Fresh Start scheme turns sour

12th May 2000 at 01:00
As the first school to be reopened looks set to close, Warwick Mansell reports on the policy's problems.

THE GOVERNMENT'S Fresh Start policy for turning round struggling schools was this week dealt yet another blow after the first comprehensive relaunched under the scheme was ear-marked for closure.

Newcastle City Council announced that it was consulting parents on a plan to shut Firfield community school because it had been unable to attract enough pupils, and has a budget deficit of around pound;200,000.

Under the Fresh Start scheme schools are closed and reopened with a new name, new management and often new staff.

Despite receiving pound;1.5 million from the Government since it re-opened in September 1998, the former Blakelaw comprehensive has struggled to recruit the extra pupils that would have secured its long-term future.

The school suffered a setback in March when head Carole McAlpine, who sanctioned a Channel 4 documentary about the school, became one of three Fresh Start heads to resign in a week.

Its proposed closure may strengthen calls for the Government to give extra money towards Fresh Start schools' operating costs; it presently funds only "capital" costs such as refurbishment. This means a school's long-term survival can depend on recruiting more pupils - often in the face of intense public scrutiny - as funding from local authorities depends on pupil numbers.

The council is consulting on opening a new school in an existing building or on a new site. It has claimed that it originally wanted to close Blakelaw but was persuaded not to do so by Stephen Byers, local MP and now Trade and Industry Secretary, when he was schools standards minister.

East Brighton college of media arts, another Fresh Start school which lost its head last term, has appointed Clive Frost, director of East Brighton education action zone, as acting head until Christmas. Eighteen staff are reported to have left the scool in the two terms since it was re-opened. TIMETABLE OF SETBACKS

March 1: Education Secretary David Blunkett calls on local authorities to set up Fresh Start secondary schools where less than 15 per cent of pupils achieve five or more good GCSEs for three years. A list of 86 schools under threat is published in The Times.

March 8: Westgate community college, Newcastle - one of the schools on the list - begins a frantic search for a new head after the man they had earmarked for the job pulls out saying he could not face years of government criticism.

March 8: Professor Michael Barber, head of the Government's standards and effectiveness unit, writes to the schools on the list assuring them they are not "automatically at threat".

March 9-14: Three "superheads" running Fresh Start schools - Carole McAlpine at Firfield community college, Newcastle; Torsten Friedag at Islington arts and media school, north London, and Tony Garwood at East Brighton college of media arts - resign in the space of five days.

April 14: Sheffield council announces it is having such difficulties recruiting new staff for Herries school, which is being re-opened under the policy, that it was having to offer them guarantee of work elsewhere if the relaunch fails.

April 27: Mr Blunkett appears to acknowledge recruitment difficulties facing Fresh Start schools by promising to consider giving their staff guarantees of future employment.

May 2: Islington arts and media school, fresh started only last September, sends home most of its pupils for two weeks to sort out serious administrative problems and retrain its staff. Andrew Adonis, the Prime Minister's education adviser, resigns from the school's governing body.

May 8: Newcastle council announces plans to close the first Fresh Start school, Firfield, only two years after it reopened. The school persuaded only 50 pupils to put it as their first choice for September.

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