'Nobody learns when they're frightened'

6th July 2001 at 01:00
In January, 'The TES' met Jill Clough, a week before she started her new job. The ex-head of a private girls' school in south London was taking the helm of a troubled comp in Brighton, saying she wanted to make a real difference to children's lives. Six months on Wendy Wallace went back to find out how she's faring.

The geography of the Whitehawk estate says much about its social position: tucked away on the edge of Brighton, outside the town proper, marginalised and inaccessible. Estate landmarks include a battered Co-op that looks like something out of a war zone, a shrine around a tree - flowers and a football strip commemorating a murdered youth - and a large number of dead-end turnings.

And a school, CoMArt, which sounds like a cut-price warehouse but is in fact the East Brighton College of Media Arts. Here, the head and staff are trying to show pupils that they deserve as much from society as other young people, including the opportunity to get something useful out of their education.

That head, Dr Jill Clough, was the subject of a TES article in January. She was just about to start at the school, and was stepping into another world. She was swapping a job as head of an independent girls' school in Wimbledon where parents paid pound;6,000 a year for the privilege of a private education, and 99 per cent of pupils gained five or more GCSE A*-C grades, for leadership of a school where only 13 per cent of GCSE passes were C grade or higher.

"Much remains to be done" was the keynote of the election campaign by a government anxious to show that it had not grown arrogant with power. With the election over, schools such as this show the politicians exactly how much remains to be done if social inclusion is to be more than a marshmallow soundbite.

CoMArt is still known by taxi drivers as Stanley Deason, although that was the incarnation before last, before the push for renewal signified by 1997's change of name to Marina high. Failed by Ofsted in 1996, the school was given the Fresh Start treatment in 1999 - new name, new head, pound;250,000 investment, all staff made to reapply for their jobs. It re-opened with 50 per cent of the original staff, many new ones and supply cover for the unfilled posts. Chaos ensued and the resignation of "superhead" Tony Garwood followed soon after, in March last year. Three months later, in June 2000, the school became the first (although not the last) Fresh Start school to fail an inspection.

Now the roller-coaster years are over, staff hope. The new head put her credibility on the line even before she took up the post in January, by publicly promising to stay five years; the school has had eight heads in the past decade. "It almost doesn't matter what I do, as long as I stay," she says. "Being committed is professionally important. It says 'I believe in you'." She came "expecting the most enormous scepticism", but believes people have accepted that she is here to stay.

CoMArt is a bunker-like building butted up against the Sussex Downs, unpretentious and utilitarian. Inside, teachers work like alchemists, trying to give children everything - self-respect, language, a means of approaching the world - trying, in the modestly expressed cliche of the profession, "to make a difference". It is succeeding too, according to Ofsted. "A significant proportion of the students take their studies seriously and behave well," the inspectors found last term. "Enthusiastic and assertive" pupils are making a go of the school council and staff morale is good.

"I didn't quite understand how comprehensively this area suffers from the general attitude of the people of Brighton," says Dr Clough. (The doctorate is in the novels of John Cowper Powys.) The attitude shows up in the credit bar triggered by the postcode, in the unwillingness of taxi drivers to enter the estate at night, in the determination of parents to keep their kids out of the school.

Jill Clough still favours a sophisticated image, with tailored suits and understated amber earrings. But she has adapted her style to working at CoMArt. "I had a sense of trepidation about finding the right voice with which to communicate with the children," she says. "I have to pitch things carefully, get inside their experience."

She believes she has found her voice here; she was sufficiently confident in the first half of this term to hold a girls' assembly in which views were solicited on the problem of smoking in the girls' lavatories - to lock or not to lock; hygiene - by passing round a cordless microphone. She couldn't have risked it, she says, when she arrived. More than 30 girls put forward their names for a working party on the toilet improvement project. It's the kind of go-getting attitude that is taken for granted at Wimbledon high, a world away.

Jill Clough is out on the corridors on the day of the TES visit, asking Danny what he had for breakfast as he hops from foot to foot - "Nothing, Miss. I'm just being stupid in class" - and mediating between a Year 9 pupil and a young art teacher nursing mutual grievances.

The first task here is to create emotional stability, she says. "Nobody learns when they're frightened. Kids have no vocabulary for managing emotional experience." Pupils come to her office to be disciplined and are surprised to be asked what they enjoy, what they're good at. "They like it, but they're disconcerted."

It poses a professional challenge too. The average reading age for Year 10 students is 11. Last year's GCSEs produced 13.5 per cent A*-Cs; the LEA-imposed goal for this summer is 22 per cent. "They don't have the verbal skills," says Jill Clough. "They have the visual skills, and the concepts. The potential A*s are here. But they're going to get Ds and Es. You can't compensate at this stage for all those years of cultural deficit. These kids are poor. They need riches lavished on them."

Staff appear to have been reassured by her arrival. Deputy head Kathy Stonier came from inner-city London schools. "It was pretty ghastly a year ago," she says. "Systems weren't working, and we were hearing constantly in the press about the school as if it was some sort of Lord of the Flies situation. But it's getting much better. More listening is going on."

Jill Clough told staff when she arrived that "we have all the skills we need in house". Newly qualified teachers get a tough introduction to the profession here - "If they're not born teachers, it tests every level," says the head - but many have become exceptionally skilled at engaging challenging children.

External assessors scrutinised all applications for threshold payments from staff at Fresh Start schools; those who looked at Jill Clough's applicants told her that the school had some of the best practice they had seen anywhere. Eight of the 10 teachers who applied succeeded, in line with the national average.

Teaching skills count for more here than subject specialisms. (The head has taught media studies to Year 11, and found that she had to revise her methods. "You get here and discover what you have been taking for granted - that they would be willing to hold a concept for any length of time; the whole notion that you would discuss things - is alien.") The aim is for all staff to teach two subjects - to forge "better relationships and a better chance of monitoring the learning". They will be getting more training in literacy, personal development and the management of emotional and behavioural difficulties. There are plans to adapt the curriculum further.

The chair of governors, Derek Bown, formerly an HMI, is a man with an air of optimism, looking for his umbrella in the head's office. Staff, he says, were "waiting in the wilderness for leadership and the sense of collaboration she has brought. We were delighted to appoint her and we've seen no reason to change our minds." The school has until July 2002 to get out of special measures. Part of this must come, demands the Government, in the form of exam results - the outgoing education secretary, David Blunkett, reiterated in a recent speech to the Social Market Foundation that by the year 2004 no secondary school should have less than 20 per cent of GCSE pupils achieving five A*-Cs.

At CoMArt they are more pragmatic about what constitutes achievement. One child was sick all over her clothes, went home, changed - and came back. That's good news. "We're doing it the other way round from what the DfEE wants," says Jill Clough. "They're saying it all happens in the classroom. We know it begins elsewhere. We're enabling these children to live in a civilised way, to get the good things out of them."

Other things are happening here, which should help in the long term. The school is part of an education action zone, New Deal is making a difference and Sure Start is putting extra resources into early years. But the LEA's speech and language unit recently found that three out of four children at the local primary school have language delay. More than one in two is entitled to free school meals. Unemployment is high. "Pro tem," says Dr Clough (whose "new voice" still carries echoes of the old), "we inherit all those problems."

She seems relieved by what she has foundin school, she appears sincere in the praise she lavishes on her deputies and other teachers - and freely admits the problems. "It's very testing. Very, very difficult. There are times when they're wild. And the Year 11s have had the worst of it." This morning one of them - and they're trying to work out exactly which one - made a hoax call to the fire brigade, telling them "my mother's on fire".

But since getting her feet under the desk at CoMArt, Jill Clough has found the big battle is taking place outside the school. She finds herself at the opposite end of the admissions spectrum from the one she occupied at Wimbledon high. Under what she calls the "market-driven" local admissions policy, Brighton and Hove (an authority since 1997) lays on buses to take children to schools on the other side of town. Last September, of the 120 children expected at CoMArt, only 81 appeared - with the accompanying budget deficit. The school roll has dropped from more than 1,000 a decade ago to just 540. "There are very serious managerial issues," says Jill Clough.

Special needs is another battle to be fought. Jill Clough believes there is a vast reservoir of unidentified needs, which she and her staff have set about quantifying - with the aim of securing appropriate funding. Existing provision is underfunded to the tune of at least pound;100,000 a year, she says. "This is my first real culture clash. In the independent sector, you couldn't identify a need like that and leave it unaddressed. Society isn't willing to address what it costs to educate people properly."

CoMArt can seem a rather depressing place. Not because of the rowdiness in the corridors, which is no more or less than anywhere else. Or because of the teaching - teaching means something here; kids are learning how to save their own lives. It's not the lack of a proper entrance to the school, or the worried parents waiting in the lobby. It's the scale of the task. Schools are now required to be the forcing ground for social change, but is society willing to give them the resources to do the job? "I'm fighting," says Jill Clough. "Calling bluffs right left and centre. Asking questions. Being unremitting. I'm not going to let anybody off."

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