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Crunch time for troubled school

The Ridings, once dubbed the country's worst secondary, has improved pupil behaviour, but can it convince Ofsted?

FOR a brief time in the mid-1990s, the slightly depressing facade of the Ridings school, with its steep steps leading to a dull sandstone brick building, was quite hard to miss. The image of the Halifax comprehensive, set yards from rows of council houses on the town's Ovenden estate, became synonymous with failure.

Journalists camped outside the school, cranes were hired to spy into classrooms and cash was offered to staff to entice them into selling their stories, as newspapers and television crews from as far away as the United States scrambled to get the inside track on the secondary dubbed "hell school" and "the worst in the country".

In September 1996, members of the NASUWT teachers' union threatened to strike unless a hard-core of "unteachable" pupils were booted out of classes. It created a tense stand-off which escalated on October 31 when two boys allegedly sexually assaulted a teacher, sparking a mini riot.

"As chaos mounted, youngsters went on the rampage, police were called and weeping teachers barricaded themselves in the staff room," the Daily Mirror reported.

The school was temporarily closed, the headteacher resigned, inspectors savaged standards, the then education secretary Gillian Shephard intervened and two superheads were called in.

A decade on, the school has largely disappeared from the pages of the national newspapers. The 10th anniversary of the teachers' revolt did not warrant a mention. Recently, there have been no more attacks on teachers and journalists can find tales of knife-wielding pupils and gang fights elsewhere But the comprehensive was still at the foot of league tables and has been criticised by Ofsted again.

When it reopened in November 1996 following the pupil "riot", Peter Clarke and Anna White, two local heads, were brought in to turn things around.

To the casual observer, they had success and 12 of the worst troublemakers were permanently excluded, a new discipline policy was introduced and Ofsted soon praised the school, saying within six months good order had been restored. Four years later, Ofsted described it as a "good and improving school" and particularly praised teaching and pupil behaviour. In 2005, before leaving to become a consultant to other failing schools, Mrs White insisted that media coverage had been wide of the mark.

"It placed a huge burden on the school which was mostly unwarranted," she said. "There is no doubt morale was low and staff were down but behaviour was never as bad as was made out.

"There was an overwhelming sense among everyone involved, the children and the staff, that they wanted this school to succeed and in the past eight years or so I believe we have proved that."

Mrs White, Mr Clarke and Jill Wilson, the chair of governors, all received CBEs and a succession of ministers, including Tony Blair, praised the Ridings. However, success with discipline masked continuing problems with standards. In 2005 only 14 per cent of pupils left school with at least five good GCSEs.

When Mrs White left, the simmering problems soon resurfaced. In October last year, just a month after the new head, Stuart Todd, took over, the school was visited again by inspectors who criticised its "very low"

attendance levels, unruly behaviour and patchy teaching standards.

Mr Todd said his priority was to move the school forward, while keeping it out of the media. "I would not be talking to you if I felt that I could not do this job," he said. "But it cannot be done in 12 months. I do not want to build on sand, I want to build on solid foundations." Mr Todd said he had changed the school's curriculum in January to take into account the students' interest in vocational learning. Ofsted is due to revisit the school "any time now", he said, following its rating as inadequate.

Mr Todd said he was confident the school would not be put in special measures and that its improvements, including in monitoring and reporting to parents, would be recognised.

"My focus is on achievement, not on behaviour," he said. "As Sir Alan Steer said, children do not come here to behave, they come here to learn."

Spoilt by choice

Some commentators in Halifax believe the Ridings's continuing problems can be traced to the school choice available to parents. There are two grammar schools and two faith schools, which means that a "normal" comprehensive in a deprived area is unlikely to be attractive. Jill Wilson, who owns and heads the private Gleddings preparatory school in Halifax, was appointed as chair of governors at the Ridings shortly after it hit the headlines, and has picked up a CBE for her efforts.

Mrs Wilson said: "The pupils are not aggressive or difficult in the way that has been stereotyped."The Ridings is in an area with a lot of social problems, all of which are brought into the school."She criticised the decision by Ofsted, armed with its new "rapid" inspection regime, to visit the school just a month after its new headteacher, Stuart Todd, took up his job. "We had a complete change in senior management and Ofsted came five weeks later and said teaching was wobbly. It was bizarre," she said.

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