'I have zero tolerance of litter and graffiti'

Headmaster Philip Turner has dramatically transformed a failing school. Ministers want other teachers to follow his example, writes Ben Russell
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IT WAS a tough week for head teacher Philip Turner, the man brought in to turn round one of Britain's largest, toughest schools.

On Tuesday he was defending the exam results at West Gate Community College in Newcastle upon Tyne after 6 per cent of pupils gained five or more GCSEs at grade C or better, putting it at the bottom of the city's league.

But it was a far cry from January 1996 when he started at the school, in one of Britain's most deprived neighbourhoods. Mr Turner was charged with transforming the school. It was in chaos. Vandalism and graffiti repairs cost up to pounds 1,000 a week. Pupils ran riot.

"My first impression was one of total breakdown," Mr Turner said. "There was a complete disregard for teachers. Basically, they told teachers to f*** off. Hundreds of children were smoking between classes. I'm a fairly tough character and I have worked in tough schools, but I was taken aback."

Today the school is transformed. Graffiti has gone, and the pupils are friendly. Exam results are rising and fewer children leave without a qualification. Mr Turner now helps to advise the Government on improving standards at schools in trouble.

The inspectors were back at West Gate Community College last week. Senior officials from the Office for Standards in Education were giving the school its annual check, a year after it came off the failing list. They confirmed that the 1,600-pupil comprehensive had made "significant progress" after release from the regime of special measures designed to pull failing schools out of trouble.

Head teachers like Mr Turner are at the heart of the Government's crusade to raise standards. Ministers believe leadership in school is essential, and they are prepared to pay for it. The Green Paper on teachers' pay published last week held out the prospect of pounds 70,000 salaries for heads who transform a school. Staff at schools which improve are to be offered bonuses. The secret of turning schools around is the holy grail of Tony Blair's education policy. Ministers want to target not just the 3 per cent of schools found to be failing, but have ordered tight deadlines for re-invigorating ones with serious weaknesses. They plan to introduce a new category, "coasting", to take in up to 15 per cent of schools.

Ofsted reports insist that improving teaching and leadership are crucial in pulling schools out of failure. West Gate Community College has all the problems a school could encounter. Sixty-five per cent of the children qualify for free school meals. Ninety per cent arrive with reading difficulties; one in ten 11-year-olds has a reading age of around six.

Mr Turner spent his first day at West Gate in assemblies with the children. But at his first staff meeting, he had to say the school had a pounds 650,000 deficit and 27 staff would have to leave. The books were balanced within two terms, without compulsory redundancy.

"Morale was rock bottom," said Mr Turner. "The children were ruling the roost. The staff were desperate and people really got behind me. I walked round the school every day for six weeks confronting the bad behaviour. As I went round, more and more staff felt confident to support me and do it themselves.

"I have zero tolerance of litter and graffiti, but we try to educate the children and ask them whether they would do that at home. If you go round meeting the children you can have a bit of a chat, build positive relationships and the children relax. You can't run a school from a desk."

Professor Peter Mortimore, director of the London University Institute of Education, a leading expert on improving schools, said leadership and the ability to motivate teachers and pupils was at the centre of efforts to make schools better.

He said: "Each school has the capacity to be successful. Leadership is the capacity to create a vision of a better school and persuading your staff to work towards that vision. School improvement is a process, not just something you do when you're in trouble."

Pressure on heads is increasing, according to John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association. "Headship is now becoming a high-risk job, and if it's a high-risk job, it requires a high-risk salary. The bottom line is the ability to motivate the staff, but there is no recipe for good headship and improving one school will need techniques different from those needed to deal with another."

At West Gate, Philip Turner believes his school is getting better. Ninety per cent of lessons are now judged satisfactory or better. Three years ago the figure was 60 per cent.

"Leadership in a school is absolutely critical to the process of improving," he said. "You don't have to be macho, but you have to have personality and presence in the corridors and in the classroom."