital prerequisite to more formal qualifications. "It's amazing how many doors open if you turn up on time, say good morning and wear smart clothes," he says. "It gives me great pleasure seeing our pupils confident, and meeting people."

At over 6ft tall, in severe tailoring, gold cufflinks and a silk tie the colour of the November sky, he is a powerful role model. In the corridor he is stern with a boy who lacks the regulation maroon sweatshirt, towering over him, implacable. "Because he looks scary, everyone thinks he is scary," says Gemma Offord, Year 11 pupil and prefect. "But he's not if you get to know him a bit better. If you behave, you can get on with him," says another.

Mr Edkins is after what he calls "character transformation" for his pupils. Despite a focus on achievement, he insists that the success of a school such as Falmer cannot be judged by league table results (20 per cent of pupils scored five A-Cs last summer, up from 17 per cent in 1998). He cites with pride the introduction of the prefect system - "It's about creating some traditions for the school. We need some traditions" - and the fact that Falmer is a flagship school for Education Extra, the charity promoting after-school activities, of which he is a trustee. "It has given them real purpose after school. They do swimming, line dancing, wrestling. They've been to the Dome." And a group of around 35 students does kickboxing - coached by one Antony Edkins.

He gets out the photo album, to show pupils meeting journalist Polly Toynbee (whom they liked) and the Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Mandelson (whom they didn't), at the Labour Party conference. He has pictures, too, of Year 11 girls mingling with pupils from the nearby independent school Roedean - "They mixed in well" - and Falmer children at the Royal Society of Arts in London, with education minister Jacqui Smith. For young people who might otherwise rarely get as far as Brighton beach, this does indeed represent a widening of horizons.

Mr Edkins did his first degree in theology at Exeter University, and considered being ordained as an Anglican priest. He remains a "communicant member of the Church of England", but says teaching seemed the right thing for him. On his office walls, along with the prints by French photographer Robert Doisneau, is a placard reading: "For thine own purpose thou has sent the strife and the discouragement." Although he has had job offers from Church of England schools, he is committed to Falmer. "I like the school I'm in, the feel of it. These are the kinds of things I would want to do in any school."

After swerving away from the priesthood he did a masters in education at Cambridge and began his teaching career (RE, PSE, food technology and games) at a struggling Slough comprehensive, an experience he describes as a "baptism of fire". From there he went to Charters, Berkshire's flagship school, and then back to the other end of the educational spectrum, to a Hounslow school where only 10 per cent of children achieved five A-Cs. "Top of the league is hard, although you don't have the behaviour problems," he says. "But kids are kids. They all watch The Simpsons, they all watch South Park."

This varied teaching experience - on top of his own schooling, which he cagily describes as "a bit of state and a bit of independent", perhaps explains the original blend of strategies in play at Falmer. He has argued in the Secondary Heads Association magazine, Headlines, that "there is no single right way of leadership", and appears sincere in his desire to empower staff and children. "I didn't come into teaching for those one or two days in August when you get exam results," he says. He is also influenced by his longstanding involvement with St George's House, in Windsor Castle, a thinktank on education and related subjects. "It's been an opportunity to think through a lot of issues," he says.

Antony Edkins is ambitious for the pupils, if not in the way the Government would like. "The kind of character transformation I want to see is going to take five to seven years at least," he says. "It will take that long to really thrive."

A session in the library highlights the progress Falmer has already made with its special needs pupils. A Year 8 English group, mostly children with statements, is working on Shakespeare. Thirteen-year-old Sharleen's spell includes "eye of teacher, fur of cat, lips of mum and arm of sister", among other potent ingredients. One boy, squirming on his seat as if electrified, has a piece missing from his ear, bitten off, it turns out, by the friend sitting next to him. But, says Sophia Wilson - now in her fourth term of teaching at Falmer - the children are working. "There has been a radical change since I've been here, in the behaviour of students and their whole attitude to work. This time last year, we would not have been able to bring this group to the library. Now I can, and the majority are working."

Staff at Falmer seem enthused by Mr Edkins's leadership. In a first-floor art room, pupils' pencils are moving, as they draw a collection of still-life jugs and pots. Tom Cunliffe, head of art, has been at the school for 27 years. He says: "There's no panacea in this place. I don't see that we should have been in special measures in the first place. But we actually do have a head who listens to his staff, which is crucial. This is not a school where you can just come in and direct."

In the food technology lab, teacher Margaret Mitchell - at Falmer for 20 years - is supervising a group of Year 9s making sandwiches for staff lunches. It isn't actually child labour - although that is a summer term problem along Brighton's sea front, where 14 and 15-year-olds can earn pound;30 a day working on rides and in catering. These young people are working on the "production line" aspect of their key stage 3 food technology course, dressed up in white coats and hats to make BLTs and egg and tuna sandwiches. For 14-year-old Sam Stevens, this is school imitating life - at weekends he helps his parents in their cafe, although he wants to be a mechanic.

"Morale is good," says Mrs Mitchell, "particularly since we changed our head. We feel he's got the best interests of the school at heart and enthusiasm is catching."

The 60p sandwiches, she says, will yield no profit for the department, because the children are "very generous with the filling". "Be careful with your portion control," she calls out, "because staff will ask, 'How come he's got more cucumber than me?'" The smell of bacon fills the room and the girls and boys in their multiple gold earrings are cheerful.

A rumour persists among pupils at the school that Antony Edkins is an undercover police officer. Some parents apparently believe so too, one father having threatened to report him to his "superior officer". Mr Edkins does not discourage the jibes, saying they appeal to his "antinomian" (anti-authoritarian) side. "In a highly stressful job there are little things that keep you going, make you laugh," he says.

In line with his aspiration to be a listening rather than a talking head, he quotes a range of sources on his school: the director of cleaning remarked on children holding doors open for him; supply teachers say it's getting better; and canteen staff say this is one of the area's least rowdy lunchtime experiences. "Teachers are teaching," says Mr Edkins, with satisfaction. Which, after all, is what they said they wanted to do.

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