Teacher to the rescue

Labour's plan to rescue failing schools follows a successful sixth- form initiative. Lucy Ward reports
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The Independent Online
Tony Blair's vision of a new breed of "super headteacher" swooping to the rescue of failing schools is already half-way to reality in struggling further education colleges that are hoping to stave off disaster.

The Labour leader, who outlined the plans in a speech at Ruskin College, Oxford, need only turn to the little-publicised college sector for a working model of his scheme, albeit a more modest version.

One college facing possible closure last year amid financial crisis was set back on track - following a brutal round of redundancies - with the help of managers "on loan" from a successful sixth-form college up the road.

Another is destined to shut next summer, brought down by dwindling student numbers following a critical inspection report, but has imported a vice- principal from a sixth-form college in another city to manage the closure as painlessly as possible.

The Further Education Funding Council (FEFC), which both funds and inspects the 460 colleges, is so impressed with the concept of the "rescue squad" that it is actively encouraging successful institutions to lend their expertise to ailing neighbours. Several college principals have already offered to help bail out Stoke-on-Trent College, which last month sacked its principal. The college must pay back pounds 8m in funding to the FEFC after over-estimating student numbers.

For those pioneering the approach, however, Mr Blair's plans to let well- run schools swallow up their neighbours take a promising scheme several stages too far.

The strength of the idea, they believe, lies in passing on new skills to surviving staff at the failing institution - then retreating at the right moment. On-loan FE managers share the view of Peter Clark, who was drafted in to head the troubled Ridings School in Halifax until next summer, that running two schools, or colleges, at once would prove to be nightmare of logistics.

Nigel Briggs, principal of Thomas Rotherham Sixth Form College in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, and two other college senior staff offered their expertise over three months when neighbouring Rotherham College of Arts and Technology (RCAT) ran perilously close to bankruptcy last year.

The troubleshooters helped remaining RCAT managers to draw up recovery plans and a financial analysis, before pulling out and leaving the college to stand on its own feet.

The process worked, according to Nigel Briggs, because RCAT's staff were "talented and able to learn quickly. We were very much helping them devise their own plans, with our advice and support, not rushing in and taking over."

The Blair proposal seriously underestimates the difficulties of managing two institutions simultaneously, Mr Briggs believes. "If you are able to spare key people for an extended period of time then you must be running an inefficient system," he says. "We laid down ground rules over when our help would end."

RCAT's new principal, John Rockett, who took over after the troubleshooters had left, is convinced of the value of neighbourly intervention. "Had Nigel not stepped in, you might have been looking at three to six months before the college simply went under."

John Neary, vice principal at a thriving Leeds sixth-form college, is currently "on loan" as acting principal at De La Salle Sixth Form College, Salford, which faces closure next summer after several years of decline.

Mr Neary dismisses the "troubleshooter" label frequently applied to his role - the term smacks to him of industry jargon - but enthuses over the concept. A fresh eye cast over a troubled organisation can often spy new solutions, he believes, and also offers the seconded manager fresh insights to take back to his home school or college.

He suggests that a regular system of placements - perhaps an exchange system for vice-principals or deputy heads - would help colleges and schools to share ideas and prevent the insularity that can lead to crisis.

The chief executive of FEFC, David Melville, anxious to encourage a new mood of collaboration among colleges, is all in favour of rescue efforts on the Rotherham model. "Every college's problems have been experienced by somebody somewhere, and there is every reason to share expertise."

Peter Clark, who is acting head of the failing Ridings School in Halifax, is the best known "super headteacher" of them all, brought in under the media's gaze to tame allegedly unteachable youngsters.

He questions the extent of the Blair scheme, wondering how heads could be expected to run two schools simultaneously. His own school, Rastrick High, is being managed by an acting head in his absence, though he stays in regular contact and can be freed from his Ridings duties for key decisions.

His troubleshooting role is working at the Ridings, he says, because the school had hit crisis point and staff were ready to follow an incomer offering a firm lead.

"If you went into a school [that was] not at that stage, the waters would be muddier and you might have to adopt a more macho style or go very carefully. What we have done at the Ridings is nothing innovative - we have just gone in and done bog-standard head teachering"