Ridings saviour tells how it was

The head who was parachuted into The Ridings school amid media hysteria two years ago has spoken out for the first time about his anger and frustration over the way local councillors tried to undermine his authority.

The inside story of how the failing Yorkshire comprehensive became infamous as "The School from Hell", begins an exclusive three-part serialisation in The TES today.

In Back from the Brink, Peter Clark, the "super-head" who spent a year turning round the Halifax school, accuses Calderdale councillors of seeking to undermine his authority by trying to overturn his decision to exclude a troublesome pupil.

He reveals how councillors were forced to back down after being given an ultimatum - and that he and associate head, Anna White, had considered resignation over the affair.

He also accuses Calderdale's political leaders of creating a "climate of mistrust" by refusing to allow schools in the area to manage their own affairs - leading to inaction and excessive bureaucracy.

In the book, Mr Clark describes the unique circumstances which led to the Ridings' problems and outlines his own rescue plan for failing schools.

"I cannot conceive that there will ever be another Ridings. It is almost unimaginable that such a combination of poor decision-making by the local education authority, governors and the school's staff could recur," he writes.

Mr Clark was seconded to the school at the height of its problems - during an emergency inspection with the world's media camped on the doorstep. He documents how he worked with his associate head, Anna White (now head of the Ridings) on an improvement programme and a drive to boost the school's image.

He identifies mismanagement by local authority Calderdale as a key factor in the school's swift decline after it was created in 1994. He says: "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."

He argues that the saga illustrates the limitations of smaller LEAs such as Calderdale. "Small authorities often lack the resources and expertise necessary to assist schools properly," he writes.

He also cites a "paralysing lack of decision-making" by governors early in the school's history and, by the time he arrived at the Ridings, the inflammatory role of the media. Journalists had "passed from merely recording the situation to being an intrinsic part of the problem," he says. In outlining the lessons of The Ridings for the Government, he recommends:

* Failing schools should not have to accept pupils who have been excluded from other schools for at least two years.

* "Naming and supporting" should be substituted for "naming and shaming".

To read the first part of our exclusive serialisation of The Ridings Story, go to 'Features amp; Arts'.

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