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The school that rose again from the ashes

Pupils were once uncontrollable, now they pass exams, writes Ben Russell
ROSES bloom outside the main entrance at The Phoenix High School in west London. During mid-morning lessons yesterday a team of caretakers cleared away a few bits of litter left over from the pupils' morning break.

The corridors, all cleanly painted and carpeted, were deserted, while in a maths class on the second floor teenagers worked quietly while a teacher moved round the room offering words of help.

The classroom door bore the message "keep calm, let's work together". The walls had signs saying how the children should behave, and when they could expect work to be marked. In the gym, a group of 13-year-olds sat in rows, taking their end of term exams.

Four years ago the school was in chaos. Hammersmith School, as it was then called, had been branded the worst in Britain. The pupils were in command, hurling furniture out of windows and plastering graffiti on every surface.

A team of eight youth workers was called in just to roam the corridors trying to persuade children to stay in their classes. Only 5 per cent of pupils left with five good GCSE passes.

Today the Phoenix is the model for the Government's Fresh Start drive to turn around failing schools.

It has a new name, a new uniform, a strict discipline code, virtually a new staff and a head teacher praised by ministers for his remarkable work.

Hammersmith School had been classed as failing for 15 months when William Atkinson came in to give the school the first Fresh Start in April 1995.

Under the plans announced on Tuesday, failing schools which do not improve after two years will be closed and their heads and governors sacked before they are re-opened under new management.

Ministers hope the extreme measures will end the cycle of failure, allowing dynamic head teachers and staff to start over.

Mr Atkinson, who now advises ministers and works to help other heads turn round their schools, took the job after being drafted in by officials at Hammersmith and Fulham council to assess the school. The council had taken over the governors' powers after two head teachers failed to turn it around.

His notes from the time paint a stark picture. Exam results were "appalling". Student attendance was "appalling"; punctuality was "appalling"; the toilets "incomprehensible".

"The students are being ripped off," he wrote.

The school, which sits next to the White City council estates in west London, which have become notorious as a centre of crime, drugs and deprivation, had been declining fast. In 1982 it had 2,200 pupils. By 1995 that was down to just 500.

Jo Shuter, head of the lower school, is the only senior member of staff left from those days. "It was like coming to a zoo," she said.

Mr Atkinson arrived at the school at the start of the Easter holiday. By the end of the fortnight's break council staff had repainted the whole site, relaid the playground, laid carpets in the corridors and scrubbed the toilets and classrooms.

Mr Atkinson put up new signs, with the new name and a new motto, "Strength Through Knowledge".

Children arriving back went into an assembly with their burly new head teacher to hear him lay down the law. The next day, one-third of the parents turned up to hear him speak.

About 50 children were expelled or suspended during that summer term, as Mr Atkinson tried to win back respect from the children.

He also tackled the teachers. Short-term contract staff all left at the end of the year, replaced by nine newly-qualified teachers out of college. All had gone by the next September.

Mr Atkinson now offers teachers at least pounds 1,500 over standard rates to attract the best staff. All applicants must teach a lesson to test their performance when they go for interview. All but six of the teaching staff have changed in the past three years.

The social disadvantage they have to deal with is severe. Sixty per cent of children have free school meals, while half have statements of special needs.

The new regime at the Phoenix has trebled the proportion of pupils getting good exam passes and imposed a new order on the school. The school came off special measures in January last year, just 18 months after the fresh start.

A new culture has been introduced; one of strict discipline and a partnership with parents. Children are now divided into groups by ability. End of year exams, unheard of a few years ago, are standard for all.

Every child has to comply with the school's Code of Expectations, laying out what is and what is not acceptable. Children are commended and presented with awards for good work, but face sanctions, including frequent calls to parents, if they step out of line. Senior staff all carry walkie-talkies as they patrol the school and the surrounding estates.

Mr Atkinson's goal is to raise the school's exam performance above the national average.

He insists nothing less will do. "If it does not work here, the children are going to join the underclass, and that's going to be a problem for all of us."