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The Ridings: star of a propaganda fairy tale

Anarchy at The Ridings School, Halifax was front-page news for days in autumn 1996. News bulletin after bulletin gave it priority over genocide in the Balkans.

The temporary trouble-shooting head, Peter Clarke, became, in swift succession, a celebrity, a CBE and the author of Back From The Brink - his account of how, by restoring order at The Ridings, he helped maintain the existing structure of secondary education.

At that time only 8 per cent of the school's pupils gained five top-grade GCSEs and this woeful performance was accepted as a direct consequence of the violent behaviour of a hard-core of "seriously disruptive" pupils.

The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers drew up a list of 60 pupils it wanted permanently excluded and used the incident to complain loudly about its members' ongoing problems with violent pupils and parents. The Ridings became known as "the worst school in Britain" and the photograph of its front steps became - and remains - shorthand for educational failure.

When Mr Clarke moved on he was replaced by his deputy, Anna White. She quickly collected her CBE, as did the chair of governors, and two years after the crisis special measures ended and all involved congratulated themselves and each other that the storm had been ridden, the rocked boat righted and fair weather lay ahead.

Since then The Ridings has been presented as an ongoing triumph; a perfect example of how a crisis should be tackled and how well managed intervention can bring about rapid change.

Education secretaries David Blunkett and Estelle Morris both made high profile visits and the succession of good news stories has been continuous along with the orchestrated applause. Almost enough spin to draw down the moon.

Then, during the last general election campaign, came the ultimate accolade, the Prime Minister himself came to add his congratulations and approval.

With everything mended so perfectly this should be the end of the tale because that is how fairy stories end. The truth is very different because no extravagant praise, ennoblement or just plain bullshit can hide the stark fact that despite the expenditure of millions of extra pounds and the never-ending flood of warm words that woeful 8 per cent has become a pitiful 7 per cent. This key indicator has never risen above 13 per cent and in the two years following the rescue fell to 6 per cent and then 3 per cent.

Within two years of the crisis 70 per cent of teachers had been replaced, the buildings hugely improved, the education authority overhauled, and experts had evaluated and improved academic, management and administrative systems. So how can it be that what really matters - the academic outcome - has got worse rather than better? The reason is remarkably simple; the original diagnosis was wrong.

The Ridings' ills were, and are, a logical consequence of an exhaustive selective process. Pupils in Calderdale do not just sit an exam for a grammar school and having failed then attend the local school. There is a scramble for places at the highest ranked available school and The Ridings is the inevitable outcome of such a pecking order, it is the school for children whose parents have not slid them into a "superior" slot. The Ridings exists as a school for failure so there can be schools for success in a fully functioning laissez-faire system.

The Labour Government inherited the situation at The Ridings and could easily have used it as a case for ending selection, but chose instead to focus on "standards" rather than changing the system. Instead of seeing Calderdale's pernicious system as something to be avoided and a clear justification for comprehensive education it has preserved grammar schools and proliferated specialist and beacon schools that are bound to become markers that will establish pecking orders as the norm.

The Ridings saga is a significant education matter but not for any of the propagandised reasons. It is important because it marks the point at which the Labour party covertly embraced selection and consequently abandoned the disadvantaged.

David Helliwell is a former Labour leader of Calderdale council. He was a governor of The Ridings 1996-98

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