Failed: four schools to close

Education/ the final lesson
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The Independent Online
FOUR of the first 11 secondary schools to fail a government inspection are to be closed down. While ministers have hesitated to take over or shut failing schools, local authorities have stepped in to do the job for them.

The revelation has caused controversy among senior government advisers on education, with some applauding the news but others saying the schools should have been given a chance to improve.

The new inspection system,started in 1993, was launched amid warnings that failing schools could be taken over by squads of senior teachers and advisers, and forced either to opt out or close. But so far only one school has had new governors imposed on it and none has been closed by the Government.

Three of the four now due to shut were already facing closure by their local authorities before being declared "in need of special measures" by teams from the newly privatised inspection service, Ofsted. Two had been criticised by local inspectors because of low standards.

This summer the last lessons will be taught at Dick Sheppard School in Lambeth, criticised for poor discipline and high truancy levels. A few miles away in Fulham, St Mark's Church of England School will also close after scraping through its first inspection only to fail on a return visit. A rubber stamp from Education Secretary Gillian Shephard is awaited on Hackney Downs School, also in London, but the local authority is hoping that it, too, will close in July.

In Leeds the city council wants to close Cross Green School and a neighbouring comprehensive in 1996, and open one new school.Inspectors said that 40 per cent of lessons at Cross Green were unsatisfactory and absenteeism was on an unacceptable scale. Although the school is fighting back with an "action plan", Tom Hodgson, the headteacher, said: "It's a source of great sadness that, having made progress, the school is going to have to start again."

In all, eight of the first 11 secondary schools to go on the "failing" list have faced either closure plans or radical reorganisation since the inspectors visited.

Fairfax Community School in Bradford was reprieved by councillors despite a recommendation by the city's education director that it should shut. Like St Mark's, Fairfax was given a "near miss" by inspectors who visited in 1993, but failed on a second visit. The inspectors said standards were satisfactory in only a quarter of lessons.

Hammersmith School in London, criticised for pupil's low standards and poor behaviour, has reopened as The Phoenix School with a new headteacher.This is the nearest yet to the "fresh start" programme being considered by Labour's education spokesman, David Blunkett.

Battersea Technology College in Wandsworth, south London, has had a radical shake-up ofsenior staff and governors after receiving a damning report from inspectors. And Stratford School, which is opted out, has had four new governors imposed on it in an attempt to raise standards. Inspectors who returned three times in a year after they found it to be failing said they had seen insufficient improvement. Newham wanted to close Stratford five years ago, but ministers allowed it to opt out instead.

Michael Barber, a professor at Keele University and an adviser on failing schools both to the Government and Labour, said in a lecture this month that, while people regarded closing failing schools as radical, it was sometimes the best thing. Sometimes a school had such difficult pupils that the only way forward was to close it and split them up, he said. But more often, the school and its staff were failing to manage the pupils. "If you have available places in better schools it is often the best way of improving the prospects of the pupils."

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, disagreed. He said closing schools caused major disruption to pupils, parents and teachers. "In the odd case in a million that might prove to be the only answer, but the implications of closing a school are really quite enormous," he said. "I don't think that those who support the idea of closing a failing school have even started to understand the logistics involved."

Hackney Downs School

AT THE turn of the century Hackney Downs was known as one of London's best schools. Its good reputation survived until the 1970s, and its old boys include Steven Berkoff and Michael Caine. After it changed from grammar to comprehensive in 1974 it remained a vibrant place, staff say, but by the early Eighties it had begun to have problems.

In 1986 it was closed for a year after staff walked out because of an asbestos scare. The Inner London Education Authority put it on its "at risk" list, and after Hackney took over education in 1990 it was inspected every year by the borough.

Early last year there were reports that a gang of 50 Hackney Downs boys had turned up at another local school armed with bricks. A few months later the Department for Education turned down an application to make the school less aggressive by recruiting girls on the grounds that it would be "unable to cope". A long-running staff dispute caused further disruption.

When Ofsted inspectors visited in May last year, they found high levels of truancy, unsatisfactory teaching and little parental support. Staff prepared an action plan, but Hackney's director of education, Gus John, said it was not financially viable. Three weeks later councillors decided on closure.

Dick Sheppard School

EVEN before Ofsted inspectors said Dick Sheppard School needed "special measures", two reports by local authority officials condemned it for poor teaching, low attendance and inadequate discipline, and councillors said it should close.

Sited opposite a run-down council estate, the school was not popular and many local children went elsewhere. It was built for 1,400 pupils, but by May 1994 there were just 345, and 18 had been excluded in a year. When Ofsted inspectors visited that month, they found it "struggling to survive". They said many of its pupils had been excluded from other schools and that, although some improvements had been made, morale was being affected by Lambeth's closure plans.

Standards of literacy were low, they said, and exam results were well below the national average. Only 7 per cent gained five or more A-C grades at GCSE in 1994 against a local average of 22 per cent and a national average of 43. Almost a quarter of pupils were absent each day. Disruptive pupils affected the education of the others, particularly the girls, who were outnumbered.

Lambeth's plan to close the school was approved by Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, just after the Ofsted inspectors visited.