Inspectors condemn city school

Merrywood School in Bristol, near the bottom of national league tables and with one of the worst truancy rates in Britain, is failing to give most pupils an acceptable standard of education, say Office for Standards in Education inspectors.

The 500-pupil comprehensive serving Knowle West, one of Bristol's most deprived council estates, has been roundly condemned and special measures have been imposed. The OFSTED team says too little has been done to raise literacy standards and that equipment is often vandalised.

The inspection report said 40 per cent of lessons were unsatisfactory and 10 per cent were "particularly poor". "A large proportion of weak teaching is having a major effect on the quality of pupils' education and their attainment," it says. The curriculum was not meeting the needs of more than a third of pupils who have special needs.

The report said: "Movement around the school is noisy and disorderly; there is rough behaviour I and physical aggression; and equipment is often vandalised. Very poor attendance by many pupils makes it difficult for teachers to maintain continuity and has a major impact on standards."

A security guard is now employed to stop intruders coming on site and the erection of a perimeter fence has reduced vandalism.

Acting head Bob Thornton compared Merrywood's OFSTED report to that of The Ridings, saying: "I think the language was familiar. Some parts of their report read better; some parts not so well."

Merrywood was criticised for being over-staffed and giving poor value for money; also for offering few facilities for spiritual development. "Pupils rarely have the opportunity I to consider matters of belief and value I and are making slow progress in I understanding the principles of right and wrong. "

Governors and senior management have been ordered to institute better classroom management, raise expectations of pupils, implement a whole-school approach to raising literacy standards, cut truancy, ensure that all staff play a role in improving pupil behaviour, and bring in proper procedures for monitoring the progress of special needs pupils.

League tables place Merrywood among the bottom 10 schools in Britain for GCSE exam results and the worst 20 for truancy. When OFSTED made its verbal report after an inspection in January, this was so damning that the head, Terry French, departed immediately. He is on indefinite sick leave.

Following Mr French's departure, Mr Thornton, head of St Bernadette's Roman Catholic comprehensive school in Whitchurch, was drafted in to help to improve the school. He will remain there until the end of the summer term.

"I've long believed that teaching is a craft rather than an art," he said. "It is my job, and that of the management team, to set up a consistent and coherent development programme, which we have already begun. We have invited people in from outside to show how things can be done and had workshop sessions with staff to see how they can improve. We have to raise expectations of what children can achieve."

Yet the report praised Mr French's commitment to Merrywood. "His resolute insistence that difficult pupils should be managed in an assertive but non-confrontational and humane way has started to have an effect, though a proportion of staff found this difficult," inspectors said.

OFSTED found good teaching in 20 per cent of lessons. Some of the best practice was in modern languages where "clear rules are set for how pupils should respond, work with each other, talk to the teacher and get the best out of the lesson". Art was also praised.

But in science, teachers lacked skills to manage disruptive pupils with some bad behaviour leading to unsafe working conditions. In history, only a few pupils reached a standard close to the national average; the vast majority are well below. "The overall quality of teaching is not good enough ... the school should give urgent attention to raising standards of achievement," inspectors say.

Merrywood has seen many upheavals since its creation in September 1995 by the now defunct Avon County Council. The amalgamation of the former Merrywood Boys and Merrywood Girls School caused bitter controversy, with parents of children at the latter claiming that merger deprived them of a single-sex school in south Bristol. The two schools had 10 per cent of the surplus places in Avon.

Dr Stephen Grant, chairman of Merrywood governors, has blamed most of his school's problems on this shotgun marriage. "After the initial shock of the inspection, staff have come round well," he said. "Everyone knows what the rules are now. Bob Thornton has brought a determination to succeed and is not encumbered by any baggage from the past."

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