Out of the ashes

So what lessons has my year at the Ridings taught me about education? The Ridings' initial OFSTED report was damning, but it did mention many instances of positive teaching by staff and good behaviour from pupils. Unfortunately too often the mismanagement of the behaviour of a minority of the pupils allowed small problems to escalate. This was highlighted more than once in the report. . .

After "drawing my line in the sand" with the exclusions (Friday Magazine, October 23) it was vital to put in place a fair, consistently applied policy that encouraged good behaviour, rather than merely punishing misdemeanours. The demise of the hated Discipline for Learning policy symbolised to the pupils that their concerns had been recognised, and gave the staff the message that good discipline comes from commonsense application of sound educational practice inside and outside the classroom.This in turn was supported by establishing a coherent pastoral system with distinct roles for staff and, more importantly, clearly defined referral structures.

Much of the disorder occurred at lunch time. From the outset, every teacher volunteered to staff "social bases" for each year group . . . Simply shortening the lunchtime to 45 minutes markedly reduced the problem.

Attempting to build on these initial stages was frustrating in an LEA where provision for "difficult" pupils was so limited. Working within a system that encouraged and supported schools, instead of denigrating them, would have enabled us to be much more creative in dealing with the disaffected pupils in an open and collaborative way. Sometimes exclusion is the only answer as a last resort, but it must be accompanied by a fresh start in appropriate alternative provision. In other failing schools, a far greater number of children have been permanently excluded in an attempt to restore - and maintain -control. Without a clear structure to deal with disaffection and disruption, pupils end up being placed outside a formal school environment, severely limiting their education, or drop out altogether, especially in their final years.

Without a coherent framework, cases are dealt with in a piecemeal manner that often leads to large amounts of money being spent on giving children a sub-standard "token" education. Lessons could be drawn from the good practice developed in the Furness Project [the centre for difficult pupils set up during his year at the Ridings] and the successful re-integration of our excluded pupils.

Failing schools face major problems when additional children with significant problems are imposed on them. I believe that schools that fail to meet the OFSTED criteria should be protected from taking on additional problem cases for at least two years.

The improved pastoral structure, more effective classroom discipline and the introduction of the Bromcom ears [electronic registration] system to record attendance all helped to reduce internal truancy radically, but it continued to be a serious problem. By January, attendance was still only 78 per cent [the average for the first half of the autumn term 1996 was 76 per cent] and on the day of the first HMI inspection of 1997 it was only 72 per cent. With considerable effort on the part of the education welfare officers and pastoral staff working with them, the easiest cases those who missed lessons occasionally were successfully targeted.

We then tackled the more intractable problem pupils, especially those aided and abetted by their parents, with whom we had much less success. Gradually attendance improved, until by the summer it was around 85 per cent.

However, in areas where a number of pupils live in dysfunctional families with little structure to their lives, it can be almost impossible to achieve targets which would be the norm for other schools - simplistic comparisons that do not take these factors into account are failing to perceive the underlying problems.

It is essential in these circumstances that the various local authority support agencies representing education and social services work coherently with each other and with agencies of the health service and the judicial system, all focusing on the needs of the child and family. Too often, in my experience, the concerns of the family or child are seen as a lower priority than whose budget bears the cost, or protecting demarcation lines in the face of professional sensitivities.

Schools can play their part by operating as focal points for their communities. This is not just by offering extra opportunities to pupils [but] through acting as a base for local educational and recreational activities and improving contact between parents and the school.

Demoralisation was a major problem. Staffing dilemmas often result from teachers on long-term sick leave. Under current conditions of service, teachers are eligible for six months on full pay followed by six months on half pay. Consequently, their classes can be condemned to temporary replacements for a year, while continuity is lost and the school's budget is stretched. If the LEA or the Department for Education and Employment helped pay for a permanent replacement and underwrote the additional cost that would occur if the teacher returned, schools could more quickly establish stability. Short-term sickness, as well as being a telling indicator of staff morale, can often lead to worse disruption as it is difficult to forecast. The level of short-term absence at the Ridings grew from 3.9 per cent in September 1996 to 7.2 per cent in October - the average figure for other Calderdale comprehensives was 2.18 per cent. The Ridings had changed remarkably by July 1997, with levels dropping to 1.1 per cent - well below the LEA average. A positive ethos sustains morale.

"Naming and shaming" a failing school can further demoralise competent staff and drive pupils away if used as a stand-alone policy. If "naming" is seen as an essential spur to ensure that schools pursue the highest standards, the policy should be "naming and supporting"!

Much has been achieved in recent years through rigorous inspection and monitoring processes, but comparisons need to be accurate and based on more objective data than they are at present. Working with schools to make real improvements towards achieving agreed goals rather than arbitrary targets would be far more effective.

Our experience suggests that those who believe that failing schools can close, be re-staffed and quickly re-open do not appreciate the difficulties in recruiting staff at short notice and arranging secondments from other schools. A short break during which everyone can reflect on their actions can be salutary, but good staff simply cannot be obtained in such a short time, and if a school is to be closed until they can be found,it might as well close altogether. However unsatisfactory an option, "working with what you've got" is usually less disruptive to childrens education, though clearly incompetent or obstructive staff should be removed quickly.

Failing schools do require an injection of new, enthusiastic staff, keen to make their mark; and current ideas for paying new staff higher salaries are a possibility. However, it is a mistake to think that the prime motivation is money. A more powerful incentive can be the challenge of working in a rewarding and stimulating environment. . .

People need the encouragement of regular signs of success in order to sustain performance and bring about long-term change and improvement milestones by which progress can be measured and celebrated. Our milestones in those first months included re-opening the school, removing the intrusive media, managing the exclusions, completing the action plan, HMI acknowledging that discipline had been restored, changing the image of the school in the eyes of the media and the community, completing the teaching audit, introducing the successful OILS initiative [the computer-aided Open Integrated Learning System], winning - and then losing gracefully - in the Global Rock Challenge [a dance competition in which a team from the Ridings won a regional heat with a performance based on the schools recent troubles] and appointing the new headteacher [Anna White].

Successful management of schools requires effective middle managers who take responsibility for managing their teams and achieving their objectives. At Rastrick [the grant-maintained high school from which he was seconded], I have sought to develop an ethos that encourages continuous staff training and a shared commitment to and understanding of the aims of the school.

Achieving Investor in People status gave us the incentive to plan training priorities that are embedded in the school development plan, and to introduce procedures such as annual personal development interviews for all staff to enable them to understand the contribution they need to make to achieve our agreed objectives.

The changes we made to the management structures at the Ridings, giving staff more involvement in planning and organising the curriculum and pastoral care, started the process of creating strong middle managers who would become the "engine room" of the school, taking initiatives and making decisions. . .

I was once told by an accountant that firms do not fail because they make the wrong decisions; they fail because they make no decisions at all. The same is probably true of many organisations, and certainly of schools. During the school's early history, the governing body seems to have had little sense of urgency, resulting in a paralysing lack of decision-making.

The majority of the Ridings' governors wanted only to support the school, though a minority pursued the inevitable private agendas, point-scoring and the like. It was unfortunate that the quick fixes and cosmetic changes we introduced to improve the morale of the school community and our image outside were seized on as indications that the job had been done. Governors are like a company's non-executive directors, in that their major role is to consider the strategic aspects of school life, with the headteacher being responsible for the schools management. However, it can often be difficult for governors to gain sufficient knowledge and professional expertise to establish this ideal relationship.

In practice, a more flexible partnership needs to be developed, where mutual trust allows a free exchange of ideas and information and an atmosphere exists where all governors feel they can make a contribution.

The relationship between schools and LEAs - both councillors and officers - is also crucial... The climate of distrust between Calderdale LEA and its schools lay in Calderdales refusal to concede power. When organisations and individuals act in this way they emphasise their own insecurity, and the result is usually inaction.

LEAs that are genuinely committed to improving their schools should delegate a high proportion of the education budget to the schools themselves and offer cost-effective and high-quality services rather than imposing the use of their agencies.

These should be overseen by a slim bureaucracy made up of officers with a sound professional understanding of school management who are able to monitor effectively schools' self-evaluation.The growth of one-tier unitary education authorities taking over the responsibility for education previously held by county councils and metropolitan authorities has increased the number of small LEAs like Calderdale. Small authorities often lack the resources and expertise necessary to assist schools properly, as they do not have the economies of scale to make the provision cost-effective. It is also often easier for objective decisions to be made away from the considerations of prospective voters. In my opinion the Police Authority is a good model. We could improve strategic planning by removing the parochial influences on decision-making -as decisions taken by small authorities can be heavily influenced by vociferous but unrepresentative local groups - whilst maintaining a regional identity.

Larger authorities would also be able to provide higher-quality professional support services, which could become involved with failing schools at an early stage. Such a system would also remove many of the inequities and inconsistencies of locally based school funding, as the financial allocations to schools in neighbouring LEAs can vary by several hundred pounds per pupil per year. Like most heads, I would welcome a fair,national funding formula based on the costs of delivering the national curriculum.

The LEA's failure to ensure that the Ridings School got off to the best possible start and to nurture it in its early years was a major - and expensive - error of judgment. Children have one main chance for education, and this consideration should have outweighed all others. . . Anna said in an interview shortly after her appointment, "The Ridings is a generic term, like Hoover. It will be included in future dictionaries." However, I cannot conceive that there will ever be another Ridings - it is almost unimaginable that such a combination of poor decision-making by the LEA, governors and the schools staff could recur. There have been many failing schools, many reorganisations of schools that have gone wrong, and many more where relationships at all levels have been tense and unproductive. In a number of these cases, the unions have become involved and media interest has been aroused, but none have generated such world-wide interest and become part of the nations consciousness as the Ridings did ... it was a unique situation in terms of managing change...

During the media circus [when Peter Clark's appointment became public] I stated that my objectives were to restore discipline, improve teaching, gain the confidence of parents, get the cameras off the streets and see the appointment of a good headteacher. With remarkable good fortune and teamwork, I feel these basic objectives were achieved. But no failing school can be transformed overnight. Genuine improvement comes from the accumulation of small steps over a number of years.

I am confident that the Ridings will develop into a stimulating school serving the needs of its pupils and improving its reputation, working with local parents and their children over the exciting years ahead. It was never the "school from Hell", but it had real problems. For a few weeks in autumn 1996 it was Hell for the staff and many of the pupils but over the next few months, together they made the difference, building a secure foundation for its future success.

Extracted from "Back from the Brink: transforming the Ridings School and our children's education" by Peter Clark, published yesterday (October 22) by Metro Books, #163;12.99.

TES readers can order copies on Metro Books credit card hotline (0500 418419) for the discount price of #163;11.99 (inc pp).

Peter Clark and Anna White will be participants in the TES Schools and the Media conference on November 30 (tel: 0181 780 9674)

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