Good morning, Havelock;Opinion

23rd May 1997 at 01:00
Although we are less than half way through the year, I think I can already award the prize for the most over-worked phrase of 1997: "They've hit the ground running".

That, we are told, is what the new Government has done, and no ministers have hit the ground at higher speed than David Blunkett and his team. Only three weeks in office and they are already talking improvement targets, action areas, task forces and, lest anybody think they are the tiniest bit wimpish, school closures.

There is something very macho about it all and hitting the ground running is, indeed, a military metaphor. In those old films about Vietnam, American boys were always tumbling out of helicopters and heading, at speed, into the jungle. And we all know how Vietnam turned out.

So is B platoon (Blair, Blunkett, Barber, Byers, Blackstone, Bichard, with Brighouse as an advance undercover agent out in the jungle) running in the right direction?

The trouble with military operations is that their commanders are apt to mistake action ("the enemy of thought and the friend of flattering illusions," according to Joseph Conrad) for progress. Take improvement targets. What exactly is to be improved and how?

A few weeks ago, I visited Havelock School, an 11-16 comprehensive in Grimsby. Here, it seemed to me, lots of things could do with improvement. Grimsby is one of the 10 poorest towns in the country and the area that Havelock serves is deprived even by local standards.

The fishing industry, once the main source of jobs, has collapsed, leaving high unemployment, without the cushion of the redundancy that steelworkers, miners and shipyard workers enjoyed. You can buy a house for pound;15,000; about 75 per cent of the households have no access to a car; none of Havelock parents has had a sixth-form education, never mind a university one.

You will not be surprised to learn, then, that Havelock suffers from falling rolls: fewer than 500 pupils (half of them on the special needs register) on a site built for more than 1,300.

Nor will you will be surprised by the school's examination results. Last summer, just 6.4 per cent of the pupils got five or more GCSE grades A-C, against a national figure of 42.6 per cent.

Yet this school has just received an exceptionally warm OFSTED report. On the academic yardsticks, the comments were unexceptional: "Pupils make satisfactory progress in the majority of lessons"; "The quality of teaching is generally sound". Where the inspectors waxed lyrical was on "spiritual, moral, social and cultural development".

The pupils' personal development, they said, was one of the school's great strengths. The school had given "considerable thought and energy to building self esteem". It had "a clear moral code". The pupils were confident, courteous and friendly; there was no evidence of bullying; the buildings were free of graffiti and litter.

On a brief visit, my impressions were similar. The OFSTED conclusion, then, was that, despite the poor exam results, Havelock is giving good value for money.

The school is only a mile or so from Strand Junior, which also received a good report and then got abysmal test results, leading OFSTED's critics to suggest that the inspectors didn't know their nether regions from their elbows. Perhaps there is something in the Grimsby air that causes inspectors to be generous.

But the real secret, I suspect, is that the head, Howard Horsley, boxed clever. Almost everything was against him. His funding takes little account of his sprawling premises or the high numbers of special needs pupils. He competes against nearby schools with sixth forms. He takes many pupils who are expelled from other schools. He gets minimal support from the local authority, which was, apparently, toying with the idea of closing the school down before OFSTED could get to it. Mr Blunkett, due to visit a couple of years ago, found it suddenly inconvenient when it emerged that his arrival might coincide with the publication of league tables putting the school near the bottom.

Instead of despairing over the school's academic record and trotting out excuses, Mr Horsley wrote his own agenda. "OFSTED is an evidence-based system," he told me. "Clearly, they weren't going to come in and write wonderful things about our results or attendance rates. Therefore, we had to convince them of other things."

He built up a dossier of complimentary letters from people who had dealt with the school - employers praising pupils who had been on work experience, for example. He told the inspectors that one of the school's aims was to steer pupils away from a lifetime of crime. He put forward the unfashionable view that, when children misbehave, teachers should try to understand why. He argues that schools like his should try to create attitudes to learning that will encourage pupils to return to education in later life.

"Personality and character develop in the teenage years," he said, "and thereafter change very little. Qualifications are things you can make up later." He even dared to say: "Most children who leave school are over-qualified for the jobs they get; the idea that they're under skilled is a fallacy."

I'm not sure that I go all the way with Mr Horsley: he relies on the long run to prove him right and, in the long run, to adapt Keynes, we've all taken early retirement.

In any case, I'm deeply suspicious of teachers who talk about moulding personality and character. But I'm glad that the OFSTED system is still flexible and humane enough to give credit to heads like him, struggling again the odds to set his staff and pupils positive and realistic targets. And I fear that B platoon, when it goes storming in with its own improvement targets, may, rather like the Americans in Vietnam, upset some delicate ecology.

Yes, I would like to see more than 6.4 per cent of Havelock's pupils getting higher-grade GCSEs. (And so, I'm sure, would Mr Horsley.) I would also like to see more of their parents getting jobs, living in decent housing, acquiring cars (or at least access to good public transport), earning enough money so that their children don't have to claim free school meals. Plenty of scope for improvement targets there, I think.

Anybody thinking of sending another platoon to that part of the jungle?

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