Riding high, but too late to save school

The Ridings, with a troubled history, has been taken out of special measures. But that will not stop it closing next year

David Marley

Once dubbed the worst school in the country and "Grange Hell" because of its unruly pupils, The Ridings in Halifax has developed a reputation synonymous with failure. But with less than a year until it is finally shut, the headteacher and staff have been praised by Ofsted for turning the school around, and it has come out of special measures.

Although this year only 13 per cent of GCSE pupils achieved five good grades including English and maths - well below the Government's National Challenge target of 30 per cent - inspectors have described the school as good, with some parts rated outstanding.

The school, in a deprived part of the West Yorkshire town, has been transformed, with its "compass" units for children who cannot cope with mainstream school and regular lessons described as "spectacularly effective".

"When the school was last inspected, standards were exceptionally low and achievement, teaching and learning were inadequate," the new report notes. "Behaviour was poor and attendance was very low. That is now not the case. Students enjoy coming to school. They feel valued and well cared for and are motivated to do their best at all times."

The U-turn in the school's performance is made all the more impressive by the fact that for the past year it has known it will close next summer.

Its pupils will be given places in other secondaries, before a new academy opens in Halifax in 2010.

When Stuart Todd, the headteacher, arrived in September 2005, he said it would take up to four years to turn the school around. He did it in three, but that was not enough to save the school.

The curriculum has been revamped to include more vocational courses, staffing has been restructured and the new "compass" units - which won high praised from Ofsted - have been established.

Mr Todd shows no bitterness that all the hard work that has gone into turning the school around will not last beyond next year.

"I have worked in schools and been to enough meetings with officials to know how these things work," he said. "That is the world of politics. I have no control over it.

"Our responsibility is to the young people in our care.

"When I was told the school was closing, I was asked if I wanted to leave. I said No. It's important that these young people know that some people will stand by them."

The Ridings first came to national prominence in 1996, when members of the NASUWT threatened to walk out on strike unless "unteachable" pupils were expelled.

After heavy criticisism from inspectors, the school was supposed to have been improved by two "superheads", who were subsequently awarded CBEs.

Tony Blair liked to use The Ridings as an example of an educational success story.

But by the time Mr Todd arrived, with more than 20 years' experience as a head and having turned around two other failing schools, he knew another stint of special measures was due.

Even with all his experience of tough schools, Mr Todd said he was still shocked by how keen some people have been to distance themselves from The Ridings.

"There are people that wish it had never existed in the first place," he said. "My view is that the young people here are smashing, as good as any in the country."

One of his remaining concerns is for his staff, who will all be out of a job come next summer because they do not have guaranteed positions at the academy when it opens.

Sue McMahon, the local secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said the good Ofsted news had come too late for staff facing redundancy.

"It is a disgrace that a local authority in collusion with the Government has sealed the fate of The Ridings in order to justify an academy," she said.

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David Marley

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