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Odds against them

Sinfin is a school on the wrong side of the tracks, at the wrong end of the market. But it is an orderly school, liked by pupils, with admirable exam results. Hilary Wilce talks to head Pat Collings about life at the sharp end. It's a school on the edge of a city a long way north of London, taking children from mixed housing including a sink estate and wrestling daily with violence and anti-social behaviour. It's a school many parents choose to keep their children out of; a school at the wrong end of market forces. It's not The Ridings, but many of the issues are the same.

"The line is very, very thin" says its head, Pat Collings. "I walk a knife-edge all the time. All it would take would be one or two things.. ."

In fact Sinfin Community School, Derby, is an orderly school, with admirable exam results for its intake, which won praise from the Office for Standards in Education in 1994 for its good education and its ethos of respect and consideration. "By example, commitment and hard work, the senior management team have been successful in giving staff and pupils a sense of purpose. "

But after 13 years as head, Pat Collings is retiring at Christmas, and before she goes she wants people to understand exactly what it takes to maintain such standards in the face of the almost overwhelming odds now stacked against disadvantaged schools such as hers, and exactly what level of deprivation the educational market creates in one place. "I only hope that events like The Ridings will make people realise exactly what they're doing when they get rid of the comprehensive idea."

In her office is a new panic button, wired directly to the police station. "I was attacked by a parent last year. She hit me around the head out there in the corridor with people all around. It was awful. Awful. We've had parents who've assaulted their children in front of us."

Now if the school sees an angry and violent visitor coming to the main entrance, there's a routine. The office hatch is shut; doors locked.

But if she has a sense of panic it's less to do with personal safety than with the rising tide of problems she sees around her - students overwhelmed with family difficulties and damaged by violence; teachers struggling to teach among such problems; a school budget so pared back that it is impossible to do even a fraction of the things that would help.

Sinfin, an 11 to 16 school with just under one in three children from Asian and Afro-Caribbean minorities, used to have three deputy heads, but is now down to one. "I've lost count of the number of voluntary redundancies and early retirements we've had. There's Laurence, Gwen, Rod, Colin, Arthur - oh, it's endless. We used to have a staff of 68, now we're down to 43. Admittedly student numbers were at 920, and now we're 720, but it's still proportionally more."

Meanwhile problems mushroom. The school's child protection record has grown from a small notebook, to a spilling file. About eight per cent of the school's students are either abused, or at risk or being abused, although numbers are hard to pin down because students flow through the school like water. So transient is the neighbourhood that a local primary school with 200 children, saw a hundred changes in pupils last year.

Like The Ridings, Sinfin is surrounded by more attractive educational options. There's a city technology college, several grant maintained schools and a comprehensive that was once a grammar school, with new buildings and a secure site. Parents vote with their feet, anxious to get their children away, not so much from the school, but from the whole Sinfin area, which was carved out of empty moorland 20 years ago. The estates of tiny private starter homes are neat, but some of the council estates are so rough that taxi drivers won't go there at night.

The school sits on a wide open green field site, next to the shopping centre and library - a wonderful concept on an architects' drawing board, but now a nightmare of poor security and ambient violence. The wind-swept playing fields are dog-fouled; mothers push buggies back and forth through the grounds; excluded pupils haunt the entrances, while blame for any incident among litterers in the shopping centre is immediately lodged with the adjacent school - "It was dreadful with the fireworks, last week." Thirty eight exit doors make it impossible to maintain security, and the flat-roofed, poorly designed building cries out for more refurbishment.

Yet if the school had more money, it would probably go straight into trauma management - a counsellor, more access to family therapy and mediation services, more help from educational psychologists - in an effort to pin back the frontline distresses that stop students learning. "We need help," says Pat Collings. "I'm finally brave enough to speak out and say that, because after 13 years I no longer think it's a sign of not coping. It's the truth. Every admission since the start of this year, bar one or two, has been from families in trauma for one reason or another." So close is her relationship with social workers that they have told her they expect invitations to her leaving party.

To listen to the stories of Sinfin daily life - the house that the social workers will visit only in pairs; the child who smears faeces around the toilets; the mother whose children have five different fathers; the boy who took a mallet to other students; the girl who was raped; the boy who nearly lost his hand on the railway line; the 11-year old who refuses point blank to do what teachers say - is to visit a world where society seems barely functioning in the way most people understand it.

Academic expectations are curtailed by scarce resources and overwhelming need. Most students come in with reading levels years below their actual age, so any 11-year-old who attains a reading age of nine-and-a-half is deemed OK enough not to need extra help.

Yet from this unpromising material, the school fashions creditable results. Last year 38 per cent of students got five or more higher grade GCSE or GNVQ equivalents, and 95 per cent got one or more GCSE passes. Sinfin students have gone on to professional careers, and the English and art rooms are adorned with work of good standard. The foyer is bright with photographs, and students clamour to volunteer how much they like the school. "It's lovely here, much better than my last school," says Leanne Sweeney, 13. "The teachers are lovely. Everyone's friendly and the lessons are interesting."

Good relationships are the hook on which everything hangs. The school maintains close links with its feeder primaries, and places students in small tutor groups which they stay in, whenever possible, throughout their time in school. Discipline often hinges directly on the quality of individual relationships between teachers and children. Volatile and needy students can swing from lions or lambs depending on how well a teacher knows them.

"And I'd have to put staff development and training, and staff loyalty, right up there at the top of things," says Pat Collings. "The school was the first local authority secondary school to achieve the Investor in People standard. We've had whole school training days on child protection and managing behaviour. I've got some wonderful practitioners. Strengths at every level. And we're honest with each other. That's very important. You don't go around pretending everything's wonderful when it's not."

The head of upper school, Carol Mills, agrees. "It makes all the difference if there's a supportive network, and if you've had a bad time you can come in afterwards and say so. It's very important for everyone to feel part of a team."

The school works to maintain links with the wider world. It is a training school for students from four local courses, has hosted visiting teachers from abroad, and taken part in external research programmes, as well as running research projects of its own.

It emphasises the arts, believing that drama and music are vital ways for putting troubled students in touch with feelings and emotions, and for non-academic students to excel. Last summer, more than 80 pupils took part in the premi re of a work by the poet Adrian Mitchell, The Siege. "They get an enormous boost from their successes," says Pat Collings. "I really believe these sorts of experiences are crucial for children's personal development. I would definitely channel more money into the arts if I could."

Years ago, the school threw out its lists of rules, and replaced them with a handful of guidelines. It threw out top-down management and replaced it with bottom-up development, with staff allowed their say on school development. "They would probably say that our assertive discipline system is a key thing, although I'm not sure I'd go along with that," says Pat Collings. "I think there's a temptation to use the sanctions more than the rewards. I'm a great one for praise and being positive. Saying 'isn't it good, isn't it lovely', 'well done'." Research among students at school, she points out, has also underlined how desperately students crave praise and approval from their teachers, and she is proud of the endorsement reported back to her from a disruptive student: "even when I was bad, Mrs Collings always made me feel good."

Under this discipline system there are a closely-defined ladders of sticks -rising from detention to expulsion - and carrots - rising from merits to public commendations - and it is clear that staff like the security of clearcut frameworks.

"We cope with difficult and challenging things because our support networks are built-in," says Carol Mills. "We've thought about things before they happen, we know what we'll do, and we also know that admitting to having problems is not a sign of being inept or inefficient."

If there's a problem in the classroom a teacher goes straight to colleagues in neighbouring rooms. If a student is banished from class he or she is sent to a room manned by an experienced member of staff. Expulsion is a last resort. At present, three pupils are permanently excluded; three for fixed terms.

Yet still the problems come pouring in, and now the experienced hand is leaving the tiller.

Pat Collings, who has been awarded the OBE for her services to education, has been a member of the Secondary Heads Association national council and executive committee, and has a book coming out from SHA on middle management.

Now 55, she is retiring because family accidents and illness have taken their toll, while professional changes loom. Having overseen budgetary cutbacks, she has no desire to stay on to see the transformation of Derby into a unitary authority, and would prefer to direct her energies to training and consultancy. "I didn't see it as a particularly exciting task building a relationship with a new authority. I'm not very interested in re-inventing the wheel."

She is also deeply disheartened by the way market forces have left schools so tied to deadlines and results that the things that really help children - community service and aspects of personal and social education - have been squeezed.

"I do honestly believe we're becoming a crueller society, and that there's not much demonstration of love for children. We seem to have lost the ability to pass on caring for children. Society doesn't say anything positive to them and parents seem to need more help than they used to in just the basic things. Maybe we need a course in how to manage yourself, in how to manage life in this new age. How you think and feel and listen - the basic things that make you into the human being you are."

Meanwhile life in the well-run school she is leaving is not getting easier. "There was a time," says a teamleader, "when you would look at the timetable and think 'oh, good, a year seven class'. "But now they're coming into school already displaying the kind of anti-social attitudes you used to get later on. I'd defy anyone to pick fault with the systems and practices we've got in place here, but we're overwhelmed by sheer numbers.

"If a child's 'on report' they come to me every morning and I should be able to have a few minutes chat, see how things are going. But if there were any more than there are now, I wouldn't have the time. It then just becomes a question of ticking boxes, a meaningless ritual. It's never been as much as a battle as it's been this last half-term. It was hard to get to the end of it."

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