Once a dodo, now a phoenix

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
In 1993 Adrian Cross was a novice teacher at one of the country's worst schools. He paid a return visit last month and tells his personal story of the calm that has replaced the chaos.

Day one set the tone: I was left in the gym with nothing but a tennis ball and instructed to magic a PE lesson out of thin air. As I faltered, a hand emerged from the cyclone of pupils and whipped the ball away. Thus the initiative was snatched from me and thus I became acquainted with life at the school dubbed by the Daily Mail " the worst in Britain".

In 1993 bedlam passed for normality at Hammersmith school in west London. Pupils had to be physically restrained from leaving classrooms. Sixteen youth workers patrolled the corridors trying to coax them back. Truancy and staff absenteeism were rife. On a day of nine false fire alarms classrooms could have been rented out as vacant office space.

If you were lucky enough to find a child to teach you could never be sure who they actually were. Calling the register sometimes required an identity parade where a deputy would confirm that Ryan in Year 9 was indeed Ryan and not Jamie as he had answered in your previous Year 8 class.

The borough refused to permanently exclude two pupils who set fire to a wing of the school. You could almost forgive the police for being reluctant to come. On one visit their handcuffs went missing.

Nobody seemed to know where the school was going. The teachers knew where they going: crackers. The pupils knew where they were heading too: out of the gates.

Perhaps the most surreal sight of my time was the choir talking and throwing paper aeroplanes during rehearsals for the Christmas concert, drowning the delicate sounds of an ethnically diverse orchestra.

As I sat in the staffroom one breaktime and a ruck of fighting pupils thumped against the window I reflected on what might be if the tremendous energy present could be effectively channelled.

Despite the daily battery of swearing and disrespect I could view the circus with a certain detachment. Things were not so amusing for full-time staff, many of whom were fine and dedicated teachers. Objects were sometimes hurled at them outside school, one received a rape threat and another was falsely accused of molestation.

The school had to fail its inspection in 1995 before Hammersmith and Fulham education authority could take control - "a silly state of affairs", according to David Williams, its chair of education. "There's no point in closing the stable door after the horse has bolted."

He now welcomes talk of an early warning system, following the recent Government White Paper, which would enable authorities to help troubled schools before they crumble into chaos.

"We were determined that there would be a thriving school on the existing site and we had the backing of the local community. We searched for a headteacher who would have the energy, experience and courage to make the necessary changes and thus win the trust of staff and pupils. William Atkinson was that man, " says Mr Williams.

As well as a new head, the school got a new management team. In a mark of confidence, it was renamed Phoenix, and differences began to show almost immediately. It is now almost full and 16.3 per cent of its students achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A to C this year compared with 5.4 per cent in 1993. In February of this year it became one of the few failing schools to come off special measures.

Walking past the nearby Queen's Park Rangers football ground recently I was struck by the absence of pupils. Phoenix is close to its target of 90 per cent average attendance.

The buildings are lighter and brighter, the rooms clean, and a bold slogan dominates the main hall: "Strength through knowledge" (as opposed to violence, says Mr Atkinson).

The quality of teaching and behaviour was tackled with the help of a governing body possessing a " terrific range of educational expertise", says Mr Atkinson.

"Pupils are not just contained, they are working," says Viv Bird, the chair of governors.

A feature of the risen Phoenix is that there is nowhere to hide. Poor practice is immediately exposed.

Jo Shuter, head of the lower school, says that the job is "still incredibly pressurised but the marvellous collegiality among the staff remains".

She fears the school might "implode" if Mr Atkinson were to leave. He disagrees. Something of an evangelist, he is unequivocal on the subjects of teaching standards and pupil exclusions.

"I have a legal, moral and ethical duty to protect the right of students to learn. Disruptive pupils are no longer folk heroes but deviants. We seek to celebrate the positive in this law-abiding community."

He stresses that the rescue was a partnership with the governors and Hammersmith and Fulham and that all his staff are "heroes". "This is now an ordinary school," he says. "Teachers are recruited purely on the basis of their fitness for the job. We now have a high quality staff."

Finding such teachers as the biggest challenge facing schools today, says Mr Atkinson who is now a member of the Government's school standards task force.

In place of chaos, has come calm. Pupils move calmly between corridors and the management team ushers them to classes with the aid of walkie-talkies.

Lessons begin promptly, and pupils sit in rows facing their teacher and listening attentively. When they raise their hands I flinch, but now it is to answer a question rather than to throw paper darts.

In fact, I am alone in the corridors. It's so quiet I can hear myself truanting.

Not that everyone is pleased. One pupil whispered in the playground: "Is it true they used to throw chairs out of the windows?" "Yes."

"I wish I had been there."

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