Smile, you're on TV;Fresh start;Schools on television;Features amp; Arts

12th November 1999 at 00:00
Would you let the cameras loose in your classroom? Carole McAlpine, head of the 'worst school in Britain', did, and the results are being beamed into the nation's living rooms in a primetime slot on Channel 4. Reckless, or just very brave? Bernard Adams finds out.

You've just taken over "the worst school" in Britain, named and shamed from on high. It has falling rolls, grim exam results, poor attendance, a high exclusion rate, and decrepit buildings. But you're drawn to the challenge, and, with the help of the Government's Fresh Start scheme, you are starting to turn the school around.

Enter the television cameras. A production company wants to make a fly-on-the-wall documentary series about Fresh Start for Channel 4. Would it be all right if they filmed the "new" school's first crucial year?

Most headteachers would politely decline such an offer. Letting TV cameras into a school is always risky, and schools have rarely benefited from the exposure (see panel, page 7). But Carole McAlpine, newly installed as head of the country's first Fresh Start school, Firfield Community School in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, decided it was a risk worth taking.

So in September 1998 the cameras duly arrived at Firfield, and stayed for several months. Thousands of hours of footage were also shot beyond the school gates, recording the domestic lives of pupils and their families. Fifteen months later, the results are being screened, as Making the Grade, in a prime Sunday night slot on Channel 4.

Carole McAlpine's decision to admit the cameras was particularly brave, as she had more reason than most for wanting to keep the media at bay.

For Mrs McAlpine, 43, was making her own fresh start. Until early 1998 she hadn't taught outside Scotland. In a career taking in eight comprehensives, she had risen from classroom geography teacher to headteacher. Then her life was suddenly and brutally turned upside down, and she and her children were forced to head south.

In a remarkable scene from the first programme in the series, broadcast last Sunday, Mrs McAlpine is seen telling the school assembly her story: "I came to Newcastle for a fresh start because of a real personal tragedy in my family life. My ex-husband, who I've not seen for one year, was sent to prison for child abuse. I'd been married to this man for 18 years. It was devastating. I could easily have hiddenI I felt like hiding.

"So Fresh Start doesn't always mean that people don't remember what's happened in the past. Those of you who were pupils at Blakelaw [as Firfield was previously known] have got to be able to do the same as I'm trying to do: making a fresh start, coming on time, coming in your uniform, trying hard so that we can all have a fresh start together."

Mrs McAlpine had decided to make her "confessional" after the local paper had told her it was running a story about her ex-husband. So she might be forgiven for having a jaundiced view of journalists. Wasn't she suspicious of the television company's motives?

"We definitely had doubts," she says. "Were they genuine? Were we really getting the full story? Could we trust them?" These were key questions, not least because Channel 4 would not be giving the head or the school a veto over content.

Having received approval for the filming from the shadow governing body, Mrs McAlpine and her management team put the proposal to the staff. "We told them that there was this opportunity to let people see just what sort of a job we were doing, and did they want to be involved." Most did, but everyone was given the chance to opt out. Pupils were consulted too, with only a couple refusing to be filmed.

Mrs McAlpine is clear about her motives for letting the cameras in. The educational researcher in her (she works intermittently with Professor John MacBeth in the Quality in Education Centre at Strathclyde University) believes that it's "interesting for people to have an insight into what making a fresh start involves". More immediately, she believes that good publicity could help the school - by boosting enrolment figures, for example. "I wouldn't have gone into it if I hadn't felt it would benefit the school," she says.

The production company had to obey strict rules - doubly necessary in an institution already overrun by builders. "Teachers had to have 24 hours' notice if they were going to be filmed in the classroom. The crews were not allowed to pressurise people who said they didn't want to be filmed. And they had to give parents warning that they were coming to film at their children's homes."

She met with the crews every morning at 8.15am to talk about their schedule for the day, and they often attended the management meeting at the end of the day. "I made it my business to know what they were doing," she says.

George Cuthbertson, head of literacy, had cameras in his classroom for around 30 days. "The first two or three times they filmed, the huge microphone booms put the children off," he says. "I wasn't that keen to begin with, but by the end I was enjoying it; it made you prepare extra carefully."

"To begin with, the children were being silly in front of the cameras and hiding their heads," says Mrs McAlpine, "but gradually they forgot about them and, the more professional the crews were, the better it was.

"Some days they were in your face a bit too much, though. I'm very even-tempered, but sometimes I would say, 'For goodness sake, that's it. I've had enough'. You'd have a meeting, they'd film the meeting, and just as it was finished the camera would go right in your face and they'd ask: 'Did you get what you wanted from that meeting?'" When a business studies teacher took a group of pupils to France on a behind-the-scenes trip to Euro-Disney, the camera went with them, "but the teacher took that in really good part", says Mrs McAlpine.

She had just been to see rough-cuts of most of the programmes with her deputy, Lynne Ackland, when we met. "We were a bit nervous, and as the train got closer to London you can imagine how we felt. We found ourselves laughing at some bits and feeling very sad over some of the circumstances of the familiesI the jury is still out till we see all six episodes, but what I've seen is encouraging."

Mrs McAlpine did, however, detect a lack of balance in two areas, which she hopes will have been rectified before transmission. "They've shown me all the time being hard-edged, and not doing the gentler bit of my job. They wanted to show how difficult the job is, how you have to call the hard shots, like when you tell a teacher that what they're doing is not satisfactory."

She was also concerned that the programmes seemed to ignore many positive things that were going on in the school. "The first few episodes concentrate on 7W [a special needs group] and don't show the breadth of ability in the school."

But the cameras could not help but miss something even more significant: what Firfield was like when Mrs McAlpine took over 18 months ago - six month before filming began. "It seemed to be in the depths of despair and needed vision and innovative ideas," she says.

The chief education officer of Tyne and Wear, David Bell, corroborates this assessment. "It was a failing school in Ofsted terms," he says. "With falling rolls locally, we thought the school would be better closed. But then came the 1997 election and the Fresh Start initiative, and it was decided to open a new school on the same site. Massive amounts of resources were thrown into the project at breakneck speed."

When Mrs McAlpine met the children at the school for the first time, they struck her as being "docile, but very passive. I felt angry that they had been left in this situation, with buildings that reeked of contempt for those who occupied them. The challenge really appealed to me."

With pound;2.4 million of Fresh Start money in the bank, one of the first things on Mrs McAlpine's shopping list was a 10-foot-high perimeter fence. Cost: pound;300,000. More money went on transforming the interior - corridors ("one looked like a public toilet"), reception areas, and classrooms. "I was practically a clerk of works during the summer of 1998," she says.

She confronted apathy and low achievement by asking the children what they wanted. They wanted a uniform and chose a conservative navy blue for the colour. One pupil said, tellingly, that a uniform "would look nice when the inspectors come". (Inspectors were a familiar sight in the old school.) On the academic side, Mrs McAlpine found low levels of literacy and numeracy, poor communication skills and low self-esteem. Tests of the new intake revealed that 55 per cent of Year 7 pupils had a reading level two years below their age, 15 per cent were four years behind, and three children could not read at all.

"Also, the pupils were doing far too many subjects at GCSE; some were taking 12 and failing them all. So I put a curriculum together that I thought was going to address some of these problems, and then staffed the curriculum." Two-thirds of the teaching force is new, and only three of the original staff do the same jobs as before. Members of the management team were all appointed by Mrs McAlpine.

These early decisions were obviously crucial, but long interviews and careful historical reconstruction are not the stuff of primetime television. Nevertheless, the series gives a lively, impressionistic account of the daily, year-long struggles of Mrs McAlpine and her deputy. We see them confront depressed or hyperactive teachers and difficult pupils, and endure visits from government ministers.

They also have to cope with the high expectations that go with Fresh Start, and with the low reputation of their school which, despite its physical transformation, still has to make the grade with local parents.

What the series does not disguise is the social disadvantage with which Firfield has to deal. This is vividly depicted in the first episode when 11-year-old Joe Brown and his mum discover that Joe, who has been permanently excluded from two other schools, has been refused a place at Firfield. There is an unflinching rawness about the film of Joe's confrontations with his mother (pictured), played out in a grim backyard complete with bewildered baby and giant dog named Keegan.

The school's catchment area is two dreary estates, Cowgate and Blakelaw, three miles to the west of Newcastle town centre. The estates are a mixture of tower blocks and semis, windswept and forgotten, although not dramatically decayed.

Deprivation, apathy, and endemic unemployment scar the human landscape of Blakelaw. Teenage girls are kept home on family duty. "We have so many that are kept off," Mrs McAlpine says, "to look after younger siblings, or ailing parents or grandparents or just for company - because, if there's no dad around, the mothers don't want to be left in the house alone. It's so sad." But, in a "no excuses" culture, she is required to give the pupils, whatever their social disadvantages, a fresh educational start in life.

Already she has improved attendance - up from 70 per cent to 87 per cent. Tactics include phoning home on the first day of absences, sending teams to knock on the doors of absentees, and offering prizes for 100 per cent attendance.

Mrs McAlpine talks with pride about the exam results at the end of her first year: 97 per cent got at least one GCSE; 84 per cent got five at A to G (the figure for the old school was nearer 60 per cent); 11 per cent managed five at A to C, and there was a sprinkling of A*s. The results are promising, but the local authority's targets will not be easy to hit. (The LEA expects the number of pupils getting five GCSEs at A-C to rise by 3 per cent a year for the next five years.) David Bell, who set the targets, knows there is a long road ahead: "I think the school has made enormous strides towards its targets and in changing its culture. But it's like climbing a very high mountain. All they've done so far is to establish base camp."

To succeed, Mrs McAlpine has to get the school roll up from 450 to 600 within five years. These television programmes - despite their slight coverage of routine, undramatic school life (which is, after all, what parents want) - may help. If they do, Mrs McAlpine can look back with satisfaction on the day she didn't show Channel 4 the door.

Making the Grade, 7.30-8pm, Channel 4, Sundays until December 12.

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