'Shamed' school praised by Ofsted after revamp

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A school "named and shamed" by Labour within three weeks of its 1997 election victory is now "outstanding", according to Ofsted inspectors.

The 645-pupil Fir Vale school in Sheffield is one of the first to be given a "fresh start" by the Government, having been closed and reopened on the same site with a new name and new staff. In its previous incarnation, as Earl Marshal school, it was one of 18 identified as the worst in the country by the then Secretary of State for Education, David Blunkett.

The schools, which had all been on Ofsted's list of failures for more than two years, were told they would have to close if there was no improvement.

Now, however, as the first "fresh start" school to undergo a full inspection from Ofsted, Fir Vale has been told it has "many outstanding characteristics". The report reveals that the number of pupils getting five or more top-grade GCSE passes has more than doubled since the new school opened in September 1998. Only 11 per cent reached the target in its first year; now the figure is 23 per cent.

The report also says that more than two-thirds of the lessons are good or excellent – with 98 per cent being classified as at least satisfactory. The headteacher, Hugh Howe, is described as "outstanding" and his leadership as "excellent". Parents are queueing to get their children into the school with the result that, last September, it had to turn away pupils for the first time.

"Fir Vale is a good school with many outstanding characteristics," says the report. "It provides good learning opportunities for pupils of all backgrounds and levels of attainment. The excellent leadership by the senior management leadership team inspires pupils and staff to do well. Teachers do not settle for half: they have high expectations of most pupils. Teachers encourage most pupils to work hard."

More than half of Fir Vale's pupils are on free meals, and one in 10 has little or no command of the English language, while a similar number are asylum-seekers.

The school has introduced several measures to improve standards. It pioneered the fast-tracking of pupils through GCSE exams, using the fact that many children understand two languages to get them to learn a third, French, and take their GCSEs in the subject at least a year early.

It has replaced blackboards with whiteboards linked to the internet for lessons. "We have come a long way and achieved very much in a very short space of time," said Mr Howe. "I am delighted with this external validation of the achievements of the pupils and the hard work of the staff."

In May 1997, Earl Marshal school was showing no signs of improving. Its previous headteacher, Chris Searle, had been told not to return after a damning Ofsted report said standards were low, behaviour unsatisfactory and management ineffective. In the 1970s, Mr Searle had become one of the best-known teachers in Britain when he disobeyed the headmaster of his east London school and published poems by his pupils, some of which were written in East End slang. He was sacked, and then reinstated after pupils went on strike.

Jonathan Crossley-Holland, Sheffield's director of education, said: "It is an outstanding success story. It has been about rebuilding the confidence amongst local parents."

Richard Caborn, Fir Vale's local MP and Minister for Sport, added: "This is a transformation beyond belief."