Head brings fresh start and a new ethos as Phoenix rises

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The Independent Online
If the opinions of local shopkeepers are anything to go by, things at the Phoenix High School in west London are definitely improving.

"The positive feedback is endless. The people who approach me and say that things are far better outnumber those who say the opposite by 100 to one," says William Atkinson, the school's headteacher.

Mr Atkinson arrived to give this inner-city comprehensive a fresh start last April, so he is in a position to know why schools fail. But neither progressive teaching methods nor mixed-ability classes feature high on his list.

He has seen as many bad teachers teaching "streamed" or "setted" classes as he has good ones with mixed-ability groups, he says, and even grammar schools used to fail many of their pupils. His recipe for improvement combines strong leadership with high expectations and a small sprinkling of extra cash.

"Where is the evidence to say that comprehensive schools have failed? Some schools are failing children, but they are like that because they are badly managed and under-resourced.

"These schools need to be challenged to get their act together and if they can't they need to be taken out of the system for the benefit of the children," he says.

Until April 1995 this was the Hammersmith School, and it had a reputation for poor discipline and low standards that went back decades. Inspectors from Ofsted, the government inspection service, visited early in 1994 and found dirt, graffiti, low standards and a lack of mutual respect between staff and children. The pupils were "running the system ragged" in a chaotic school and staff morale was at rock bottom. Some applicants for jobs took one look at it and left again without even staying for an interview.

Mr Atkinson was brought in to give the school a new name and a change of ethos. Pupils now wear new burgundy uniforms, the parquet floors have been sanded and polished and there are fresh flowers in the head's office.

Streaming has been introduced for the first three year groups; setting for the other two. But this was in hand before Mr Atkinson's arrival and he says other factors are much more important. The main ones are strong management, high expectations and a reasonable level of resources, he says.

Parents who have taken their children away must be persuaded to come back, and although the number of first-choice applications has doubled this year there is still much to be done.

Recent tests showed that the school's intake did not include a single child of above-average ability and until it can attract a broader range of pupils its exam results are bound to be poor. Last year 5 per cent gained five or more A-C grades. But Mr Atkinson would not like to see a catchment area system which would force middle-class children into his school - he would rather compete for them, even with the odds stacked against him.

This is not a good school yet, but it will be soon, and its pupils' abilities and backgrounds will not be allowed to prevent that, Mr Atkinson says. But he warns that there is no quick fix to the problems of inner-city schools. Steady progress is the best that can be expected.

"There is nothing revolutionary about Phoenix High School at all. It's not radical: that's not the issue. The issue is what we do with our children inside our classrooms," he says.