High school that's too good to win a windfall

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The Independent Online

Damp is rotting the gym, science classrooms are considered too dangerous for experiments, yet millions of pounds of local education funding is heading everywhere but Northolt High School. If any school illustrates the anomalies in the new system, it is Northolt, with 1,300 pupils, in Ealing, west London.

The nearest school to the south, Compton High, is about to be turned into a City Academy with £8m in government money and a £2m donation from a wealthy philanthropist, Alec Reed, chairman of Reed Executive plc.

Over the borough boundary to the north-east, in Harrow, plans are afoot for the refurbishment of a neighbouring secondary, Rooks Heath comprehensive, to be revamped and run by a commercial company under the private finance initiative.

The irony for Northolt is that it is not being denied funds because it is failing, but because it is not sufficiently special to deserve a windfall. "We're a successful school," says John Parry, the headteacher. "We've tripled the number of pupils getting five A* to C grade passes in the past 10 years, from 12 per cent to 38 per cent. We're oversubscribed. We've twice as many parents who want their children to come here as pupils we can take. It seems we're being penalised for success."

That is part of the problem. Ealing council singled out its southerly neighbour, Compton, for the City Academy project precisely because it was the worst-performing school in the borough. While Northolt's results went up after opting for grant maintained status under the previous Conservative administration, Compton's went down.

Following the route then favoured in Whitehall, Northolt opted out to preserve its sixth-form status when Ealing wanted all secondary schools to be for children only up to 16, with pupils transferring to tertiary college for A-levels. As one source put it: "Northolt helped turn Compton into a sink school."

To Northolt's north, Rooks, another secondary, and a cluster of nearby primaries will have a £40m facelift to turn them into prototypes of the all-action community schools favoured by Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education. She wants schools open all hours to put on classes for adults as well as children.

Mr Parry added: "At present, we can't use our gym because damp under the floorboards has caused them to buckle. We're trying to get some money from the New Opportunities Fund [linked to the lottery] but it's been out of action for a year. We have seven science laboratories but we can use only five of them because the others are in a poor condition. It would take only £120,000 to refurbish them, not much when you think of the millions we're talking about."

The education authority, Ealing, wanted to set up a City Academy at Compton because it saw that as the best way of pumping money into an under-performing school. The ideological commitment to the City Academy, under which the private sponsor can run the school, is more Whitehall's than Ealing's but the council believes Northolt has had more than its share of government largesse.

Mr Parry acknowledges the school benefited from opting out by "about a million pounds". On top of that there was the money from the sale of an adjacent playing field after a wrangle with the borough over who owned it. Northolt is building an Astroturf football pitch on the site with the proceeds. "But that is not the sort of money we're talking about now," Mr Parry says.

At the back of his mind is a worry that a reversal in fortunes between the two schools could jeopardise Northolt's improvements and its popularity with parents.

Mr Reed, the recruitment tycoon who is ploughing £2m into Compton, says he wants to turn around the school so parents in its catchment area stop sending their children elsewhere. The school is at the bottom of the local league table with only one pupil in five getting five top-grade GCSE passes. "We want everyone in the catchment area for this school to be confident in its ability so they want to send their children here," Mr Reed says. "We're not interested in cherry-picking kids who should be elsewhere."

But that still leaves Northolt with perhaps the least optimistic story in a tale of three schools. This sort of saga on the borders of Harrow, Hillingdon and Ealing is being played out all over the country because of the different schemes local education authorities can bid for. Many in the teaching profession would like to go back to the old days when resources were shared more evenly between neighbouring schools.

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "Providing resources disproportionately for one school inevitably disadvantages another. We have emphasised again and again that disparities in resources force schools into disadvantaged positions for no good reason."

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