How boys in one of England's worst schools learnt to dance to a different tune

5th September 2008 at 01:00
Three years ago it was on the brink of closure, but Central Technology College in Gloucester has fought hard to put a smile back on its face, writes Jonathan Milne

It was spring, 2005, a season that nobody at Central Technology College recalls with fondness. Under their breath in the small, cluttered staffroom, teachers muttered the phrase "sink school". The roll at the once proud boys' comprehensive had fallen below 500, and a fair few of these were problem pupils sent over by Gloucestershire council because nobody else wanted them.

The council was preparing to shut down the urban Gloucester school and merge it with a successful girls' school nearby - against the wishes of parents. Jilly Cooper, the novelist, presented a 15,000-strong petition to save the girls of Barnwood Park High from having to share home economics classes with the louts from the boys' school.

Violence was rife at Central, teachers struggled for control in the classroom, and Ofsted said standards were "extraordinarily low". Buildings were run down, windows nailed shut, and the power supply posed a risk of electrocution. Science labs were dilapidated, and the school had entirely given up offering a choice of languages or music.

Yet, ambitiously, the art teacher directed a school production that told the tale of a group of British schoolboys shipwrecked on a tropical island who turn upon each other viciously.

Three years on, the new head reflects on the peculiarly apt choice of Lord of the Flies. "The irony of that will not be lost on you," she says.

In 2006, Helen Anthony - small, blonde and then only 39 - was appointed head of one of the roughest boys' schools in the country. The school had avoided closure at the 11th hour - the Conservatives won control of Gloucestershire council with a promise to save Barnwood Park High. Left with the problem of 464 boys, they found pound;750,000 in petty cash and told the governors to hire a consultant to sort out the school.

The consultant they hired was Sir Dexter Hutt, head of the Ninestiles Federation, along with his team of advanced skills teachers.

It was a brave move. Ninestiles, with its old-fashioned, somewhat authoritarian model for turning round troubled schools, has often been controversial. As executive head, Sir Dexter had overseen a dramatic increase in grades at the Ninestiles, Waverley and International schools in Birmingham. The threat to pupils of being locked up in the "cooler" isolation room for a whole day at a time also led to improvements in behaviour.

Sir Dexter likens the schools he runs to the Royal Navy: no one questions the authority of captains over their ships; and no one challenges the authority of the admiral over the entire fleet.

But this admiral's plan has had many critics: the National Union of Teachers has accused Ninestiles of "alienating" the children in its care. Eileen Hunter, a sacked teacher, accused Sir Dexter of treating staff the same way. An employment tribunal ordered the International School to pay more than pound;22,000 compensation to Mrs Hunter, a union representative, saying she was subjected to "nothing less than character assassination" by Sir Dexter.

He was unapologetic. "I would say that the school has benefited, and the students' education was enhanced, by the departure of Mrs Hunter from the school," he said.

That is just a taste of the blunt self-assurance that causes Sir Dexter to be loathed by some, loved by others.

Vanessa Aris, the council-appointed chair of Central Tech's governing body, regards Sir Dexter with a cool, detached, professional affection. "I've always found Dexter to be firm but fair," she says. "He is very good at getting staff to look at what they can do and what they can't do. Either he brings out the best in them, or maybe this job isn't for them."

And so, at the start of 2006, Sir Dexter and his entourage arrived at Central Tech to begin a Pounds 625,000 three-year school improvement contract.

Helen Anthony became acting head a month later. She and Sir Dexter, it seems, rapidly developed a strong working relationship.

Sir Dexter has been at the forefront of politically correct trends such as personalised learning and "deep leadership". Yet some of the first initiatives at Central Tech were very traditional.

The school was fitted out with a new music room and a new isolation room containing six narrow wooden booths for badly behaved pupils.

Sir Dexter and Mrs Anthony replaced the fleece jackets with black blazers and ties, expanded the prefect system and reinstated whole-school assemblies each morning before classes.

Today the teachers line the walls of the school gym as the boys tumble in off the streets. It has been raining, and the smell of damp clothing is pervasive.

Somehow, the teachers manage to make their voices heard. "Take your coats off, please . Hat off!"

Mrs Anthony calls out. "Guys, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1." And there is calm.

Julian Morgan, one of the deputy headteachers, is taking assembly today. He started his day at 5am with a strong coffee, and that provides his theme.

"Teachers drinking coffee seems to be a national institution," he tells the boys, who are more likely to get their caffeine hit from a can of Red Bull. "I still see people with stimulating drinks in school that they shouldn't have," he says. "I think we've got enough stimulants. The simple message today is, be stimulated by what's going on in school."

He has opened up a little of himself, put himself on the line, and he gets a round of applause.

Despite the strict new behaviour management regime and a "consequences" scheme that rewards well-behaved boys with privileges and school trips which are denied to their classmates, pupils seem to have developed much closer relationships with their teachers.

Joel Edwards, 15, has seen the school change. "The learning wasn't that good - the friendships with teachers weren't that good," he says. "Now everything has improved - even the canteen staff."

Ofsted visited again last year. Inspectors are not usually known for the poetic rhapsody of their reports, but this one was different.

"Central Technology College has been on a remarkable journey, which has transformed virtually all aspects of the school," the report says. "Students themselves talk with glee about how much things have changed and how lucky they are to be part of the school."

Last month, Mrs Anthony learned that 40 per cent of her pupils had achieved five good GCSEs, including English and maths. The results were nearly double last year's 22 per cent, and a far cry from the 2004 low point of 9 per cent.

But Sir Dexter and his team had already packed their briefcases at the end of the summer term. Their work was done.

Ninestiles is now working with a federation of three schools in Hastings, East Sussex. No doubt the pupils of those schools will soon discover what staring at the inside of the "cooler" for six hours is like.

Back at Central Tech, though, Mrs Anthony exchanges banter confidently with senior pupils, some of whom seem twice her size. "To be a female head in an all-male school poses an interesting question," she muses. "If you're white, female, middle-class background, what does that mean to the boys here?"

Many of these boys know women as mothers, sisters, friends, or people who serve at the corner shop. Until they met their headteacher, many had probably never known a woman in a position of authority.

"There might be some who make the mistake of thinking they could treat me differently as a woman," she says. "They don't make that mistake twice."

Last term, Central Technology College performed its first school production since Lord of the Flies. It was an all-singing, all-dancing version of Treasure Island. And Treasure Island, unlike Lord of the Flies, has a happy ending.

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