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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor


Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all