Death of a school

16th February 2001 at 00:00
You take a job in a Fresh Start school, excited by the promise of support for a radical approach based on more than GCSE results. You muck in when you find the building unfinished days before term starts, and do your best to cover for missing staff. Then the Government pulls the plug. Wendy Wallace reports on the betrayal of Telegraph Hill.

When a baby is born it has to have time to learn to creep and then walk. So how do you expect us to walk without creeping first?" The words of the student council at Telegraph Hill, the Fresh Start school in Lewisham, south London, due to close at the end of the summer term, sums up a sad story of failed promises and impatient expectation.

Failed by Ofsted in its third term, exposed to public scorn because just 3 per cent (or 5 - the figure is contested) of its pupils got five A-C grades at GCSE last year, staff and students learned in December that the embryonic school was to be terminated. But was the failure theirs? Or do its roots lie in unrealistic government demands, Ofsted's narrow forms of assessment and the local council's rapidly chilling feet?

The political waters have closed over the school now. The former director of education at Lewisham, Althea Efinshule, has moved to a civil servant's job with the Department for Education and Employment, and two-thirds of the school's original 40 staff have already gone. A three-month "consultation" period is nearly over, and Lewisham is expected to announce the formal closure of the school in mid-March. Some 150 children have moved to other schools; the remaining 450 will leave in July.

Mike Davies, the inspirational 52-year-old headhunted two years ago to front the school's renaissance, is at home in suburban Chislehurst, Kent. It's six months since he resigned, and he looks well, pacing his dining room, still posing the question that has occupied him for decades: "What are the best conditions we can create for human development?" That was what he asked himself when he took on Telegraph Hill, formerly Hatcham Wood comprehensive. And as at Stantonbury Campus - the innovative Milton Keynes comprehensive where he was head from 1982 until 1992 - the guiding principles concerned relationships between teachers and children, staff teamwork, creating human scale within school, constructive use of time. "And other bits and pieces, like recognising that monumental amounts of learning take place outside school," he sighs. He sighs a lot for an optimist.

At odds with the whole idea of a national curriculum and standardised testing ("If I said I had a level 3 wife, you'd think I'd lost my marbles"), Mike Davies is a thinker. He peppers his talk with references to educational philosophies, examples of innovative practice from Hong Kong, South Africa, the United States.

He came to south London (after eight years' headship of the Stranraer Academy in Dumfries and Galloway) believing Lewisham was committed to looking at what the young people of the borough's most notorious sink school needed. At his interview, in January 1999, he talked about a radical curriculum, and the authority seemed to be listening. Lewisham said it wanted a Fresh Start worthy of the name, a new approach. "It seemed perfect; that we might have the opportunity to widen what counted as the legitimate activity of school," says Mike Davies. With their own two children in higher education, he and his teacher wife, Val, moved south at Easter 1999.

The problems of Telegraph Hill were not new. In its 70-year history, the school had been reinvented several times before. Its underlying social difficulties are brought into focus by the proximity of the chart-topping parents' choice, Haberdashers' Aske's, a blazers-and-playing-fields city technology college half a mile away. As Hatcham Wood, the school had failed an inspection at the start of 1999. The DfEE had turned down the ensuing action plan, and the LEA decided to close the school and begin again under Fresh Start. But once Mike Davies was appointed, the pressure to do something about the school switched from the local authority to him. He says the challenge was "daunting, honouring, unreal".

The first difficulty he encountered was to prove the most intractable. Block ads in The TES made no mention of Fresh Start, but spoke of "exciting opportunities", "children from all over the world" and "innovation" - and attracted some first-rate staff.

But an acute teacher shortage combined with the uncertainties associated with Fresh Start schools meant some posts attracted no applicants. Mike Davies was also determined to get the best. "We were discriminating. We were vociferously keen to get the best we could, but the supply was drying up."

Key posts remained unfilled. The school opened in September 1999 with an enthusiastic but inexperienced senior management team, a third of staff from the old Hatcham Wood, another third newly qualified teachers. It had no bursar (and fewer than the 640 children anticipated), no special needs co-ordinator (although more than one pupil in two had special needs), no maths teachers, an incomplete English department and clerical staff from a temp agency.

The team met for the first time three days before the start of term, to plan the curriculum. They found Telegraph Hill a shambles, with building work unfinished, filing cabinets, desks and resources piled into the school hall, no working telephones and excrement in a corner. "Everyone went and got their jeans and rubber gloves and started cleaning," says Sue Brown (not her real name), a senior teacher still at the school. "At that stage we were nervously laughing a lot, saying to Mike, 'We're not actually going to open are we?'" But they did. Althea Efinshule came to give a pep talk, telling the teachers they were the "creme de la creme". But pupils returned to find the building looking worse than when they had left it eight weeks earlier, staffed by people who, for the most part, did not know their names. "Children were very disgruntled," says Neil Matthews (not his real name), who has been at Telegraph Hill since it opened, and has more than 20 years' teaching behind him. "They had been promised things like computer suites, but they came back to a building site, and it really hurt them. We didn't even have a proper roof for the first two months."

The timetable was in place, but rooms were constantly taken out of action for upgrading. With few staff knowing the site or the children, teachers struggled to keep order. "Kids were running about like mice in a cage. If you challenged them, they'd say 'fuck off' and run away. It was appalling, but the Dunkirk spirit is amazing," says Sue Brown. "You're in it, and what you have to do is get up the next morning and go in and meet those same children again. I can only believe a similar sort of thing happened in every Fresh Start school in the first term."

Despite the traumatic start, Mike Davies continued to inspire his team - or most of them - with a sense of the possibilities. Only one person, a newly qualified language teacher, left in the first half-term. Sue Brown, with eight years' teaching behind her, had been working unsalaried all summer, excited by the prospect of "building a school that offered an alternative to GCSEs; that recognised these were failing pupils and it was not the responsible thing to do to carry on with a system where such a small number can be successful". She radiates integrity and commitment. But she spent evenings weeping on the couch, and had to be pushed into her car by her husband some mornings. "It was worse for the NQTs," she says. "At least I had been successful before, so I knew it wasn't about me."

Although Mike Davies says he does not recognise other people's "nightmarish" description of the early days, he could hardly have got off to a worse start. Bogged down by crisis management, the development of a "living curriculum" took second place. "We were attending to the bureaucratic apparatus rather than creating meaningful learning experiences," he says. "We were working all the hours we could to stand still." It was naive, he admits now, to open the school to 600 volatile children without a full team or a finished site. Why was he naive, after nearly 20 years of headship? "That's a good question." Silence. Sighs. "You have a sense that something will work; that by beavering away, you will get there."

Problems at the birth of the new school are at least partly symptomatic of the way Fresh Start has been conceptualised by the Government. Strikingly similar issues came up at Islington arts and media school, where headteacher Torsten Friedag was trying to do things differently with the added pressure of an inappropriate timescale, on a building site, with teachers and pupils who mostly did not know each other - and a BBC film crew. His resignation in May 2000 was quickly followed by at least three other Fresh Start heads departing their new jobs. Although the DfEE has since organised a network for sharing expertise in these extreme circumstances, at the time Mike Davies was on his own.

Still, the picture at Telegraph Hill improved in the second term. Although exhausted physically and emotionally, staff began to see their baby develop. Some curriculum innovation began to take place. A group of Year 9 and 10 students had a week off-timetable to work on an Edward Bond play. They staged an hour-long production and told their teachers it was the best thing they'd ever done in school. Junior years made soap and handcream and saw science in a new light. Teachers and students went ice-skating together, to experience a skill reversal, built spaghetti towers, had treasure hunts in school. A senior administrative officer was appointed.

In April, inspectors reported that the school was "in good heart and beginning to establish a new ethos and identity. Thoughtful leadership, determination and clear priorities are in evidence".

The ground was being prepared for the vision to become practice. But with, for instance, 50 per cent of Year 7 children having a reading age of less than eight (almost 70 per cent speak English as a second language; in all, 41 languages are spoken at the school), GCSE results suggested little had changed. And within the school there was a perception that the local education authority was not supportive. Lewisham spent pound;1.7 million on the school, which included the cost of a new roof, but there was no budget for curriculum development, and no chief inspector in place at the LEA for Mike Davies's first year in post.

Worse, the education department's belief in the vision appeared to waver almost from the start. "The LEA saw us as a mature organisation," says Mike Davies, "not as an infant that needed support. People thought that because we had a new roof and new windows, things would be different the next day."

Another teacher puts it more bluntly. "The potential for success came with Mike Davies's vision. But the LEA could not cope with the turmoil, and would not give it the time. It lacked the experience to support it," he says. "It operated as a judgmental police force."

One advisor's lesson ended in a riot, the teacher adds. Another came in and offered only condolences. Yet another said she felt "unsafe" on the corridors. "It's not that we accepted bad behaviour," he says. "Our kids have a very different code of behaviour at home and we recognise that to build a meaningful relationship with them we have to meet them halfway."

But despite the authority's perceived lack of support, staff felt they were getting somewhere by the third term. Mike Davies told them he would have been happy to have his own children in the school. "We enjoyed the teaching. We were holding the vision," says Neil Matthews. "With a stable staff and the children calm and productive, we could have introduced the quite marvellous and innovative curriculum he wanted to establish. We just needed some time."

But it was not forthcoming. An Ofsted inspection in the third term was the death knell. "We were just turning the corner," says NQT Jane Connolly (not her real name). "Strangers who had no context walked in and judged us according to national standards." After only 10 months, the school was placed in special measures last July. Staff were devastated. "It was if we were being punished for working in a challenging situation."

"It was demoralising," says Neil Matthews. "Ofsted should have used it as a learning experience, to say, 'This is what a Fresh Start school looks like after a number of months'." Staff believed that, politically, something had shifted; that Ofsted's political masters had no desire to see an alternative model of education begin to take on independent life.

Althea Efinshule came back to the school for a second visit. "It was emotional," recalls Sue Brown. "People were weeping with betrayal. But she didn't say thank you. She just kept repeating that this was a failing school. The teachers felt they'd been stabbed in the back." Mike Davies talks about the "layers of bravery" needed to regenerate a school community such as Telegraph Hill, and keep faith with creating something new. But not all parties were able to sustain it. "There is a huge amount of unfinished business," he says. "It was exhilarating, and it was hard. But we expected it to be hard."

He resigned in the summer, his relationship with the LEA bankrupt. "Radical change was no longer on the agenda. Lewisham wanted something much more orthodox. It had decided evolution was too slow."

Less than six months later, on December 1, the school standards minister Estelle Morris made it clear there was no room for an alternative vision. "We expect all Fresh Start secondary schools to achieve 15 per cent five A*-Cs within three years of opening," she announced. "If, in the professional judgment of the director of education in Lewisham, Telegraph Hill is not likely to improve, the right thing to do is close the school now."

A press release sent out by Lewisham on the same day said: "The issues facing the school are not new; they are very deep-rooted, and it is the opinion of the director of education and culture that they will not be solved within an acceptable timescale."

Since last term the school has been managed by Cambridge Education Associates, a consultancy which sent in a team of three, led by acting head Elaine Starling. As pupil numbers dwindle, the school has set up an office to help parents find alternative places for September.

Mike Davies has no time for blame. Particularly, he wants no blame laid at the doors of former colleagues or the students. "The young people were committed to making their school a success and the commitment of staff was wonderful." Neither does he feel personally culpable for the failure to realise the vision at Telegraph Hill. "Failure is a black and white word, and it's not like that. It's just that I thought we had an opportunity. And some time, in different circumstances, I would like to try to recast the net of children's learning."

Teachers learned a lot at Telegraph Hill. They acquired huge respect for the Hatcham Wood teachers who had gone before them. They had a glimpse of an alternative way of approaching hard-to-reach children, and saw that possibility extinguished. They learned bitter lessons about Ofsted, politicians and expendability. "It's not fair," says Jane Connolly. "If Labour is meant to be working for justice and equality, on the ground it is not happening." Sue Brown says: "I contracted into the vision. I was excited that somebody, somewhere was fighting for an alternative. I put my heart and soul into that. I don't know what to do next. I couldn't move into a school with difficult children where they were just trying to do the same old things."

"Some of us are going to stay on until the end," says Neil Matthews. "We have a duty towards our students. And I don't relish the thought of going into a standard comprehensive school." The challenge now that the school is in the process of closing is greater than at any time since opening, he says. "Trying to keep a group of children moving forwards when they know the school is closing is difficult. My biggest fear is for the Year 10s."

And Mike Davies - what has he learned? "How unjust our society is. How wonderful children, and many teachers, are. The experience has reinforced what I believed. We're all too conformist. We go on and on about change and we just tinker, and kids get shortchanged. When we have a more generous societal spirit, then there'll be hope."

Changing the curriculum: a practical agenda, a report on the life of Telegraph Hill school by Dr John Bastiani, costs pound;6 inc pamp;p from Lesley James, head of education, the Royal Society of Arts, 8 John Adam Street, London WC2 6EZ. Tel: 020 7930 5115 THE STUDENTS' STORY

Open letter from student council at Telegraph Hill, January 2001, displayed in school reception area

Welcome to Telegraph Hill School and thank you for giving us the opportunity to speak to you. Two years ago this site was under the name of Hatcham Wood. We had lots of permanent teachers and everyone was like a family. We had good times and bad times but we stuck by each other. We never forsook each other but when we heard that Hatcham Wood was going to close everyone was upset. We were well known for our talent within the local community. When the school started to make progress, you chose to close it down. You never really gave us a chance to show that we could be better than other schools.

In September 1999, you chose to open up a "Fresh Start" school called Telegraph Hill. Before this term, we had lots of new intelligent and sophisticated teachers until you nasty people decided again to close us down. Every time we strive, you pull us down. We reach to the top, you pull us down.

When a baby is born it has to have time to learn to creep and then walk. So how do you expect us to walk without creeping first?

You didn't consider about Year 9 and 10 because Year 9 are doing their SATs and Year 10 have started their coursework and their GCSEs. Something needs to be done now for Year 10 because we haven't got a lot of time to meet other teachers, students, and catch up with coursework. Do you have any consideration that you're playing with students' future and life here? Because if they get low marks, you are to blame. We think you should consider it. Please put yourselves in our situation. What would you like the council to do? Have you got kids? Wouldn't you like the best for them?

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