Page last updated at 12:40 GMT, Monday, 9 June 2008 13:40 UK

Turning failure into success

By Hannah Richardson
BBC News education reporter

The "poorest-performing schools" in England are being threatened with closure if they do not improve.

But why do schools fail? Do schools, like a rough pub, lose their way, gain a bad reputation which, no matter how hard they try, they find impossible to shake off?

Urban deprivation
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Is it the community they serve, with deprived neighbourhoods, parents with little formal education and a lack of desire for their children to learn?

Or is it down to the quality of the people who run schools and teach in them?

If there was a simple answer, there would be no failing schools.

Roy Blatchford, a former inspector with responsibility for failing schools, now works with struggling schools through educational charity the National Education Trust.

He says schools which struggle are nearly always on what the Americans call "the wrong side of the tracks".

"It is rare to find a school in difficulties serving a catchment area that is truly comprehensive - as opposed to being skewed towards the poorer families."

And this brings with it a whole raft of other disadvantages.

It makes it more difficult to recruit the best teachers, particularly in shortage subjects like design and technology, maths and science.

Multiple problems

Recent government-funded research showed that schools with a higher proportion of children on free school meals had fewer teachers qualified beyond A-level in the subjects that they taught.

The parents vote with their feet and it becomes difficult to recover
Lesley Kirby
Head teacher of Shene School

"Conversely, there may well be teachers with a doctorate in a science department of a good school," says Mr Blatchford.

So the cards do seem to be stacked against the schools with the toughest jobs on their hands.

Lesley Kirby is head teacher of Shene School in Richmond, south-west London, where 21% of pupils achieved five good GCSEs including English and maths last year.

She is the fifth head teacher at Shene in as many years.

Although the school is in an affluent London borough, 80% of its pupils are from outside Richmond and come from some of the poorest backgrounds in the country.

And yet the school is funded at the level of a leafy, green borough with lots of middle class pupils.

Downward spiral

"When a school goes into a spiral and falls into decline, a number of things hit it.

City academy
Academies have been launched to widen school choice in poorer areas

"The parents vote with their feet and it becomes difficult to recover," she says.

"With the loss of pupils comes the loss of cash and the loss of the staff needed to teach the pupils.

"But you still need to maintain the same number of buildings and facilities."

'Hill to climb'

Mr Blatchford says when a school drops into Ofsted's inadequate category or misses basic targets, it has usually been stagnating for a while.

"Those schools that are deemed 'hard to shift' have often been grindingly satisfactory for a long time. They have lowered their expectations and they no longer have high expectations for their pupils."

This certainly seems to have been the situation in at Shene School, which was rated "unsatisfactory" by Ofsted in September 2007.

"The past instability has been unsettling for most students and resulted in a lack of motivation and commitment to learning," the report says.

It talks of a "legacy of underachievement" but recognises the fresh energy of the new head teacher and her staff.

"Now staff and students' morale is high, and they speak of the different atmosphere in the school as the behaviour and attitude of students improve," Ofsted continues.

But Ms Kirby has a hill to climb. Some children still turn up to school without a pen or paper.

"These students often come from homes where education isn't valued or the child isn't cared for in the proactive way that you and I might think they should be," says Ms Kirby.

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A key part of the fight back has to be winning back the support of the local community, many of whom can afford to send their children to private school.

Perhaps the local authority's current plans to turn it into an academy sponsored by an organisation called Edutrust, partly funded by businessman James Caan, will help.

Bob Dore, the principal of Unity City Academy in Middlesbrough, has overseen a gradual rise in examination results over the last few years.

The school was in special measures when he arrived, even though it was already a city academy, but is now considered by Ofsted to be satisfactory.

Last year some 12% of pupils got five good GCSEs including English and maths, and this year he hopes that 20% will make the grade.

He hopes that 40 or 50% will get five good GCSEs not including these two core subjects.

But situated in an area of substantial economic deprivation, with a third of pupils having special educational needs, further improvement will be a substantial challenge.

'Improve, improve'

Many students enter the school with very weak basic skills, especially in literacy, according to Ofsted.

This is why Mr Dore has arranged for his teachers to start working with local primary schools to improve their literacy standards.

However, the school has just been recognised as being one of the five best performing city academies in England.

"Getting pupils reaching five As to C is one of our concerns. We also have to ensure our children are healthy and their home life is stable.

"We are all about giving child a really good experience between the age of 11 and 16.

"They've got to want to come to school and want to come to lessons," Mr Dore says.

For Mr Blatchford, a sensitive inspection regime is key to raising standards in the 638 schools deemed failing by the government.

'Lifting horizons'

"It has to be one that both weighs and nurtures the baby," he says.

"Some of these schools have had too much done to them. People get fed up at being told improve, improve, improve.

"Outside intervention which makes people feel better about what they can do can lift their horizons."

But Carmel Littleton, head of young people and learning at Tower Hamlets Council, which has the most improved GCSE results in the country, says the relationship between a local authority and a failing school also has to be robust and open.

"It's not good enough for schools to make incremental changes because in the meantime children will still be going through a failing system and coming out without the appropriate qualifications.

"Change has to be pacy," she says.

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