Jill Clough's new job has already driven two heads to resign early. But she remains confident, reports Warwick Mansell
DR JILL Clough admits that being handed one of the most daunting jobs in British education, the challenge of turning around a failing Fresh Start school, came to her as a surprise.
Not only has this personable and positive 55-year-old just accepted the headship of East Brighton College of Media Arts, a poisoned chalice for the last two incumbents: she's also done so after not having taught in the state sector for more than 30 years.
Although she began her career teaching English and drama at state secondaries in Birmingham in the 1960s, her last experience of working in maintained schools was in 1969.
Currently, she is head at Wimbledon high, a thriving independent girls' day school, fees approaching pound;6,000 a year, motto "ex humilibus excelsa: from humble beginnings to great things", where every girl got five top GCSEs last year.
At East Brighton, which serves one of the toughest council estates in the south of England, a lowly 17 per cent got such top grades.
The school last month became the first Fresh Start comprehensive to fail an inspection, inspectors uncovering weak leadership, behaviour problems and too much unsatisfactory teaching.
Given the apparent chasm between her current and future working environments, then, Dr Clough said her appointment had come as something of a shock to her.
She was one of 12 applicants and counted on being left out of the final few.
Dr Clough said: "I was very surprised to get the job. But those who know me were not surprised at all: my staff were certainly not surprised."
The challenge appears to be what attracted Dr Clough, a divorced mother-of three who has a second home in Brighton.
She says East Brighton will be her last post, as well as a chance to achieve a long held ambition she has had to make her mark in the state sector.
Dr Clough said hearing her daughters repeating back to her her own mantras of social responsiblity had prodded her into taking up the new post.
She said: "My daughters, who have got very strong social consciences themselves, have said to me for years: 'Why are you not using your energies in the maintained sector?'
"They ask me why don't I put that effort into making a diffeence to young people's lives in the state sector. Well, here's my chance. I realise it's a risk, but I'm tremendously excited about it."
Financial reward for such a Herculean challenge was not the issue: Dr Clough's pound;65,000-a-year new package was in line with her current salary at Wimbledon, she said.
Her own background, which she describes as "modest", did much to convince her of education's value.
A product of a voluntary-aided girls' school in Bristol, she went on to read English at Queen Mary College, London, and later obtained a doctorate from Hull on the work of the novelist John Cowper Powys - who is also, coincidentally, a favourite writer of Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools.
She has also served on the council of the Secondary Heads' Association for the past three years.
The challenges at East Brighton were, she admitted, "of a different order" from those she had experienced at Wimbledon and in her prior headship at the Royal Naval School, Haslemere.
Indeed, to describe taking the post as "risky" could be a serious understatement.
Fresh Start, where struggling schools are closed and re-opened with a new name, new staff and usually new funding, has proved somewhat fatal for several heads' ambitions.
Of the 11 schools relaunched under the policy before this year, four have seen heads resign.
One of them was Tony Garwood, the former head at East Brighton, who left after just two terms.
And Libby Coleman, head of the school in its earlier incarnation as Stanley Deason high, left two years ago claiming that her health and career had been ruined in attempting to improve the school.
Mr Garwood, still "considering his future" at home in Brighton, said he thought Dr Clough's background might have convinced the governors to appoint her.
He said: "In order to raise educational standards in this area, you need to take a different approach."
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads' Association, said Dr Clough had what it took to do the job: "She's highly intelligent, very enthusiastic, a very good people person and enormously energetic.
"She's going to need all of that at East Brighton, but provided she has a strong management team and support from her local authority, I see no reason why she shouldn't make a go of it."