Turning failure into success

There's no easy blueprint for a good school, but, as the new adviser on how to save our failing schools tells Judith Judd, there's still hope
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The Independent Online
Turning round one failing school is difficult enough. Turning round 300, to most people, looks impossible. Stephen Andrews, an 11-plus failure who left school at 16 and who this week starts work in the government unit dedicated to school improvement, begs to differ: "Any school can be turned round. It is sometimes perceived as arrogant to say so and it is difficult. But, if you can get your senior team, your staff, parents, students and governors all working together it can be done."

Mr Andrews should know. In the last decade, he has transformed Sandringham School, St Albans from the most unpopular school in town to a thriving comprehensive. Now, as senior education adviser for school intervention based in the Department for Education, he has to do the same for more than 300 schools declared failing by school inspectors and, more immediately, for 18 schools threatened with closure by the Government unless they improve by the end of the month.

His experience, he points out, closely mirrors Labour's policy of closing failing schools and giving them a fresh start under a new head with a new name and, if necessary, a new staff. He was appointed head of Sandringham in 1988 to supervise the amalgamation of two schools which would almost certainly, he believes, have been declared as failing had that label then existed.

His new appointment is typical of the Government's approach to schools. Ministers have promised to listen more to teachers but are sensitive to charges that in the past Labour has been soft on teachers and standards. While Mr Andrews will advise them on what works in the classroom, there is no sign that he will let schools off lightly. The man who was a Rolls Royce apprentice when he left school and later worked for the Sony Corporation says that of course there were redundancies in the two St Albans schools amalgamated to form Sandringham. "We were very clear that our core purpose was not social work but teaching."

Nor does he take issue with the time the Government has given the 18 failing schools to improve - just four months. All had been declared to be failing at least 18 months earlier. "I think you can see whether a school has turned round within a year by looking at things like attendance, staff absence, homework, monitoring student performance, parental attendance at consultation evenings, care of the environment. Even the quality of conversation between staff and students, and the displays on the walls can tell you whether the school is achieving."

There is, however, no easy blueprint for school improvement and he has no intention of imposing the solutions that have proved so successful at Sandringham on all failing schools. "We have to understand that if we want to raise standards in inner-city schools, heads have many other problems to tackle before they can focus on the quality of teaching and learning. A friend in an inner-city school in Birmingham told me his first jobs were to clear the burned-out cars from the car park and to make sure students stayed in the classroom.

"Here at Sandringham, we had to convince a largely middle-class community that we could be as effective as the best schools in a high-performing city. That meant having a vision that was brave enough to be different." He expects to do a lot of listening about schools' different difficulties but he hopes there will be discussions between heads and teachers from the 18 schools threatened with closure and, eventually, from the failing 300, about how they can learn from each other's experience.

However, some Sandringham lessons are transferable, he believes: an emphasis on the expressive arts to help students of all abilities learn how to learn, good relationships amongst the staff and between staff and students, and experience beyond the classroom such as visits and field trips. And students and the curriculum must remain in the forefront of everyone's minds.

The need for good leadership is so obvious to him that he mentions it only briefly, though he does think the Government can quite rightly pay more attention to schools' middle management - deputy heads and heads of department. "Good and bad leadership is often more than just the head."

To others, the quest for enough inspirational heads to go round looks daunting. The search for good teachers may also become more difficult as the recruitment crisis intensifies. At Sandringham, he has built around him a cohesive and remarkable team, many of them under 30. There are plenty of applicants for jobs, even in shortage subjects, such is the school's reputation. An advertisement for a deputy head last year brought in 250 applications. Other schools are not so fortunate. As he heads for his new job he promises "not to make the awful mistake, just because I am relieved of the responsibility of being a head, of thinking that it is all very easy"n