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Leading article: Arise Sir Geoff, and everyone else who can turn around our schools

Geoff Hampton is a hero for our times. He is the Wolverhampton head teacher who was knighted in the New Year's honours list for turning round Northicote school over the past four years. Deborah Ross's interview with him, on page 13, is a moving piece of journalism which deserves to be widely read.

What he did was not complicated; it was simple. The way he transformed a useless school in a barren urban district was not simple in the sense that it could be reduced to a 10-point plan to be applied automatically to all sink schools - but in the sense that anyone knows immediately what is right when they see it.

The first thing he did was redecorate the defaced walls and replace the broken windows. The second thing he did was give the pupils school bags. "I personally put a pen, a pencil and a rubber in each one." Until then they came in unprepared for lessons, and if the school gave them books for homework it would not get the books back. But the first thing "Sir Geoff" really did was to care. He wrote to the parents of all 649 pupils asking them to come to a parents' evening. If he did not get a reply, he visited them at home. He told them all what he was trying to do at the school and said: "Please come and help me."

He replaced sweatshirts with a traditional tie-and-blazer uniform, set up a pupils' council, recognised pupil achievements through termly certificates and wall charts, employed someone to raise funds and try to change the school's negative image in the town, and set up literacy and numeracy projects to teach children alongside their parents.

It is not so much the specific policies, however, but that indefinable quality of leadership which has raised the school's exam results from 18th out of 18 state schools in Wolverhampton to second, beaten only by a selective church school - a transformation which has been achieved in an astonishingly short time. Mr Hampton became head at the end of 1993, just as the school became the first in the country to be "named and shamed". The magic ingredient in the change is his character: he takes a close personal interest in all the children, who respond with a respect bordering on reverence.

Now, this newspaper takes a pretty dim view of gongs and baubles but, if we are to have knighthoods, then they should be awarded to the likes of Mr Hampton. Pop stars and sports personalities do not need fancy handles to mark the public's appreciation. But good teachers must have all the attention the Government can lavish upon them. Our Education Prime Minister is to be commended for making Geoff Hampton a knight, and for making Tamsyn Imison and Patricia Collarbone dames. They, too, have achieved remarkable things, and it is interesting that many of their methods are similar.

At Dame Tamsyn's Hampstead School in Camden, north London, half of the 1,300 pupils have English as their second language, and yet it has the best exam results of any mixed comprehensive in the borough. She set out her vision thus: "We must have a mission, a strategy for achieving it and ambitious targets by which we can monitor success." Dame Patricia, former head of Haggerston Secondary School for Girls in Hackney, east London, adopted the motto ACHIEVE - Attendance, Commitment, Homework, Improvement, Effort, Valuing Everyone. The precise policy mix does not matter, although some elements are essential, such as the setting and measuring of targets. What makes the difference is a sense of purpose imparted by a charismatic leader.

There are Hamptons, Imisons and Collarbones all over the country, and it is desperately important that they should bask in the glory of public approval.

Indeed, it is vital that the status of the teaching profession as a whole is raised, so that more Hamptons are attracted into it, not just to be heads but to be teachers. Are there any graduates who cannot remember at least one teacher in their school years who inspired them and helped them discover how to use their minds? The pupils of Northicote are fortunate in that Geoff Hampton never wanted to be anything else. But if educational standards are to be raised in Britain, we cannot rely on a few random individuals to feel a calling.

There must be many people with Sir Geoff's qualities who are not using them to the full, or at all. Many more people could discover these qualities in themselves if they were given the chance.

In the end, teachers will have to be paid more. It is not realistic to expect people to look up to a profession whose practitioners are so poorly paid. But the Government is right not to make this the starting point of its crusade. First it must try to create a climate in which teaching is highly valued for its own sake, while at the same time distinguishing between good and bad practice.

That is what the New Year honours did. They began to move us to a point where those who can, teach, and those who cannot, go into management consultancy.