'Are you staying, Miss?'
Anna White was on a flight to Barcelona when the crisis at The Ridings School in Halifax hit the headlines.
Relaxed, in holiday mood and looking through the free in-flight daily broadsheet, she could only pity "the poor person" who would have to go in and sort The Ridings out. She was a Calderdale deputy head and knew the school's history. The day she returned home, she received a call from Ian Jennings, Calderdale Council's director of education, asking if she would be the one. She was in the school within a week as associate head to Peter Clark, the acting head on loan from another Calderdale comprehensive.
In the event she did not hesitate. "I felt honoured, flattered to be asked, " she said. "I went in with my eyes wide open but from the first day I knew the commitment was there to make the school a success." Now, as the newly appointed permanent head, she is "very optimistic" about the school's future. "People keep asking me why I want to be head of the 'school from Hell'. Well, it isn't. It clearly isn't.
"It is a wonderful opportunity to be able to do something really worthwhile and I now have the support of staff. The children here are so lovely, they deserve the very best education we can give them."
The Ridings achieved notoriety early last autumn when former headteacher Karen Stansfield resigned and the school was temporarily closed following reports of assaults by pupils on staff. This was followed up by a damning Office for Standards in Education report which found that two-fifths of lessons were unsatisfactory.
Peter Clark had expelled 12 pupils and suspended another 23. Calderdale was given three weeks to restore order in the school or have it taken over by the Department for Education.
For a woman who has promised herself throughout her teaching career that her next post would be an easier one, Mrs White's acceptance of the Riding's headship seems like a masochistic act.
An English teacher for 17 years with a track record in tough schools across the Pennines in Blackburn and Bury, she came to The Ridings aged 42 from a deputy headship at Todmorden High School near Hebden Bridge, an improving, successful school with 39 per cent A-Cs and a sixth form which sent pupils to Oxbridge. "It was still in an area with problems, not unlike this," said Mrs White, referring to the vast run-down council estates which feed The Ridings.
She has a big, infectious smile, and a neat, slim physique and emanates energy. You could say, experience apart, that she is genetically programmed to take on the challenge, being one of a teaching dynasty. Her father was head of a boys' secondary modern in Manchester, she has "aunts and cousins galore" in teaching, her elder sister is head of a tough 11-16 school in Manchester (20 per cent A-Cs at GCSE) and her younger sister is a head of English in Stockport.
She seeks to create a school where staff are supported in their teaching and children achieve what they are capable of. Last year The Ridings achieved 8 per cent A-Cs ("we weren't the lowest in Calderdale"). This year a target for 20 per cent has been set. However, Mrs White is concerned to improve the school's overall achievement. She said: "I don't care where we are in the league tables as long as our effort is as high as it can be. For each piece of work, we have started to mark pupils on their attainment and their effort. The one that's most important to me is the effort grade."
She intends to carry on teaching herself - "I couldn't not teach English" - and is currently taking a Year 11 class through to GCSE. "They had done no course work at all. I was the fifth teacher they had had in two years. I know they are capable of C grades, even at this eleventh hour, but they don't know that. They have no confidence, they have lost the skills of learning, they are insecure, and it is this insecurity which has bred indiscipline."
The Ridings, an 11-18 comprehensive, came into being two-and-a-half years ago after a difficult amalgamation of two 11-16 secondary moderns. Financial constraints and neglect had led to demoralised teachers showing every stress and strain, with significant numbers on long-term sick leave and a large quota of supply staff.
"The first thing children asked when I came here was 'Are you staying, Miss?' They had been left high and dry far too often. Peter and I had the school carpeted. They thought the carpets would go when we left. They had no belief in their own value and many still don't.
"The staff were capable, but they had got into the syndrome of containing rather than teaching. They were badly in need of support and praise. In about our third month here, Peter and I conducted staff development interviews. I was sad to hear staff say, 'This is the first time in seven, eight, nine years that anybody has asked me where I am going and how I view my career'.
"I have been lucky, I have always had people behind me saying, 'I think you are ready for this'. I assumed that happened everywhere. What we have to do, those who are left (about half - in September one-third of the staff will be new), is to stick it out and be part of the success. As teachers who have been part of a school that has turned round, they will be very employable."
For months Mrs White has missed out on sleeping and eating, putting together an emergency action plan, working with inspectors who have visited every month since November. It is getting easier. "I feel as if I have been spinning all these plates, and now the staff are helping to spin them as well."
She aims to broaden the curriculum introducing more GNVQs and the expressive arts - drama, dance, music - trying to build up confidence. A key task will be to increase pupil numbers.
With a school of 600 and a sixth form of only 10, she believes "there are 200 pupils out there who should be coming here". The signs are good. Of 108 pupils allocated a place for next year, only 15 have appealed.
Her appointment came the day before Calderdale submitted an emergency education plan to Education Secretary Gillian Shephard which included a major school improvement project.
A large proportion of children come to The Ridings with a reading age of no more than six. Up to 40 per cent have special educational needs. She said: "I say loud and clear, there has to be a clear commitment and careful strategy to improve standards across the age range."