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Head on sick leave after inspection

The head of a school near the bottom of national league tables and with one of the worst truancy rates in Britain has gone on indefinite sick leave following an Office for Standards in Education inspection last week.

Terry French, head of Merrywood School, Bristol, is understood to be suffering from stress, shocked by the verbal feedback he received from OFSTED last Friday. On Monday, the school was closed to its 500 pupils as Bristol's director of education Richard Riddell and temporary head Bob Thornton held an in-service day with staff.

OFSTED, which will produce its report within 30 days, is expected to condemn many aspects of the school's management. Staff are braced for Merrywood to be branded a failing school and for the imposition of special measures. The 1996 league tables place it among the bottom 10 in Britain for exam results and among the 20 worst schools for truancy.

Bristol City Council, successor to the defunct Avon education authority, imposed an action plan nine months before the OFSTED visit, after becoming aware of acute problems. When Mr Riddell visited Merrywood last spring term, around half the pupils appeared to be absent. Since then, the school has received more than 50 visits from an LEA adviser.

"We have helped put in a behavioural management policy, and last term seconded a deputy head from another school to work full time," said Mr Riddell. "The school was in a much worse state than it is now and has vastly improved. "

He did not know when, or if, Mr French would return. The LEA has also drafted in specialist staff including an educational psych-ologist, education welfare officer and behaviour management teacher and has provided an extra Pounds 20,000 for further teaching staff.

Merrywood serves Knowle West, one of Bristol's most deprived council estates in the south of the city. It was created in September 1995 when Avon County Council amalgamated Merrywood Boys and Merrywood Girls amid controversy after a failed attempt to opt out by the girls' school. The girls' parents said that the merger deprived them of the choice of a single-sex school in south Bristol. Between them, Merrywood Girls and Merrywood Boys had 10 per cent of the surplus places in Avon.

Mr French, a popular head of the boys' school since the late 1980s, took over the amalgamated Merrywood. A full complement of staff could not be recruited in time and when a large quota of teachers retired in December 1995 and were replaced, the timetable had to be completely revised.

News that another recently-merged school is in trouble - The Ridings School in Calderdale which recently hit the headlines over pupil indiscipline and standards is another example - is likely to raise questions about local authority reorganisation. Calderdale's education service is currently under investigation by OFSTED.

Merrywood's chairman of governors, Dr Stephen Grant, said there was some anger that OFSTED had chosen to inspect Merrywood within 16 months of its amalgamation. "They came too soon. After another term, things might have been better," he said.

Some parents have also expressed shock and anger at the circumstances surrounding Mr French's departure.

Mr Thornton, head of St Bernadette's Roman Catholic comprehensive school in Whitchurch, has been seconded to Merrywood until the end of the summer term.

He described past truancy levels as shocking and added: "We would certainly want to improve. I want to maintain staff morale and make sure they feel motivated. It will be a difficult time for them."

The governors approved his secondment at an emergency meeting this week but Dr Grant expressed support for Mr French. "The governors had confidence in him but perhaps some of the support was belated. If he'd had that level of support all the time, things might have been different. If he had come in on Monday morning to make a start at putting things right. I would have backed him."

Mr Riddell, who attended Mr Thornton's first meeting with staff on Monday, said: "We explained the special measures procedure to them.

"We expected them to be angry about what the inspectors had said but I was surprised by how positive they were."

The school will receive a verbal report from the OFSTED team next week.

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