David Blunkett sent out the message loud and clear. The restless searchlight of his fearless department had turned its mighty beam on "underachievement in secondary schools", in particular on the 500-plus schools where fewer than one in four pupils were attaining five A-Cs at GCSE.
His solution? Superheads. These awesome creatures, he said, would be sent in to oversee clusters of "struggling or failing" schools. By 2006 no school should have less than 25 per cent of pupils achieving the famous five.
The implication that any school where fewer than one pupil in four achieves five A-C GCSEs is underperforming was a shock to inner-city heads. "I'm beside myself with rage," said one, in response to Mr Blunkett's speech at the NUT's Secondary Education Conference in London on March 1. He had heard the latest news in education, as usual, by tuning in to Radio 5 on his way home from work.
Within a fortnight of Mr Blunkett's bombshell, three of the nine Fresh Start "superheads" had resigned.By March 15 they'd gone from schools in Brighton, London and Newcastle. Tony Garwood quit East Brighton college of media arts just days after Torsten Friedag called it a day at George Orwell school in Islington, north London. Mr Friedag said darkly that he "would not underestimate the task facing my successor" and, after 18 months in post, no doubt he knew what he was talking about.
Other unhappy heads are now asking by just how much the Government underestimates the scale of the task. And who will want to step forward to accept the superhead's crown of thorns? Indeed, what is a superhead? It has become an elastic term, applied not only to heads of Fresh Start schools, but to anybody appointed in high-profile circumstances to turn round a school. "There is a lot of embarrassment, uncertainty and lack of confidence among heads," one government adviser has admitted.
The third Fresh Start casualty, Carole McAlpine, was brought in to head a Fresh Start at Firfield school in the west end of Newcastle upon Tyne 18 months ago. She left mid-term before Easter after failing to deliver the planned increase in pupil numbers and abandoning a no-exclusions policy. At the other end of Newcastle, Mike Booth, who emphatically rejects the superhead soubriquet, has adopted a low-profile approach to improving another troubled secondary.
When he came in as headteacher of Benfield school four years ago, the place displayed the classic signs of being on a downward path. Half empty, with scarred and neglected buildings, the school had a disproportionate number of pupils from desperately poor backgrounds, and exam results to match. Coal trundles by on rail wagons visible from the school windows, and the Tizer soft drinks factory is just a bottle's throw away. Benfield serves Byker and Walker, two of the most socially deprived wards of the city; forty-five per cent of pupils are eligible for free school meals.
Mr Booth has followed much of New Labour's prescription for school improvement. The school sold five surplus acres for housing, pocketing more than pound;1 million for improvements. It won sports college status, made a successful lottery bid for a new sports hall and persuaded Newcastle United football club to sponsor a pound;385,000 all-weather floodlit pitch. In a room off the new library, adults are taking computer courses in the ICT suite. Two staff are paid with money from the single regeneration budget, due to run out in 2003. "Need makes us entrepreneurial," says Mr Booth. "But it would be nice to have proper funding rather than all this funny money."
The changes he and his team have made seem to be working at Benfield. A gleaming, assiduously maintained school environment has enhanced pupils' self-esteem and helped to bring an air of orderliness to the school. Other major planks of improvement have been catch-up literacy sessions for all Year 7s (some of whom arrive up to four years behind in their reading and writing), small class sizes and a unit for supporting emotionally and behaviourally disturbed pupils. Numbers are creeping up (currently 815 pupils aged 11-18), and last summer 21 per cent of pupils got their five A-Cs. Seventeen went on to university, almost all the first in their families.
And yet Mr Booth says: "I've been more discouraged in recent months than ever. I don't have a bottomless pit of energy, and inner-city schools are constantly being bashed."
Mr Booth devotes most of his life to school. Ceroc dancing sessions on Wednesday evenings keep him sane, while paperwork from the Department for Education and Employment drives him mad. "I throw most of the stuff from the DfEE in the bin," he says. "I don't have time to fill in every questionnaire and survey they send me. I've more important things to do."
Despite the piles of government literature, he does not feel part of things. "I find out what is happening in education by listening to the Today programme," he says.
Exclusions are another sore point. Mr Booth excluded 24 pupils when he first arrived "to make a statement". He says it was important "for parents, youngsters and the success of the school". Last year the number of permanent exclusions was down to eight, but the rate of exclusions and unauthorised absence at Benfield still prompted a three-day visit from HMI. "They said privately they'd seen some of the best classroom management here that they'd seen anywhere," he says.
But the visit was an added pressure on staff, and Mr Booth felt undermined by it. Government plans to fine schools that exclude children are a source of further exasperation. "I run an education service not a social service," he says. "We try hard with these youngsters but we don't win with them all."
He believes the Government ignores much of what this school and others like it are doing. In Benfield's beacon project - an in-school support unit run by education welfare officer Helen Wilson - a girl sleeps on a chair under her anorak in the "friendship corner". She was beaten up on the way to school by a gang of girls and is waiting to be collected by a relative.
Ms Wilson runs a group for vulnerable girls in Year 7 and another for boys in Year 9 who lack good male role models at home. Fifty other pupils are in regular contact, because they're in care, have "massive social services involvement" at home or have been referred by teachers. "They're allowed to come in here and mouth off, rather than do it to a teacher or pupil," says Ms Wilson.
The unit, says Mr Booth, "is absolutely fantastic - and it works". But its funding is precarious and its work goes unremarked. "It seems as if the only way politicians can judge our schools is by grades. But everyone in education knows there is more to it than that. Particularly when working with youngsters from deprived backgrounds, having teachers they can trust and who care for them is more important than whether they get a GCSE grade G in Russian or Greek. Many of the outcomes we're producing cannot be measured by any performance league table. Our politicians have got some of these things wrong. It's social problems we're facing, not educational ones."
Staff are on the front line, Mr Booth adds. "They confront the social problems every lesson of every day and can never take their foot off the pedal."
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, echoes the theme. "The problems inner-city schools face reflect problems in the communities they serve," he says. "I increasingly believe school improvement depends partly on community improvement. What's required is a range of measures to support the community and not simply a balance of pressure and support on the school, especially when the balance is wrong."
In his speech of March 1, Mr Blunkett defensively pre-empted this. "There are cynics out there who say school performance is all about socio-economics and the areas that these schools are located in," he said. "No child is preordained by class, gender, ethnic group or home life to fail."
True. But departmental crusades seem clumsily applied, both to inner-city schools which are succeeding against the odds and making a difference to children's lives, and to collapsed schools in collapsed communities where demoralisation has indeed set in. The index of GCSE results is crude, especially as those who have done it say school improvement takes at least five years.
If there is cynicism among inner-city headteachers, it is increasingly about the Government's unwillingness to recognise the structural realities of life in underprivileged schools. After five years as head of Phoenix high school in Hammersmith, west London - and as one of the first superheads - William Atkinson has a better grasp than most of the dynamics of school improvement.
He points to a vicious circle of poor Ofsted reports leading to lack of confidence in concerned parents, who then move heaven and earth to get their children into other schools. Reduced pupil numbers and a below-average ability intake open the door for excluded pupils from other schools and - in Hammersmith - refugees with little or no command of English arriving in larger than usual numbers, adding to institutional stress. This makes recruiting and retaining the best staff difficult, and leads to an increasing reliance on supply teachers. This in turn destabilises the running of the school and stresses the whole institution further.
"The view has been that you just need a talented head," says Mr Atkinson. "But you also need quality at every level - the very best teachers of maths, PE, English, the best middle managers, an experienced senior management team who are not fazed by working overtime every day. The most important single element is highly talented, resilient staff. A superhead with supply teachers cannot do it."
Mr Atkinson says the Government must start to recognise the realities of inner-city life and fund schools accordingly. "We need less short-termism and more long-term planning and commitment," he says. "Teachers in schools like this have to come in and work on overdrive every day. Every day represents scaling Everest. I don't think we should be demanding this of our teachers. We need to get it down to Kilimanjaro at least."
The DfEE now insists that superheads don't officially exist - the messiahs will make themselves known in the "clusters" pilot scheme. Even Peter Clark, awarded a CBE for the part he played in the improved fortunes of the Ridings schools in Halifax, and now seconded to the standards and effectiveness unit of the DfEE, is not comfortable with being included in what he terms "this myth of superheads".
The Ridings, now under the stewardship of headteacher Anna White, is out of special measures. Mr Clark describes the part he played there as "the easy bit". He says: "All I did was bring about that first transformation to a structured school community." Based on his experience of 16 years at Rastrick high school in Brighouse, West Yorkshire - once a small, failing secondary modern, now an over-subscribed 1,400-pupil comprehensive - Mr Clark says that "of course" real school improvement takes time. It took not just a new head and a new name but six to eight years' slog to change Rastrick high's reputation within the local community, and it was a decade before it became oversubscribed. "None of these spectacularly failing schools can be expected to turn around overnight," he says. "Only by changing things over time can you change the attitudes of the kids."
Yet the near unanimous message from secondary heads - that school improvement is an expensive, time-consuming team effort best achieved without public attention - is electorally unwelcome to a government in a hurry to provide voters with statistical evidence of a successful education policy.