New target for hit squad

17th May 1996 at 01:00
It seems a bizarre way to start the process of putting a school back on its feet - a story appearing in the national press that an education association, commonly known as a hit squad, was to be sent in. The first inkling the staff and governors at Langham School in Tottenham, north London, had of their fate was when they read of it in The Times over breakfast last week.

It came as a shock even to the most battle-weary to find their school was to be the second to be taken in hand by the Department for Education after Hackney Downs, in the neighbouring borough, was closed last year.

"My initial reaction was to wonder why," says acting head John Beighton. "It didn't make sense considering what had been happening in the school and the totally different mood now compared with six months ago."

But the 900-pupil comprehensive was failing to provide an acceptable standard of education to its pupils, said Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard, and inspectors had found very limited progress on an action plan drawn up to sort out deep-rooted problems.

Initial impressions of the school, situated in an area of mainly private rented housing (not next to the infamous Broadwater Farm council estate as one report had it) are of a fairly typical north London comprehensive. "I think it's a great school," said 14-year-old pupil Tatiana Ferreira. "The teachers are good and we work hard. I've had opportunities to go to other schools, but I like it here."

The main problem facing staff is the 80 per cent of pupils who speak English as a second language. The largest group come from Turkish families, followed by Somalis and Kurds. Some arrive direct from their homeland, says Mr Beighton, and, for a few, Langham is their first experience of school.

But those now running Langham - at least until the hit squad takes over in August - pull no punches over how bad things have been. Mohammed Mehmet, appointed to the governing body by Haringey council last year and now its chair, recalls: "It was a mess. I knew there were difficulties, but I was surprised at the extent of it."

The crucial Office for Standards in Education report in November 1994, which led to the school being officially deemed "failing," reads like a horror story. Standards of achievement were satisfactory in only half the lessons, the inspectors said. Lesson plans failed to cater for a wide range of abilities; the senior management team was ineffective, and pupils' attendance was too low. Examination results were poor - only 9 per cent of Langham pupils taking GCSEs gained five or more top grades last year, compared with an average of 27. 5 per cent in Haringey schools and 43.5 per cent nationally.

Upheaval followed which saw a staff motion of no confidence in the head and her eventual departure along with a deputy last September.

Monitoring by the Office for Standards in Education last October found progress in improving management but said more needed to be done to improve teaching standards. When they returned in March the inspectors decided action was not being taken quickly enough. They were not prepared to wait until the next planned visit in June and decided to act.

To the observer, the process seems long-winded considering the seriousness of the situation. Had it been a failing commercial company, top management would have been turfed out overnight and emergency measures imposed immediately. But only now, well over a year after Langham was put on the failing schools list, does the situation appear to be under control.

But improving a school takes time, says Jacky Tonge, Haringey's director of education since February last year. "We haven't shrunk from making difficult decisions, but we're dealing with children and parents and their aspirations. We can't just shut the production line and relocate to Tyneside."

John Beighton, a former head who was sent to the school to co-ordinate the action plan last year and became its acting head in March, points to dramatic improvements over the last year. A radical management shake-up has solved budget problems which led to a deficit of Pounds 180,000; teachers' responsibilities have been clearly defined; schemes of work in all subjects are now being regularly monitored and staff training is being properly targeted. The management team is functioning effectively, staff meetings are held every morning and subject groups regularly review their progress. The number of pupils excluded from school for bad behaviour has dropped from 130 between September last year and February to none so far this term, and attendance is now above the national average.

Some say improvements were already well in hand before OFSTED stepped in. Charles Bell, who makes a specialist study of GCSE results, points out that the number of children at Langham gaining at least one GCSE pass rose from 65 per cent in 1993 to 85 per cent in 1994, before the former head was ousted.

The imminent takeover by the education association, led by Richard Painter, chief executive of the ADT Educational Trust who also led the Hackney Downs team, has produced a furious reaction from local Labour MP Bernie Grant, who accused Mrs Shephard of "playing politics with local children". Governors had sorted out the management and financial problems, he said, and teaching standards were now being attended to. "The last thing the pupils and staff of Langham need is a set of outsiders driving a coach and horses through this ongoing constructive process," he said.

The Labour party nationally was cooler, calling for a "fresh start" with a new name for the school, new governors and a new head.

The immediate problem is that applications for the vacant posts for a new head and deputy have already started flowing in and the fear is that most, given the school's future, may now be withdrawn.

Meanwhile governors have joined forces with angry parents and staff to campaign against the hit squad being sent in, and Mr Beighton, Mr Mohammed and Ms Tonge are meeting civil servants next week to press their case.

Objectors have until June 14 to present their case to the Secretary of State. But barring a change of heart by Mrs Shephard, the hit squad will move in on August 1. It seems unlikely they will decide on closure as all the other secondary schools in Haringey are full. The only other option for the education association is to turn it into a grant-maintained school, the first in the borough.

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