TV school struggles in real world

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The Independent Online
IT LOOKS so easy on television. Take a well-known comedy actor, Lenny Henry, a photogenic supporting cast and within six episodes a failing school is failing no more.

Alas, it's not like that in real life. A school which was used to research Henry's new television series Hope and Glory has been found wanting by inspectors.

Phoenix High in west London, used by the Prime Minister to lead Labour's standards campaign before the last election, has been told that it is improved but still has serious weaknesses. The school, whose high-profile head, William Atkinson, is a government adviser on standards, was cited by ministers as the pioneer of their Fresh Start initiative which closes down failing schools and reopens them with a new name, head and staff.

Lenny Henry as headmaster Ian George has taken a failing school into the top 10 in the country in three years in BBC1's series, but after four years, Mr Atkinson has some way to go.

A report from inspectors at the Office for Standards in Education says the school "has made very good progress", that he offers "excellent leadership" and that "the quality of teaching has improved significantly". But it also reveals the challenges in a school where a substantial proportion of pupils are refugees and nearly half of those admitted at the age of 11 have a reading age on the bottom two levels of a 10-point scale.

Though teaching is satisfactory or better in 89 per cent of lessons, both test results at 14 and GCSE exam results for pupils gaining five good grades are well below the national average and below the average for schools with similar intakes.

When Mr Atkinson took over, the school had been failed by inspectors. Only five per cent of pupils were getting five good grades. That rose two years ago to 15 per cent and last year was 11 per cent. (The national average is 44.4.) Only seven per cent of pupils reached the expected level in English national tests at 14, compared with 65 per cent nationally. The school, though no longer in the failing category, is still struggling to attract staff. The report says: "Many staffing problems have been overcome but the lack of permanent staff in some subjects impedes pupils' progress." Mr Atkinson said last week: "The report makes very positive judgements about the school but its comparisons of exam results with supposedly similar schools are spurious." His school, where 65 per cent of pupils have free school meals, an indicator of disadvantage, was being compared with schools where that was true for only 35 per cent of pupils. Nor do they take into account the high number of pupils who are travellers, live in bed and breakfasts or who are refugees.

As for the television series - "It is absolutely ludicrous to suggest you can take a school from failing to the top 10 in three years," he said.