The phrase "rising like a phoenix from the ashes" has rarely seemed so apt. Fifteen years ago, when William Atkinson – now Sir William as a result of his services to education – took over the running of Phoenix High School in Shepherd's Bush, west London, only four per cent of its pupils achieved five top-grade GCSE passes. Today, it stands at the top of the Government's exam league tables for improved performance with a figure of 96 per cent.
It was a baptism of fire for Sir William. When he took over in 1995, there were reports of pupils throwing furniture out of windows, setting fire to buildings, and covering every surface with graffiti. There was little evidence teachers were doing anything more than crisis management.
Now the latest report from Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, is full of praise. "The Phoenix is a remarkable school: it continues to transform the life chances of both students and their families," it says. This, the inspectors argue, is because it has "a deeply rooted understanding and heartfelt appreciation" of the challenging circumstances faced by its pupils.
Of Sir William, who provided the inspiration for Lenny Henry's fictitious headteacher who turned around a failing school in the BBC TV series Hope and Glory, the report said: "The school is exceptionally well led by a charismatic, indefatigable headteacher ... students speak warmly of the headteacher's aspirational outlook and powerful motivating force."
So how have the school's fortunes been reversed? More than half of the school's 850 pupils take advantage of free school meals, and 60 per cent are on the register for those with special needs. Its pupil mobility rate – the total movement in and out of the school by pupils other than at the usual times of joining and leaving – is between 25 and 30 per cent due to the number of children forced to leave every year because they are being rehoused or because of relationship breakdowns.
"That is very problematic," said Sir William. "It doesn't give us much time to work with the kids." Pupils at the school – largely taken from the giant White City estate nearby – also speak 50 different first languages.
Sir William puts part of the transition down to its ability to attract top quality teachers – something it was unable to do in its earlier days.
"It couldn't recruit and retain staff with the right degree of passion and commitment for a very challenging intake," he said. "To work with these youngsters, you have to be not only competent and with a good knowledge base but be prepared to go that extra mile – and that's not just now and then but routinely, every day."
Now, though, he is full of praise for the present staff. The school puts on Saturday morning classes for those struggling to keep up in maths, English and science, as well as "bespoke" extra tuition which focuses on the weaknesses of individual pupils.
It is the pledge made by Schools Secretary Ed Balls of one-to-one tuition for those who struggle writ large – long before the Government ever made it a policy. But with such an impressive record of improvement, what more needs to be done?
Sir William's top priority is to increase the number of pupils obtaining five A* to C grade passes at GCSE including maths and English, a figure which now stands at 46 per cent. "That's the next battleground," he said. "We're looking to substantially improve the overall score for maths and English, getting well above 50 per cent."
Initiatives are already in place to achieve this, with individual mentoring of pupils as well as the focused improvement lessons. The school's success can also be measured by the fact that it is opening a sixth form for the first time in September. In the past, most of its pupils would have ended up on the streets with few or no qualifications.