Free at last

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
The Government believes a year in special measures is grounds for closure. So how does it feel to work in a school that has been condemned by Ofsted for more than a decade? Wendy Wallace visits St Joseph's Academy, where staff and students are euphoric after 11 years of struggle and strife

Her Majesty's Inspectors have numerous and sophisticated instruments for calibrating school improvement. St Joseph's Academy in the London borough of Lewisham has been subject to them all and, for more than a decade, been found wanting. But one snapshot speaks volumes for the changes that have taken place here recently. In a school where the quad was once the occasional venue for a lunchtime fight club, a student is walking down a corridor, book in hand, engrossed in what he is reading.

St Joseph's Academy is celebrating, and for a reason that few would envy.

The school has made a convincing exit from special measures, after spending a record-breaking 11 years in the "cause for concern" category; an inglorious history which seems unlikely to be repeated given the recent announcement by the EducationSecretary, Ruth Kelly, that, after a single year in special measures, closure should be considered.

But this all-boys Catholic secondary has survived. It "sailed out" of special measures, according to inspectors in their verbal feedback to headteacher Liz Lewis after a monitoring visit this summer, the school's fifth encounter with HMI in less than two years. Teaching was 100 per cent satisfactory or better, 57 per cent was good or better and there had been "a sea change in attitudes and behaviour", a "fundamental transformation" in the school's climate. "Staff are elated," said head of design and technology Peter Alexandrou, who rang The TES with the long-awaited news; at last the boys "had a feeling of success".

This 11-16 comprehensive was first put in special measures in October 1994, and stayed there until November 1998, before moving up a notch into serious weaknesses for the next five years. In September 2003, it was once again downgraded to special measures, remaining there until June this year.

Ofsted has confirmed that St Joseph's has indeed spent longer in the "cause for concern" category than any other school. Latest figures show around 280 are currently in special measures.

In spite of its name, St Joseph's is not a new-style academy, although there are plans for it to be turned into one. Jointly sponsored by the archdiocese of Southwark and the De La Salle congregation with which St Joseph's is associated, a new school, St Matthew Academy, is planned for four to 16-year-olds.

Situated where the open spaces of Blackheath meet built-up Lewisham, the existing building has a facade of faded grandeur behind which lies a warren of 1970s facilities; in the school's darker days, the split-level site was difficult to supervise, with plenty of hidden corners where bullying went unchecked. Staff shortages and turnover made a difficult situation worse.

"The boys were in control. It was a frightful place," says Liz Lewis.

Not surprisingly, the school roll is low, with fewer than 600 boys. But some parents - the majority from ethnic minorities - have kept faith with St Joseph's down the years. In the Ofsted inspection of 2003, the school's relationship with parents was the only thing graded at level 3 ("good").

Children come from a vast catchment area across south London, and from more than 60 primary schools, making effective induction difficult.

Long-standing teachers at the school struggle to remember the names of the succession of headteachers who have passed through the school in recent years. Karen Bugge, head of art, recalls working for nine heads in the 15 years she has taught at St Joseph's. Many made valiant efforts; each had to work increasingly hard to gain credibility with staff and students. "You become very loyal to the kids," says Ms Bugge. "That's why I've stayed here."

Liz Lewis had been out of headship for six years, and was working as a consultant when she took on St Joseph's, under the auspices of a school improvement package brokered by London Challenge and Lewisham LEA and managed by George Berwick, head of Ravenswood school in Bromley, who has been involved in other similar schemes. Initially in the school for just 20 days as a consultant, she accepted the post of executive head from September 2004, bringing in Angeline Tyler as deputy, for personal and professional back-up.

Formerly head of a girls' independent school in Edinburgh and deputy at an international school in Hong Kong, it was at another troubled school - Dover girls' grammar, in Kent - that Ms Lewis realised her "taste for recovery". She went on to work for Kent LEA for three years, advising schools in special measures. St Joseph's, however, has proved unique. "It was the worst school I had ever seen, in terms of the need for improvement of its climate and the whole ethos. There didn't seem to be much learning going on and there were huge control issues, massive behaviour issues."

While competency and disciplinary measures have been used, the key to improvement, says Ms Lewis, "is always about team. The individual hero model is a dangerous mythology."

In just 10 months, Liz Lewis has led the school out of special measures and kept most of the teachers and students on board, bringing staff who had been professionally marooned into the new management structure. Clearly it hasn't all been plain sailing - "I think at first staff thought I had '666'

tattooed across the front of my head" - but 90 per cent of the leadership team in the recovery period is made up of people who were at St Joseph's throughout the last spell in special measures. Ms Lewis spends one hour a week with each of the eight people in her leadership team, coaching them or, as she puts it, "growing the talent". These conversations, she acknowledges, can be "robust and very challenging". The leadership group then go through the same process with their staff. "Nobody monitors. You self-evaluate, and you have moderation of that, at every level."

Although teamwork is the key to improvement, schools in special measures most definitely need a visible leader. Liz Lewis moved her office into the heart of the school and wedged open the door. "We just unlocked everything," she says. "The unlocking has been literal and metaphorical."

The leadership team recruited students to write the job ads to go in The TES; invitations to "spice up da lesson" brought an encouraging 22 applicants for the post of science teacher. Contrary to current orthodoxy, the new team extended the lunch break, and put enrichment activities on the menu; more than half of all pupils take part every day. On the day of my visit, performers Urban Mission are working with 30 boys in a basement music room; boys take the microphone, alone or in pairs, to sing gospel, love songs, rap. The warmth they extend to each other's performance is a tribute to the new spirit of respect in the school, and the club serves as a taster for a BTec in performing arts.

Liz Lewis is careful to distinguish between achievement and attainment. "We will beat the drum of achievement, but we will not talk about attainment," she says. "And by achievement, we mean the development of the whole person.

There are no bottom sets and all boys will be in an advanced set for something."

Year 11 student and school council representative Clebson Mendonca, 15, joined the school in Year 7 and says the improvement has been felt by everyone. "Before, students used to say, 'This school is crap, so why am I going to learn if this school is crap?' They sit down now and listen to their teachers." Cleb, an able spokesman for the school, says he hopes one day to build a school in rural Brazil, where his parents came from. His friend, Jude Cox-Augustine, also 15, agrees that the school has changed dramatically: "There is more stuff to do, less shouting. I come here now because I want to, not because I have to."

Just as failing schools hold back pupil progress, so they also hold back teachers' professional development. Peter Alexandrou's department was one of four where inspectors identified a "large amount of good teaching" when they put St Joseph's back into special measures in September 2003. The school is, Mr Alexandrou says, now a better place to work as well as study.

"The head said she wants to make us as professional as possible, ready to move on and be confident for promotion." In the refurbished DT lab, Mr Alexandrou highlights the difference between the gloom conjured by the "special measures" tag and the reality in the school. "The spirit of the staff was brilliant. We united as a body of people to pass the inspections."

Karen Bugge - head of art throughout the 11 years in failing categories and for four years before that - pulls out past and present students' drawings and paintings to make the point that art has been rewarding at school even in its darkest days. "It's not been a straightforward picture," she says.

"Our department has had consistently good exam results and career progression for students. When you're given that label, you want to say, 'Hang on, there's a lot of good here'."

Improvement ultimately came quickly. "It happened so fast, you didn't have time to think," says Peter Alexandrou. "Like doing GCSEs in Year 10, that's what it feels like." It was Mr Alexandrou who invited The TES to St Joseph's to mark the efforts not just of the current team but of those who have tried to make the school better over the past 11 years. "All those years of effort, and suffering. To get out of that successfully cannot go unnoticed," he says.

See Book of the Week, page 18

Measure for measure

* There are 285 schools in special measures in England.

* Forty-four have been put in special measures more than once since 1993 when the category was introduced.

* London has the highest proportion (2.3 per cent) of schools in special measures (200304 figures), the North-east the lowest (0.6 per cent).

* The average length of time a secondary school spends in special measures is 98 weeks, down from 121 weeks in 200304, but still double the Secretary of State's desired period.

* Under new inspection frameworks, the special measures category remains, while serious weaknesses, introduced in 1997, has been replaced by "notice to improve".

* The chief inspector must personally authorise any report that states that special measures are required.

Source: Ofsted

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