Mutiny in Holland Park

15th November 2002 at 00:00
Liberal parents and veteran staff horrified as 'moderniser' leaders bring uniform and setting to former flagship for progressives. Biddy Passmore reports

A modernising head at one of Britain's most famous comprehensives is facing a revolt from long-serving teachers and parents.

The dispute at Holland Park school, whose former pupils include the children of Tony Benn, Shirley Williams and the Redgraves, can be seen as an "Old Labour" protest against the "New Labour" strategies pursued by the head, Colin Hall.

Like Blair, he is also getting tough on the unions. Members of the National Union of Teachers at Holland Park voted by 39 to 3 on Wednesday to strike unless agreement could be reached over the school's withdrawal of time in the week for NUT representatives to do union work.

But the real issue is that teachers feel they have not been properly consulted about unwelcome changes brought in by Mr Hall since his arrival nearly two years ago. Some parents are also unhappy and discontent could break out into the open at next Monday's annual meeting of parents of the school's 1,500 pupils.

Mr Hall's management style and educational philosophy are epitomised by the school's new motto: "seeking genius in people". This term, he introduced uniform for Year 7 pupils and, more controversially, setting in English, maths and science. The school management also withdrew the right of the school's two NUT reps to four lessons of "facility time" each week to carry out union duties.

"This sums up the management's attitude towards the trade union," said Peter Wright, secretary of the NUT's Kensington and Chelsea branch. The union should always be consulted on any changes, including educational issues such as setting, he added.

Some of the most disgruntled staff are thought to be those whose service stretches back to the school's progressive heyday 20 or even 30 years ago.

Last year two former London heads invited by Mr Hall to consult staff on new strategies are said to have found deep resistance to change.

But liberal parents are also enraged. At a secret meeting in June of the Holland Park School and Community Association, more than 40 passed a vote of no confidence in the head and his management team.

Academic progress since Mr Hall arrived has been fast. This summer, the school achieved its best ever GCSE results: 39 per cent with five A* to C passes.

It also received 406 first-choice applications for the school's 240 places this autumn. The previous record was 173. Most striking to the visitor, the school has been physically transformed. Gone (or going) are the peeling, yellow-brown paint and leaking roofs. In their place are corporate-white walls covered with vision statements, certificates of achievement and pictures of smiling pupils.

A youthful 43 in a suit and shiny tie, Mr Hall is driven by a mission to get the best out of everybody.

He came to the school in January 2001, after three years in which he turned round Longford community school in Hounslow, judged one of the country's 50 most improved schools in 1998.

He focused on pupils' behaviour, the feature most heavily criticised in the school's last Ofsted report in 1997. He spent the first two weeks taking assemblies, insisting on silence and the removal of hats and coats.

Other changes included tighter controls on attendance, a more rigorous code of conduct, target-setting for pupils and staff and designer "planners" for students and parents. Staff in Mr Hall's senior management team are full of enthusiasm for the new regime.

Betty Armstrong-Rosser, an English teacher, an assistant head and teacher governor, says: "When I came here 10 years ago I thought it was a holiday camp - now it's an exciting place."

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