Blessed with a talent for failure

11th May 2001 at 01:00
Steven Andrews specialises in tackling difficult situations, and in Leicester he is experiencing his biggest challenge, even though the authority appears to have escaped the threat of privatisation

FAILURE has often played a central role during Steven Andrews' education career.

It started when he flunked the 11-plus and ended up as a machine apprentice for Rolls-Royce in Bristol.

Since then he has headed failing schools and taken charge of the Government's Fresh Start initiative. Now he is running an authority that has been in trouble. He is the director of Leicester city council, which has been criticised by inspectors and faced the threat of privatisation.

He had to call on his wealth of experience in tackling challenging situations and turning round failing institutions when he joined Leicester last May.

His own early difficulties prepared him for his role. After his academic failure, Mr Andrews came back fighting. He re-took his A-levels and won a scholarship to Lancaster University. He then trained as a teacher in Leicester. His first job was at the massive, and experimental, Stantonbury Campus school in Milton Keynes.

Mr Andrews, aged 51, gained his first headship eight years after the start of his teaching career, when he was 36. He was told he was mad for taking on two failing schools which were about to be merged.

Within two years, however, Sandringham school in St Albans, Hertfordshire, was the third most improved in the country, with the proportion of pupils gaining five or more A to C-grade GCSEs leaping from 14 to 63 per cent.

When Labour won the last election, he joined the Government's Standards and Effectiveness Unit as one of six adisers who were supposed be "the grit in the system", in the words of the unit's head, Michael Barber.

Mr Andrews took charge of the controversial Fresh Start initiative for turning round failing schools.

He says that in the early days it was the response that was needed, but admits the lack of initial funding could explain the failure of Fresh Start in some schools.

"There was a lot of hope and hurt. The Fresh Start policy has undoubtedly improved performance in schools dramatically but a more supportive and challenging partnership is now necessary.

"I was involved in terms of offering advice and policy to schools but at the time it was without any funding. To work, Fresh Start needs considerable amounts of funding."

His optimism for the future of Leicester LEA, which has been completely restructured, seems to be shared by inspectors who this week reported a dramatic improvement in services since their first inspection in 1999.

But alas, just as failure seemed to be a thing of the past, one of the city's biggest primary schools has been put into special measures - particularly damaging for a recovering LEA.

Even more significant will be what happens to New College, Leicester - the so-called "superschool" formed from three schools serving white, working-class estates. Last year, just 11 per cent of pupils at New College achieved five A to C grades.

This is one initiative that Mr Andrews cannot afford to see fail.

"We need to provide good, successful, valued and achieving schools for the west of the city," he said.

"If we don't do that, then yes, there is a real sense that we will have failed the young people of urban Leicester."

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