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School guru responsible for transforming troubled classrooms

Chris Spencer enjoys swimming, cycling and running and has even taken part in the Tours de France, but looking after nearly 100 of the borough's schools has probably presented the biggest challenge to the borough's director of education.

The man in charge of the borough's education talked to reporter BARBARA FISHER about his first four years in the hot seat, and the exciting, if controversial, possibilities for the future.

Chris Spencer enjoys swimming, cycling and running and has even taken part in the Tours de France, but looking after nearly 100 of the borough's schools has probably presented the biggest challenge to the borough's director of education.

Since arriving in Hillingdon in 2005 he has helped turn round failing schools, exam results have shot up, and he has forged closer ties with headteachers.

The father of three, whose home is in Cheltenham, though he stays in Hillingdon during the week, said: "In January 2005 I inherited a challenge as the relationship between schools and the local authority was not good.

"Secondary school results were 10 per cent below the national average and six schools were in special measures or in the 'notice to improve'category.

"In the last four years, we have gone from 47 per cent to 64 per cent getting five GCSE A*-C, which is almost double the national rate of improvement, and four secondary schools, Queensmead, Ruislip High, Haydon and Guru Nanak, have been described as outstanding by Ofsted.

"There has also been a spectacular turnaround for the most challenged schools."

Rosedale College, once described as "one of the most troubling schools in London for performance" where only 12 per cent of youngsters managed five GCSEs A*C, has since scooped 68 per cent and been described as one of the most improved schools nationally.

Abbotsfield School in Hillingdon has been in a special category for six years but last year had 57 per cent with GCSEs A*-C, while Hayes schools Mellow Lane and Brookside Primary, in the 'notice to improve' category are making satisfactory progress.

Mr Spencer said: "I have managed the process and where necessary intervened, but ultimately the schools have to do the delivery."

At the moment Mr Spencer is deep in discussions with headteachers about how schools in the south of the borough should be refurbished, rebuilt or remodelled in a spectacular £150m investment scheme.

The money for the Government's Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme means education bosses in Hillingdon, can not only to carry out much needed maintenance or fashion new buildings, but also knock down those beyond repair

He knows this is making some parents and schools (who will all be consulted) anxious, but insists it heralds an exciting future.

Mr Spencer said: "We have the chance to do things not seen since Victorian times, to have buildings fit for purpose.

"At the moment I only have around £4m a year to maintain schools and too many of our buildings are not even up to the standard of motorway cafes.

"This is a real opportunity with real money and will also open up school facilities to the community."

He accepts some suggestions are controversial, such as an all-through school with children transferring from the primary to secondary stage on one campus (or maybe even with a special school on site) but stresses these are just ideas.

"In my previous authority we built, on a single site, an all-through special school with a mainstream secondary and parents initially were worried the special school kids would be bullied.

"I told them we would integrate them as far as possible but assured them we would do what benefited their youngsters most. It actually had a positive effect on the youngsters.

"Mainstream students helped those with disabilities, and all the youngsters benefited from the shared facilities."

Mr Spencer wants to put another fear to rest; he guarantees there will still be some kind of single sex education in the community when the changes take place.

"One idea is to have a school which at KS3 offers the opportunity for boys and girls to learn separately, though at KS4, lessons would be co-ed. I understand the anxiety about change, but I am saying 'trust me'."

On the Government's decision to raise the leaving age he says: "We should think of it, not as the traditional 'staying-on', but as lifelong learning.

"The curriculum has got to be appropriate such as doing modern apprenticeships."

As for SATs and league tables, Mr Spencer has mixed feelings. He said: "There is no doubt parents do use them to judge the performance of a school but it is wrong when schools teach to the test to inflate results for parents.

"I don't think children should be tested until they are seven years old and even then it's questionable, as children develop at different rates.

"Do we really want children to feel failures at six?"

Perhaps the biggest upheaval during his time in Hillingdon has been the change in his responsibilities which now include some aspects of social services.

Mr Spencer, whose title is now director of education and children's services, said: "Children's social care was new to me and one of my biggest challenges since coming to Hillingdon.

"But the two services coming together has given impetus to the different departments in council, as well as health, police and the probation service to work together.

"Most importantly it has made children's lives safer."

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