Days of despair at 'slug' school

4th November 2005 at 00:00
A former head has blown the lid on the privately financed school building forced to shut down after a catalogue of disasters. Graeme Paton reports.

When pupils at one of the country's most notorious comprehensives were asked to compare their school to an animal, there was an almost unanimous reply: a slug. "Stupid, dirty, slimy and slow."

The brutal verdict, delivered to researchers in 2002, was a cruel blow but appeared to capture the shambolic state of the East Brighton college of media arts.

The school, serving one of Brighton's most deprived estates, was overrun with difficult pupils, only a small number of whom were expected to leave with five good GCSE grades.

It was in the middle of a disastrous rebuilding project, under the Government's private finance initiative (PFI), which had left the school resembling a building site.

And despite the best efforts of staff, it was making little or no progress.

This summer the school, known locally as Comart, finally closed - shutting its doors with the worst truancy rate in the country and leaving the local council with a pound;4.5 million bill, the result of severing the PFI contract early.

Now, a former head of the school - which was used as a guinea pig for a series of national government initiatives, including Fresh Start, PFI and the academies project - has lifted the lid on the succession of failures that sent the inner-city comprehensive into terminal decline.

In a book published this month, Dr Jill Clough describes how interference by the local council, coupled with the ill-judged decision to include Comart in a pound;105m private-sector deal to refurbish four of the city's schools, ultimately led to its downfall.

Particular criticism is levelled at Jarvis, the construction firm handling the PFI contract, with claims of shoddy workmanship and missed deadlines.

Dr Clough also describes how workmen, refurbishing the school as lessons continued, had to be reminded by staff to wear protective clothing and safety helmets.

"They walked over the roofs without harnesses, seemingly oblivious of the role-model they were offering to boys seeing them from below," she says.

Dr Clough, a former private-school head, led the pound;9,000-a-year Wimbledon school for girls before she moved to Comart in January 2001. The Brighton school, which had seven heads in the previous 10 years, had just been put into special measures only six months after being reopened under the Fresh Start scheme.

Although Dr Clough pulled the school out of special measures within 12 months, she said the impact of PFI was too much to bear. Comart was added to the 25-year contract "as a token of good faith" because the council "wished the school to succeed", she said.

But to remain sustainable the school needed at least 700 pupils - 200 more than the roll in 2002.

Dr Clough alleges that to boost numbers, children with learning and behavioural problems were blackmailed into joining from other schools, compounding its problems.

"We were having to admit more and more dysfunctional students," she says.

"Parents would freely tell us that they had removed their child from another school under strong encouragement to do so or we may have to enforce a permanent exclusion.

"Scarcely had we begun to settle and stabilise the large number of distressed and dysfunctional students than more arrived from other schools."

Dr Clough said Jarvis's management of the project, which included building a new block and refurbishing the existing site, added to its difficulties.

She said building work, which was supposed to start in the 2002 summer holidays, was delayed, so the school reopened nine days late.

Plans for a school radio station had to be axed because it was too expensive. The school's "truly dreadful" science labs were not included in the original Jarvis plans and a reconstruction of internal corridors was botched.

Dr Clough negotiated with the United Learning Trust, a Christian charity, to sponsor the school as one of the UK's first academies - an attempt to bring in fresh expertise. But, she said, Sir Ewan Harper, the ULT chief executive, was so unimpressed with the rebuilding work that they would only back the school if it pulled out of the PFI deal, which it could not do.

"It fell so far short of his standards that he could not accept the work,"

she says.

Dr Clough, who said she was eventually forced to work 12-hour days to keep the school afloat, describes how she was forced out of the job when the council issued a press release about the academy plans - even though she had not yet informed her own staff, who were angered by the idea. "This was just another example of the authority's stabbing the school in the back,"

she says.

Dr Clough took long-term sick leave with acute exhaustion in late 2002 and now works as a consultant for the National College for School Leadership and the Secondary Heads Association.

The school, which continued to lose pupils, closed this summer, and the council was landed with a pound;4.5m bill for terminating part of the PFI contract. A council scrutiny committee report published in May criticised the local authority's gamble to include Comart in the PFI contract, saying senior officials knew there was a 50 per cent chance it would be forced to close.

Jarvis was forced to sell some of its PFI contracts across the country last year after it made interim losses of more than pound;283m.

A Jarvis spokeswoman said: "While we do not comment on the specifics of our contracts, we do continue to work closely with the LEA. Jarvis also has a strong safety culture and adheres to safety standards."

Brighton council refused to comment because it had not seen Dr Clough's book.


Why State Schools Fail, pound;9.99, is published by UIT Cambridge this month and is available from bookshops or by emailing:

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