The man from Phoenix;Interview;William Atkinson

16th January 1998 at 00:00
No, not the place in Arizona where men were men and buffalo roamed. There was, however, something wild and untamed about Hammersmith School when William Atkinson rode into town. That was in 1995. Two-and-a-half years on, with a new name and a new spirit, Phoenix High is a school reborn. Wendy Wallace spent a day with its inspirational headteacher

William Atkinson is a hands-on head. His hands are on the shoulders of pupils ("Why are you late, son? 'Urry up! Fly to your lesson''); on their heads, deftly removing baseball caps ("You're going to lose that! That is the very last time this term''); extended to his deputies ("Maggie Bailey? Very effective. And beautiful eyes!''); around his black and gold fountain pen, annotating targets, at a wide, presidential desk; and, a moment later, on reluctant bolts and well-worn door handles, as he paces around school with the eye of a caretaker, checking locked exits to the roof and open gates to the tennis courts.

To be the head of a school risen from the ashes is to be, at the start of 1998, a man in demand. William Atkinson takes tea at Downing Street. He sits on the Department for Education's standards unit, and avoids press coverage and speaking engagements. He's on the youth justice task force and the special measures action recovery team (Smart) supporting failing schools. He is the walking, talking embodiment of that priceless and elusive formula: what it takes to turn around a school.

On a raw winter's morning off the Uxbridge Road in west London, what it takes above all else, it appears, is a lot of hard work. William Atkinson starts before 7am every day at Phoenix High, the 647-pupil comprehensive previously known simply as Hammersmith School. After an hour's paperwork he meets briefly with staff before putting on his macintosh and stepping outside to oversee his pupils' entry into school.

"Come on, folks! Quickly! Three minutes!'' He's at the front entrance, trying to inject some of his own urgency into his pupils. He is headteacher as sheepdog, darting over the road to flush latecomers out of the scrubby park opposite Phoenix High, then charging on, shortwave radio in hand, mac flapping, to the parade of shops where he peers into the newsagents, the butcher's, the steam-filled cafe, looking for the trademark maroon sweatshirts with a proud golden bird printed on the front. Men in bloody white coats unloading chickens regard him curiously.

Minutes later, on the way back to school, he comes across two girls, wearing an approximation of the Phoenix High uniform. One of them hands him a note. He reads it and says lamely, "Off you go". The note informs him that the girl's mother gave birth last night, prematurely at eight months. The baby was stillborn.

William Atkinson claims not to have wanted the job of head at Hammersmith School. "Oh God, no. I didn't want it. It was so far gone.'' But he was persuaded by Christine Whatford, education director for Hammersmith and Fulham council, to leave a life of relative comfort at Cranford Community School, in Hounslow, and entwine his fortunes with those of ramshackle, graffiti-ridden Hammersmith School, where he became the fifth person in two years to call himself headteacher and where supply teachers often didn't make it through the day.

His experience of a range of London comprehensives, including two previous headships, helped. "This wasn't a place to learn the game. You had to have bags of confidence that your prescription was right."

His notes from his first visit record impressions of "fear, indifference, resignation. Depressing site, rampant abuse of buildings. Buck-passing dominant style of management. Pockets of good practice." He says now: "It was an extreme example of a secondary school out of control. It made me very angry to see that the most vulnerable section of the community were allowed to behave in the way that they were behaving."

Mr Atkinson, 47, asked for, and got, pound;150,000 to improve school accommodation and an annual grant of the same amount to pay for extra staffing for three years. In return for that, and a salary of pound;60,000, he committed himself "lock, stock and barrel". He is not on a fixed-term, "visitor's" contract.

When Mr Atkinson joined Hammersmith in the summer term of 1995, only 46 primary school leavers put the school down as their first choice. Last autumn, Phoenix High had 174 Year 7 pupils. The figures show what local people think of the changes he has wrought. And it is in their name rather than the Department for Education's that he conducts his crusade.

Hammersmith families were, he says, being "ripped off" by the school as it was. "It was not only failing the pupils and parents but actively disabling them. And these children need the school to work more than my children do (he has four, aged between 9 and 22), or your children do. These parents can't compensate."

This strength of feeling derives partly from his own experience. Born in Jamaica, he came to Britain aged seven with his mother and two brothers. He feels in debt to the education he received: "I owe everything to the support I had from my teachers.'' Physically, Phoenix High has been transformed. It's still a low-rise, red-brick affair hemmed in by the huge White City estate. But the graffiti has gone, broken windows have been replaced, and grimy floors sanded and polished. The tennis courts have been resurfaced, the great hall refurbished, and the children kitted out in the new uniform (the school allows parents to pay the pound;40 in instalments). Children's behaviour has improved, as have exam results (the number of pupils getting five GCSE grades A to C rose from 5.4 per cent in 1995 to just over 16 per cent last year) and attendance.

Phoenix High came off special measures in March 1997 (the framed certificate sits in the head's office beneath a vase of silk lilies). But the battle to raise standards is still being fought. Atkinson is out of his office at every change of lesson, posted like other senior staff at strategic points, containing adolescent energy and quietening pupils. "Playing the corridors," he calls it. "Where are you coming from son? Where are you going? Tuck your shirt in. You're not here to playfight on the stairs. 'Urry to your lesson.'' (He drops his aitches, Jamaican-style, in the middle of an otherwise posh accent.) Improvement has brought different problems toPhoenix High. One is a new-found popularity - the school has become a magnet for children excluded from other schools. Mr Atkinson is interviewing one of them today, a hapless-looking youth who was permanently excluded from his previous school because, he says, he "couldn't get on with teachers".

It doesn't take the head long to discover that the boy was expelled for burning another pupil's neck with a lighter, after around two dozen other serious incidents, some of them also involving fire. Mr Atkinson is perched on the front of his desk now, brow creased. "I bet you really liked thecompany of the bad boys. And I've got so many bad boys here already David. Is there any reason why I should take you into this school?" David can't answer. He sits with his mouth open fingering his gloves while Mr Atkinson lays it on the line, in a tone more of sorrow than of anger. But the question is also addressed to a broader audience. Atkinson does not want any more challenging pupils. He's struggling with the 10 per cent he already has, children who he says are so emotionally disturbed he feels ill-equipped to educate them.

But, because of its past, Phoenix still has plenty of places in the higher classes. "It's getting to the point where I'd rather defy the rules,'' he says. "Someone like myself needs to say, 'Hold on! This system is rotten'. If you start from a low base of ability and behaviour and keep topping it up with children who've been excluded from elsewhere, it's set up to create failing schools.

"We should either spread these kids around the system, or give failing schools the best accommodation, the best teachers, and pay them accordingly. I have to confront this every day, and I'm getting to the point where I want some honesty."

The head gulps a bowl of microwaved soup for lunch, and is straight back out with the children, ensuring an orderly lunchtime in the hall. He makes it look easy; the children know the ropes now, and Mr Atkinson is not afraid to josh with them.

The message that he will take to high places is that school improvement is messy and difficult, and made harder by a system that discriminates against struggling schools. There are some universals in school improvement, he believes - higher expectations, better lessons, homework, feedback, a clear system of rewards and sanctions, a decent environment - but there is no template for success.

"It's a question of sensing what's required, as well as seeing and analysing,'' says Mr Atkinson. He has tried to build on the good practice that existed in the school, and says he has learned from children, parents, staff and even local shopkeepers. The answers to school improvement do not lie "in those silly textbooks", although he has one or two in the glass-fronted bookcase in his office.

Good teaching is the key. He has parted company with many teachers from the Hammersmith era, a process made easier by the fact that many of them were supply or on fixed-term contracts. Only seven from the old days remain out of a current staff of 42. "I don't celebrate failure,'' he says. "And failure was endemic.'' He faced down the National Union of Teachers, who he says had "stepped into the management vacuum" in the school, and now claims good relations with staff and union representatives.

Lunch over, he has a meeting with Steve Foot, teacher in charge of geography, setting targets for the number of A to C grades in the forthcoming GCSEs. Steve Foot is discouraged by the recent mock results. Atkinson, as ever, accentuates the positive. "She got a D? That's not too bad! She's knocking on the door!'' He leans on Foot to set an optimistic projection, of 22 to 25 per cent. There is pressure on staff, but Atkinson makes no apologies. They need, he says, to work "outside the comfort zone". He is also their most vocal supporter, however.

"I'm becoming an advocate for teachers who choose to do their business in these kinds of schools, and are good at it. If you haven't got quality in the classroom, you won't get anywhere."

William Atkinson does not believe his job is done. "I did the easy bit, the visibles, in the first year," he says. "The real job is much more difficult than I first thought it would be." Phoenix is still permanently excluding pupils and struggles to attract enough of the high-quality staff it so desperately needs. Resources are key. "You need tangibles,'' says Mr Atkinson, banging the table. "It's a lie to pretend you can do it without.''

The day ends with a senior management team (SMT) meeting. Mr Atkinson talks through attendance with two deputy heads and the head of lower school, looking at which families have had court warnings, which children have been temporarily excluded, who's had flu, played truant, gone to Ireland. It's the end of a day which for the headteacher began at 5.30am, and there's a feeling of exhaustion in the room. The SMT members pick up their own coffee cups as they leave; Mr Atkinson turns his attention to more paperwork.

A tiring business this school improvement.

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