Education: How can a school pull itself out of catastrophe?: An uphill battle against an overwhelming sense of failure

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OUT of 51 secondary schools and 30 primaries visited under the new inspection framework this year, two have so far fallen into the 'cause of concern' or 'cause of serious concern' category. That means they will be the first to be visited again next year, and may be designated as being 'at risk' under the terms of the present Education Bill. If ministers are still unhappy with them a year later, they may appoint an education association to run the schools. The Independent visited the two most prominent 'failing' schools to find out their reactions to this pressure.

WATERFIELD SCHOOL has achieved an unhappy distinction. The first to be identified by Ofsted, the new standards authority, as causing 'serious concern' to inspectors, it faces the threat next year of being taken over by ministers or shut down. 'Overall,' the inspectors said, 'the quality of work and standards achieved are unacceptable.'

Their report catalogued unsatisfactory behaviour, a high number of expulsions, largely unsatisfactory management, serious weaknesses of leadership in significant areas, inadequate financial decisions, high levels of staff absence and turnover, unavailable policy statements, and unsatisfactory teaching in more half the lessons seen. One in eight lessons was rated 'extremely poor'.

It comes as a surprise, then, to find that the school looks more like a showcase technology college than a beleaguered comprehensive. Waterfield, set in the brave new world of the overspill town of Thamesmead, south London, was the last school to be built by the Inner London Education Authority. But the new world turned out not to be so brave after all: attractive houses backing on to meandering waterways, picturesque bridges and green parks now mock an area where the money ran out and unemployment is the highest in the London borough of Greenwich. Nearly 50 per cent of pupils is eligible for free school meals.

The view of distant tower blocks from the head's office and the occasional siren from the local prison emphasise Thamesmead's isolation. There are no cinemas, no libraries, even no pavements. The town centre consists of a few shops. There is nothing for young people to do in the evening except make trouble.

The school was planned as a community college, with splendid facilities: a multi-purpose gym, sports hall, weight-lifting equipment. But these facilities remain largely unused because local authority funding was cut.

The road to the front of the school was never built. Classrooms are on one side of a mall that cuts through the building. They are kept locked during lunchtime because it is impossible to supervise them.

Waterfield was designed at a time when open-plan teaching was in fashion. Huge empty spaces are meant to cater for up to four classes of 11- to 16-year-olds. Worse, there is a large central thoroughfare, which disrupts lessons every time anyone uses it.

Pupils talk, walk around, comb their hair and read comics during registration: no surprise there. It is, perhaps, more remarkable that they return relatively quietly and smoothly into the building after lunch.

Exam results are abysmal. The head, Gill Bunce, does not try to defend them. Last year, only one in 10 pupils gained five or more GCSEs at grades A to C. In the core subjects of English, maths and science, only one out of every 25 pupils gained a grade C or better in all three. Out of 340 pupils entered for GCSE, 96 failed to turn up for the exam or to complete coursework. 'It is a pitifully low achievement,' Ms Bunce admits.

In the past seven years Waterfield has had four headteachers. It is Ms Bunce's first headship, which she took up in the summer term of 1991. Last year she had a Greenwich inspection in January before the national inspectors visited in the summer.

In retrospect, she says, that sequence was disastrous. She had waited to act until receiving the Greenwich report, which was delayed until June; then spent nearly a month preparing the documentation for Her Majesty's Inspectorate - much of it, she says, out-of-date or non-existent. Then it lurched into the inspection. 'Something horrible happened,' admits Ms Bunce. 'Pupils' behaviour grew progressively worse.'

The inspectors' debriefing was catastrophic. The maths department came in for the worst censure. The work of many pupils was two or three years behind their age group. In nearly two-thirds of lessons, pupils' behaviour was 'unsatisfactory'. Assessment against the national curriculum's statements of attainment had only just started, teachers' records were incomplete, and the quality of teaching was satisfactory in only about one quarter of the lessons.

Ms Bunce says inspectors failed to appreciate that maths was taught by three probationary teachers when she arrived. She had managed to employ an 'excellent' head of maths who was just beginning to instill a sense of direction. That teacher, she says, was subjected to aggressive personal criticism: he resigned at half-term. The school is now back where it started, with no head of maths.

Ofsted acknowledges that 'the conduct of the inspection did not meet HMI's normal high standards'. Ms Bunce, with weary understatement, says: 'I would support, in principle, many of their observations, and am not making excuses for poor achievement or practice; but it was done in such a way that it has not helped either of those things.'

Ironically, Waterfield received a School Curriculum Award shortly after the inspection, for its work with the community. The inspectors praised the heads of year for their commitment to their pupils, and to maintaining good relationships with parents. Careers education and work experience were also commended.

But the report left bad feeling. Waterfield is a small school with only 31 full-time staff. Not only did the head have to deal with teachers' sense of failure, but she, too, felt like giving up. 'It was all so public and I felt like a prisoner. I couldn't walk away, or people would say I had failed.'

Greenwich helped by offering six days free in-service training - despite the borough struggling with other problems, having been without a director of education since March. Otherwise, the school has to pay for advice from its own budget.

Ms Bunce has already appointed a new senior manager and a new senior teacher. The key, she feels, is to make middle management more effective. A working party is looking at literacy. Children arrive from their primary schools with 'with an inadequate grasp of simple spelling, and reluctant to use clear handwriting'. Ms Bunce claims that few of the pupils (83 per cent of whom are white) have any real grasp of standard English.

The challenge now is to turn things around. Targets are being drawn up to monitor pupils' achievement and behaviour, and the school has started looking at flexible learning. Staff members are giving up their lunch hours to coach individual children. All pupils in Year 11 were seen after their mock GCSE exams, and given advice on where to improve. A target group will be tutored from Year 10 on a voluntary basis next year.

The school has been given some money to tackle attendance problems (around 25 per cent of 14-year-olds play truant). But Waterfield only receives seven hours' educational welfare support a week, precious little in a school where up to 50 new pupils a year - many of whom have been turned out of their former schools - create extra difficulties.

Ofsted will inspect Waterfield again next summer. By then, as Ms Bunce well knows, she will have been at the school for three years, and no longer able to plead that she is new. The school is beginning to work its way into her joints, she says, if not yet into her bones, and she is getting ready to defend it. 'It is true that we have a long way to go, and it will be an uphill battle. But it can be done.'

(Photograph omitted)