Head offers a lesson in raising fallen standards: The education White Paper includes a chapter on tackling failing schools. Donald MacLeod looks at how it might be done

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A year after taking over as head teacher of Edge End High School in Nelson, Lancashire, Paul Mortimer was on the receiving end of a highly critical report by Her Majesty's inspectors. Fewer than two- thirds of lessons at the school were judged satisfactory or better.

The school, most of whose pupils are from low-income families, more than half Asian, had rooms that had not been decorated since 1953, dingy workshops 'redolent of the oily rag and the monkey- wrench rather than of the gleaming atmosphere of modern technology', as the inspectors put it.

However, they noted the strong lead taken by the new head in implementing change, in particular redesigning the school day and the curriculum, and concluded: 'This is a school of considerable potential. Its strengths include the commitment of its teachers, the eager responsiveness of its pupils and the energy and vision of its head.

'If it can find means to build on these strengths it will weather its immediate problems and continue to serve well the community to which it belongs.'

Those hopes would appear to have been justified in that examination results improved in each of the past three years, new facilities appeared helped by parental contributions, and the school's 'flexi- time' curriculum attracted international interest.

Even the cricket has blossomed, despite the absence of a school pitch, with the under-14 team, 10 of them of Pakistani origin, reaching the final of the Lancashire County Cup.

What is the secret? A lot of people, from anxious parents to John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, who devoted a chapter of his recent White Paper to 'Tackling Failing Schools', would like to know.

Dr Mortimer believes the role of outside intervention should be limited to a holding operation while a school sorts itself out. 'Running a school is a team effort by people who live and breathe it. Caring long-term planning has got to come from the people who are in it,' he said.

The White Paper states: 'Failure is not for want of resources,' and it highlights a lack of leadership and management at school level. Schools which are found to be 'at risk' of failing to provide an adequate education will, if the local authority and the governors are unable to sort it out in one academic year, be put in the charge of an 'Education Association', consisting of a chairman and five part-time members appointed by the Secretary of State.

They will have sweeping financial and staffing powers to rescue the school - or close it - and steer it towards grant-maintained status. But that still begs the question of what steps the Education Association or the local authority should take in practice. At present it is the local education authorities that have the experience of trying to mount these operations.

Andrew Collier, Lancashire's chief education officer, sees Mr Patten's proposals as a positive step away from the Conservative government's previous line that bad schools would simply close as parents moved their children away. 'The shift of policy is a good one - that we should actually consider doing something about a failing school and help it to pull itself up by its bootstraps.'

The north London borough of Islington is currently struggling to turn round Highbury Grove School, which received such a bad HM inspectors' report that it prompted Kenneth Clarke, then Secretary of State for Education, to intervene earlier this year.

Chris Adamson, chair of Islington's education committee, said the authority improved cleaning services immediately and sent in its own inspectors to work with each department. He feels that while discipline and attendance can be improved in 12 months it is unrealistic to expect an immediate improvement in examination results. Professor Peter Mortimore, deputy director of London University's Institute of Education, whose book School Matters identified the main characteristics of successful schools, pointed out that turning a school round was extremely difficult.

It may be failing for a variety of reasons. A spiral of decline can set in as a school becomes unpopular, in which bad management, poor behaviour by pupils and falling morale among teachers reinforce each other.

The evidence from overseas, particularly North America, is that schools take five to seven years to turn round - a generation of pupils - although Professor Mortimore believes that this could be speeded up and three years would be a realistic goal.

But he warns against unrealistic expectations for schools in tough inner-city areas which will probably not rank highly in examination league tables even when they operate effectively.

'It's easy to turn round a school that has had bad management but reasonably advantaged and motivated students. It is a lot harder to turn round a school with a lot of disadvantaged children,' he said.