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Wednesday, 1 March, 2000, 12:05 GMT
What happens when failing schools close?
Mike Davies
Mike Davies is one of the pioneering 'fresh start' head teachers
The Education Secretary, David Blunkett, has threatened a tough 'zero tolerance' stance for secondary schools which persistently underachieve.

But what happens when failing schools close? BBC News Online's Sean Coughlan went to see how a fresh start was being given to a struggling school in south London.


New Cross is not the most scenic corner of south London.

Estate agents trying to sell commuter flats in the area like to call it Telegraph Hill - as though a new name might take away the negative associations that hang as heavy as the traffic pollution on New Cross Road.


Computer
New technology clubs will help pupils develop their confidence
Cynics might say that something similar is being attempted in the re-invention of a comprehensive school in nearby Brockley, in which the struggling Hatcham Wood school has been closed down and a bright new school has opened on the same site - to be known as Telegraph Hill school.

But this would be unfair, because the opening of Telegraph Hill school this autumn has been an act of optimism rather than cynicism. With a different staff, a new headteacher - but the same pupils - the school will attempt to intervene in the relentless cycle of poverty and educational underachievement.


Fresh start
There have been nine 'fresh start' schools
Schools are given new names
Staff are made redundant
Extra money for new appearance
Not long after the new headteacher, Mike Davies, had arrived to take over Telegraph Hill, a parent told him he was wasting his time and they would be better off bulldozing the place - on the grounds that all the efforts of previous schools on the site had ended in failure.

But Mr Davies begs to differ and has begun the long haul to replace the vicious circle of low expectations and failure with a 'virtuous circle' of ambition and success.

Telegraph Hill is one of the pioneering Fresh Start schools, a government initiative in which failing schools are closed down and replaced with a new institution.

As the 'old' school closed, all the teaching posts disappeared with it - with the local authority only taking back a minority of staff for the new school.

"It's not a re-opening. It's an entirely new school - only the intake remains the same. There's a new name, new uniform, a new logo," said Mr Davies. There's also a fresh coat of paint as the local authority has provided 1.8m on upgrading buildings and equipment.

Fresh Start might more accurately be described as "kick start", as the new headteacher seeks to find ways of sparking a sense of positive change.


Hands
The length of lessons has been increased and the curriculum adapted to the needs of the pupils
"You can measure progress by exams, punctuality and truancy figures, but we also want to see pupils gaining a sense of dignity and self-esteem. We want to make learning important to them."

"We're not always that good in schools at recognising the different ways in which children can be successful, or responding to children's need for praise."

As well as selling a new identity for the school to the pupils, the involvement and support of parents is important. And as part of the launch of the new school, Mr Davies managed to motivate many more parents than usual to attend an inaugural parents' evening.

These parents have to be convinced that the school will be more successful than its predecessor. Less than a fifth of pupils managed to get five GCSEs at grade A to C and inspectors reported unsatisfactory lessons and demotivated children showing little respect for teachers or each other.

Longer lessons

So how different will the new school be from what went before?

The re-branding of the school has seen an overhaul of the timetable. Lessons have been cut from nine a day to four a day - giving teachers more time to develop their relationships with classes and allowing more time to experiment with different approaches, such as using information technology or drama.

Reducing the number of lessons also means less moving between classrooms, which reduces opportunities for misbehaviour.

Another piece of timetabling is designed to cut down on behaviour problems and bullying, with older and younger pupils taking separate lunchtime breaks. A range of clubs have been introduced in the middle of the day - developing skills such as IT - and there are plans for a 'breakfast club' later in the term.

An easier route to tackling unruliness would have been to exclude the worst offenders from the new school. But Mr Davies is deeply committed to pursuing inclusion rather than exclusion and no-one has been permanently excluded.

As a support for pupils, the school assigns each child a personal tutor who will monitor progress and act as a link between the child's family and the school. There will also be mentors from the local community and the involvement of parents to promote learning.

Refugees

There have also been changes in the curriculum, with Mr Davies seeking approval from the Department for Education for a much more flexible approach to the National Curriculum.

With an intake that includes a sizeable proportion of non-English speaking children - including refugees from Kosovo and Somalia - Mr Davies wants a less rigid approach to the curriculum. Pupils will still take the same number of GCSEs, but lower down the school he wants to use a system based on skills rather than subjects.

But will the changes make a difference? "I'm pretty optimistic," says Mr Davies. Motivated by a deep sense that education can help to promote social justice, Mr Davies says that schools really can make a difference.

"People often forget what a powerful force for good schools can be within a community."
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See also:

16 Jun 99 |  Education
Drop in school exclusions
04 Mar 99 |  Education
School that stopped exclusions
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