The abuse and shocking behaviour at a Newcastle secondary had seen off one head. But James Colquhoun has done what many thought impossible. Neal Smith reports
"You will be under scrutiny by everyone in the world of education," read the job description. And so it proved.
In October 2001, James Colquhoun left a high-performing comprehensive to become principal of All Saints college, a new school created from two failing secondaries and two middle schools in Newcastle.
Pupils' bad behaviour and lack of respect at one of them, Firfield, had been graphically portrayed in a six-week television documentary. Viewers of the Channel 4 programme, Making the grade, saw parents encouraging their children to play truant.
The cameras captured the first, ill-fated attempt to regenerate the school which had been "named and shamed" by the Government. Firfield opened under the Fresh Start initiative following the closure of Blakelaw comprehensive in 1998. "Superhead" Carole McAlpine was brought in to turn it around by David Bell, the chief inspector, then the city's education director.
But she resigned 18 months later and in 2000 it was decided the school would close two years later.
All Saints was created on the site of West Denton, the second failing school, as a partnership between the city council, Newcastle university and the Anglican diocese. It opened in September 2002.
Mr Colquhoun said:"It was like living in a goldfish bowl with everyone from Whitehall downwards watching."
He was well aware of the tough task he faced. Mr Colquhoun, headhunted by PriceWaterhouse Coopers, at a cost of pound;30,000, and paid a salary of pound;78,000, was thrust into the limelight.
The media, parents and some local politicians all predicted that he would fail to turn things around with a group of pupils whom he admitted were, in terms of behaviour and academic ability, "about rock bottom".
At his previous school, Bishop Stopford, in Kettering, Northamptonshire, almost nine out of 10 pupils achieved five grade Cs or better at GCSE; the equivalent rate at the schools merged to form All Saints was 9 per cent.
But he refused to be intimidated and came in determined to make an impact: 117 exclusions were doled out among the 1,000 pupils in the first two months. Despite most being short-term, All Saints hit the front page of local papers for its draconian disciplinary measures.
"We got strongly criticised in the local press, but we had to set a precedent early on, especially to the 30 per cent of pupils who thought they could run the school themselves," he said. "After all, there's only so many times you can be told to, 'F off'! We needed to crack down from day one."
A timetable with four 75-minute lessons, creating more teacher-pupil contact, was introduced. The only break during the day was supervised by teachers, cutting out bullying and the playground fights that had been such a huge problem.
A 2.5 metre high electric fence was erected around the school, to keep the pupils in and the drug dealers out.
"Now pupils cannot leave the school during the day, the people of West Denton have got their shopping centre back," he said.
He also made many new appointments and set up a management structure with seven vice-principals responsible for different subject areas. "It was important to get staff on board who were motivated and working in the same direction," he said.
And it seems he has confounded the sceptics. The school's first Office for Standards in Education report, due to be published later this month, has declared All Saints a resounding success.
It paints a picture of an "effective school" where "the very good leadership of the principal has ensured that the vision to create a college at the heart of the community is rapidly becoming a reality".
Mr Colquhoun "has created a very effective team and between them they have convinced both teachers and the students that they can succeed where those before them had not", it said.
"Given students' well-below average levels of attainment on entry, achievement is good." While 13 per cent of pupils achieved five or more good GCSEs in 2003, 22 per cent did so from among the pupils who completed the course. The average for all schools nationally was 47 per cent.
The report has constant references to good teaching, discipline and improved pupil performance. Mr Colquhoun said: "It's an absolutely stunning improvement for a school which had only been opened for three terms when it was inspected in November."
Attendance has also improved. It has risen 4 per cent to 83 per cent. While still 10 per cent below the national average, it is moving the right way.
Mr Colquhoun is, however, well aware that substantial extra investment played a large part in his success. The school had a pound;6 million refurbishment and gets an additional pound;250,000 a year from the Government, which keeps class-sizes in the low 20s.
Jackie McKalee, a former West Denton pupil and parent, said: "We used to turn up at the school whenever we liked. I did not want my son Joseph to go there, but he has loved it at All Saints and his grades have improved. It's the place to go now."
The school is oversubscribed and whereas West Denton had just four pupils in its sixth form, All Saints has 80 this year and expects 100 next year.
The school is bidding for specialist business and enterprise status. But Mr Colquhoun will not be there if it gets it: he has moved to Wiltshire to be closer to his family and has just started as head of St Laurence, a comprehensive in Bradford-on-Avon.
His departure has also made headlines, with the local press castigating him for leaving too soon. But he said: "I have achieved what I set out to do. I am very proud that my successor will inherit a good school on the way up."
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