Inspection marks the rebirth of Phoenix

6th June 2003 at 01:00
A once notorious secondary school finally has risen from the ashes.

Nicholas Pyke reports.

After spending the best part of a decade as one of the country's most notoriously struggling schools, Phoenix high in west London is to receive an official blessing from inspectors.

An Office for Standards in Education report, due out shortly, will announce that Phoenix, led by Britain's most prominent black headteacher, no longer has serious weaknesses.

Phoenix and its ebullient head, William Atkinson, rose to prominence in 1997 when the failing Hammersmith school became one of New Labour's first Fresh Start experiments. The school was closed and reopened, and Mr Atkinson was appointed to the new standards task force.

Since then, however, its results have remained extremely poor. Although it escaped from special measures in 1997, and has been praised by Ofsted for excellent leadership, Phoenix has been crippled by teacher recruitment and retention problems, and poor behaviour and truancy among the pupils.

Bounded on one side by the Westway motorway into central London, the school takes some of the capital's most deprived children. Sixty per cent are entitled to free school meals, three times the national average, and another 60 per cent have special educational needs. Forty per cent have difficulty with spoken and written English.

Mr Atkinson made no comment this week in advance of the report. But Ofsted is expected to conclude that, despite many continuing problems, Phoenix no longer needs regular monitoring.

The move will come as a considerable relief for Mr Atkinson, the model for the black headteacher in the BBC series Hope and Glory. Rarely out of the public eye, he had seemed powerless to produce the sort of statistical improvements that matter in league tables.

Last year, however, saw a giant leap forward in the school's GCSE results when 25 per cent of pupils gained five A*-C passes, up from 11 per cent the previous summer. It also gained an impressive value-added score. There will be further good news when the school gets a prestigious ArtsMark award from the Arts Council in a few weeks' time for its programme of after-school music and drama.

The news that Phoenix is now offering a satisfactory standard of education will also come as a relief to the Government as neither the school nor Mr Atkinson cast an encouraging light on its policies. The Fresh Start had little obvious impact, while the last published Ofsted report acknowledged that the school's problems were "largely beyond its immediate control", staff recruitment and retention in particular.

Mr Atkinson has been highly critical of league tables which, he says, promote a "superficial understanding" of schools in the public mind and have made his teacher shortage even worse. He has also spoken out against policies which ensure that the poorest and most deprived children, including refugees, are concentrated in a comparatively small number of schools such as his.

Most recently he pinned the blame for budget shortfalls now faced by schools around the country on Whitehall failings.

Mr Atkinson has also gone out on a limb by urging black parents to take education more seriously. Too many, he has said, tolerate a street culture which is inimical to education. He even went so far as to term the disruption caused by disaffected pupils a new form of "black on black" violence.

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