Is reincarnation the way to go?

For a troubled school, a fresh start is the only alternative to closure, but there are problems.
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The Independent Online
Adam, a big 15-year-old with two large gold rings in one ear, walks right up to head teacher John Dryden, who is standing in the front hall of one of the worst schools in Britain. He towers over the teacher and clasps his shoulder. "Sir, come and look at my maths work, five pages, it's really good." The head smiles delightedly and promises he will.

That is one hopeful sign at Alderman Derbyshire, a Nottingham comprehensive which this month was earmarked for a formal fresh start. All the staff, from the head down, are losing their jobs and will have to reapply. There will be a new board of governors and even the school's name will change when it reopens in September.

Far less hopeful is the sight of truant youngsters inside the school, skulking around a classroom block in a gang during lesson time. They pass below a window, crouching to keep out of view of any teacher, before swaggering off to roam around. They have either sneaked out of class or been sent out for bad behaviour. What will they learn that day?

Can a school like Alderman Derbyshire be turned round. Last summer, only 5 per cent of pupils taking GCSEs got five or more grades A to C, putting Alderman Derbyshire among the worst performers in the country. Truancy has been rife, large numbers of pupils have been suspended or expelled, and teachers struggle to maintain discipline. They have faced threats of violence, and had to step in to break up fights.

Mr Dryden reckons that the 11-year-olds who arrive at the school have, on average, a reading age of only eight to nine years. Almost half of them qualify for free school meals because their parents are depending on state benefits.

There are schools suffering even greater levels of disadvantage that win through, but this one appears locked into a spiral of decline. Its poor reputation makes it extremely difficult to recruit and retain good teachers. Pupils have often been poorly taught by people who don't stay long. So they achieve little, bunk off, and misbehave, reinforcing its reputation. Yet first impressions of Alderman Derbyshire are favourable. The buildings may look like bland, bleak boxes, as they do at so many post-war comprehensives, but spring flowers - planted by pupils - are starting to push out of the tubs by the front entrance. The paintwork appears fresh, and graffiti and litter seem absent.

Mr Dryden, courteous and energetic, calls attention to the hush in the front hall and the empty corridors leading off from it. "There are four classrooms just above us, and if the students were out of control you'd certainly hear it," he says.

But he declines my request to sit in on a lesson. "My first priority is the pupils, and they have enough to contend with."

Alderman Derbyshire is in Bulwell, on the northern edge of Nottingham. Council estates sprawl around it. The nearby coal mines have closed, and businesses which depended on the pits have folded. The shopping centre is busy with young and middle-aged men without work.

The school is large enough for twice as many pupils as the 470 now attending, for the roll has been falling along with its reputation and the fortunes of the surrounding community.

Just under three years ago, the school received a damning report after an Ofsted inspection, and was formally judged to require "special measures". That meant close monitoring, and the prospect of closure unless it was turned around.

The inspectors found teachers were having to spend far too much time trying to control a large number of disruptive pupils - which meant that those who wanted to learn could not.

Since then, the Government has legislated for a "fresh start", which allows councils to close and then re-open failing schools under new leadership. The Secretary of State for Education has to approve of the plan, and Alderman Derbyshire was only the third school in England to be selected for this last resort treatment under the Government's scheme. Dozens more will follow.

It has seen some improvements in truancy levels and exam results since the Ofsted report, but not enough. "We haven't changed quickly enough," said Mr Dryden. "It was either a fresh start or closure, and if we closed, the children would have to catch buses to several schools further away." That, he believed, would lead to even higher levels of truancy.

"I'm glad Nottingham City Council and the Government have taken decisive action. Just soldiering on was not an option."

He has not ruled out applying for the post of head teacher at the new school, a pounds 70,000 a year job. But the expectation is that fresh start schools should break with the past, have a new leadership, and mostly new faces among the teaching staff. "I'm big enough to realise that there may be someone better than me for the job," he says.

Over the next two terms, Mr Dryden will struggle to retain what staff he has. There are five key vacancies among 31 teaching posts. The head of English he appointed recently - there was just one applicant - resigned after only six weeks, suffering from stress and personal problems.Last summer, seven of his staff were trained in a highly regarded American literacy skills programme, by instructors who had flown in from the USA. Today, only two of them are still at the school, such is the high staff turnover at the school.

The ones that continue don't underestimate the job. Wendy Powell, the school's young religious education teacher, says: "This is a challenging place to work, and there can be times when you are physically threatened. But if I couldn't cope, I wouldn't still be here, and I'd like to continue."

Mr Dryden was himself parachuted in from his job as a school inspector three years ago, after the head and two deputies went on long-term sick leave. As acting head, he decided to apply to be the school's permanent leader, "because I saw there were some very dedicated teachers here."

After the "fresh start" announcement was made, three pupils wrote to the Nottingham Evening Post to complain about its negative coverage of Alderman Derbyshire. One of them, 15-year-old Danny Law, tells me: "People put the teachers down, but I don't think they should be laid off. When you have people running about during lessons it's very difficult to teach. There are kids who mess around and ruin things. They get excluded, then come back and disrupt lessons again."

Come September, money will be spent on refurbishing the school and purchasing new equipment. There will be major changes in the curriculum, with the new school seeking Specialist 14-19 Status. With the lure of pounds 70,000 a year, Nottingham City Council should be able to recruit a high-flying head who welcomes a challenge. But it remains to be seen if a restarted school can attract and keep dedicated, effective teachers to overcome Alderman Derbyshire's circumstances and turn it around. A council spokesman said he doubted they would be paid above the usual rates.