'They said it was a dump'
Five years ago, Bianca Passale-Reid was a nervous 11-year-old about to start at the King's school, Wolverhampton. "I was dreading it. This was my sixth choice. People said it was a dump," she recalled.
The school's unenviable reputation was based on its previous incarnation as the Regis, a failing school that became one of the first to go through Fresh Start - a programme based on the experience of the Ridings school in Halifax. There, Peter Clarke, a charismatic head, had turned around a secondary which had become infamous.
Fresh Start was for failing schools unable to drag themselves out of inspectors' special measures category. In the first year two schools were rebadged - King's and Firfield in Newcastle. These were followed by Brighton's Marina high school and Islington's George Orwell.
Soon there were nine Fresh Start schools, then 16 and now 36. In January 2000 the policy was extended to primaries and there are now 16 in the group.
Five years on, how is the policy faring? The Government is determinedly upbeat. A Department for Education and Skills spokesman said: "GCSE results (in Fresh Start schools) improved on average by 4.4 percentage points from 2002 to 2003 - well above the national trend. The 16 primary schools that have gone through the Fresh Start process are also performing very strongly."
Back at King's, the experience of Bianca Passale-Reid bears this out. Now 16, she got five A grade GCSEs this year. "When I got here I didn't see myself as clever, but from Year 9 there was a real change, and when I saw my results I was in shock," she said.
King's is a success story, with the best results of any Fresh Start school.
Head Tim Gallagher recites the figures. "In 1998 we had 78 per cent attendance. Now it is 94 per cent. We had 600 on roll and now we have 800.
The year before I took over there were 30 parents for open evening, this year we had 500." Pupils' national test scores and A-level results are also much improved and the proportion reaching the all-important benchmark of at least five A*-C grade GCSEs has leapt from 20 to 51 per cent this year.
The problems Mr Gallagher faced in 1998 would have been familiar to any Fresh Start head. Pupil numbers were falling at the school which was in a dilapidated building. Staff were demoralised.
Truancy was endemic. Teachers came and went. The corridors filled with children who had been thrown out of lessons. Local shopkeepers would make anguished calls complaining about pupils. "The Regis lost the confidence of the parents in the immediate area. We lost 400 children in three years and it has taken five years to get 200 back," said Mr Gallagher.
Much of the credit for rebuilding community confidence in the school goes to the head, says Carol Dixon, a King's governor who was a senior teacher at the Regis until the school was closed. "Tim Gallagher is a people person and his heart is in the school," she said.
Mr Gallagher did all the things expected of heads when they take on a failing school: he established an ethos, focused on teaching and learning and got the staffing right. But he was not acting alone. To support King's a partnership was forged withSt Peter's Church of England school.
The Fresh Start policy is now quietly very active, with four schools re-opened in September (in Walsall, Thurrock, Liverpool and Ealing). The Government also appears to be learning from its mistakes and starting to be more supportive.
In 1998, when Fresh Start launched in a blaze of publicity, schools were expected to improve with little more than a new name and a charismatic head. The result was some dreadful beginnings.
In Islington, Torsten Friedag, the pound;70,000-a-year head brought in to think "outside the box", invited TV cameras in to record the school's progress. But building works were a disaster and behaviour suffered in an atmosphere of chaos. Famously, at the school's opening, he was filmed alongside David Blunkett as pupils cavorted in the background. Mr Friedag resigned shortly afterwards, leading a rush for the exit that saw three Fresh Start heads resign in five days. New Fresh Start heads are now warned against inviting the media in.
Fresh Start schools were under great pressure to succeed, with regular inspector visits and targets to meet, but no extra resources. Finally in 2000, after pleas from heads, the DfES agreed to give them more cash. A grant over three years is tied to a "raising attainment plan". The amount varies, with the average around pound;125,000 per year for primaries and pound;250,000 per year for secondaries. Capital investment is also available on a case-by-case basis.
Kings is not the only Fresh Start success. Firvale in Sheffield and Kingswood in Hull have also hauled themselves out of danger. Highcrest community school, in High Wycombe, has just got a glowing Ofsted report (TES, December 5).
But many secondary Fresh Starts are still struggling. One, Telegraph Hill, has closed, and one in Brighton may close after losing yet another head this year. Results in several schools have shown marginal progress.
And this month's report by the National Audit Office suggests many supposedly failing schools are actually doing well and do not need "rescuing". When the performance of the bottom 20 per cent for GCSE results is adjusted for external factors, such as deprivation, most schools move out of the bottom rank and dozens leap into the top 20 per cent.
So were Fresh Start schools failing at all in 1997, or just held back by disadvantages beyond their control? "The problems of these schools are much deeper than ones that can be solved by a name change," said John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association.
SHA has seen several members take on Fresh Start schools and even highly capable heads have found the problems intractable, sometimes at great personal cost.
"The Government is only now beginning to get right the balance of pressure and support. In the early days it was all about pressure," said Mr Dunford.
He thinks it's a mistake to focus on schools in isolation from their neighbours or problems will simply pass from school to school.
This echoes the conclusions of a recent Ofsted report on admissions, which concluded that "at risk" schools could be sent into a spiral of decline, by unfettered local competition. The alternative to saving a school is closure, not a good option. "Losing its school does not enhance a disadvantaged community," said the inspectors.
IT PAYS TO BE FAILING
The first Fresh Start primary was Staffordshire's Richard Heathcote school, relaunched in January 2000.
"It wasn't an obviously failing school," says head Sylvia Risak. In fact, like many small rural primaries Richard Heathcote had respectable results.
But the school had been in special measures since 1998. Staff recruitment was a nightmare. "It was a struggle. My first year was taken up with staffing, for the first two terms I taught two days a week. At that point we were unsure as to whether we would get any DfES funding."
In the event, Fresh Start gave the school pound;350,000 over three years.
"That enabled us to do an awful lot in a school of this size," says Ms Risak. "I created small classes with additional teachers. A lot was spent on staff and resources."
She is also grateful for the support of the education authority, who invested in the buildings and in additional support for staff.
"Fresh Start was a success story here, but there is a lesson to be learnt," says Ms Risak. "We've had the funding of a bigger school. Other schools are also struggling, we've been lucky, but the school had to fail first."