Coming in from the cold

22nd January 2010 at 00:00
Faced with special measures, a pupil revolt and parent fury, most heads could be forgiven for feeling daunted. But Russ Wallace and his team arrived at the controversial Richard Rose Central Academy determined to turn it around. Almost a year on, Nick Morrison finds they have done just that

When you take over a school that has just been placed in special measures, you expect drastic action will be on the agenda. But rarely can the situation have been as stark as that confronting Mike Gibbons when he arrived at Richard Rose Central Academy.

"Our priorities were very straightforward," he recalls. "Get the kids back into school. Get the kids back into the classrooms. Get order in the corridors. Get kids to respect each other. Get staff to take responsibility for their classes." In other words: "We had to make this a normal school again."

Even before it opened, the Central Academy and its sister school in the Richard Rose Federation, the Morton Academy, both in Carlisle, had been plunged into controversy with the appointment of the first non-teacher head. The idea was that Peter Noble, a former health service manager who joined the federation as chief executive, would operate on a "strategic" level, leaving the day-to-day running of the schools to their respective heads, or directors of learning, as they were referred to.

But soon after it opened, pupils at the Central Academy were found to be roaming corridors during lessons, and playgrounds became virtual no-go areas for younger children. Parents, concerned as much for their children's safety as for their education, appealed in desperation for Ofsted to intervene. Teaching union heads further criticised the appointment, claiming headship should be reserved for those with extensive classroom experience.

At one point there was even talk of shipping Year 11 pupils to another school to allow them to concentrate on their work. And one year ago this week, unrest turned to outright protest, when a group of children took part in a walk-out, scenes of pupils streaming down the road outside the school making the national news.

"In defence of the children, they probably felt that was their only option," says Lynne Izon, a leading voice in the parents' protest. "They weren't getting an education and they were scared of coming to school. Some were jumping on the bandwagon but it did make you wonder who was in charge here: the kids or the staff."

he unrest spread to the Morton Academy, where pupils threatened a sympathy strike, although it eventually came to naught. "Our student body felt they were part of the same community," says Kate Robinson, principal at the Morton Academy.

Ofsted's verdict on the Central Academy was damning. The school was placed in special measures in February last year, judged inadequate in 21 out of 25 categories. Mr Noble resigned, as did Mark Yearsley, director of learning at the academy.

Mr Gibbons was about to step down after six years running the Innovation Unit at the Department for Children, Schools and Families, heading for the world of education consultancy. Attending an evening function, he was approached by Jim Knight, then-schools minister, about taking over as chief executive at the federation. He agreed to put his name forward, although the minister took the precaution of ringing him at 6am the next morning to make sure he hadn't changed his mind.

His first task was to appoint a new head at the Central Academy. His choice was Russ Wallace, a fellow former Newcastle headteacher with experience of taking schools out of special measures.

Next on the list was to meet the parents. With tempers still high, it was critical to rebuild trust in the school and get parents back on side. The meeting took place the day after the Ofsted report was made public, and hundreds packed the hall. "I'll never forget the anger that came out of that meeting," Mr Gibbons recalls. "You could feel it."

His approach was to be as straightforward as possible. He told the parents that together they would make the school better, and he would never make a promise he couldn't keep. But the biggest cheer of the night came when he introduced Mr Wallace as the new headteacher: there would be no more directors of learning.

"Parents had seen the school lose a sense of direction and they needed someone who they felt was in charge," Mr Gibbons says. "A director of learning didn't mean anything to them."

But his strategy nearly came unstuck at the start. Central Academy had been formed from the merger of two schools but was occupying the site of the smaller of the two while a new campus was built in the city centre.

Mr Gibbons promised the parents their pupils would be in the new school by January 2011. When he came off stage it was to be told there might be a hitch: there was no planning permission for the new school and considerable opposition to the proposal within the city.

While Mr Gibbons set about building a coalition to rescue the plan, he delegated responsibility for turning the school around to Mr Wallace. "As soon as you have the right team in place you start pushing responsibility as far down as you can," Mr Gibbons says. "It isn't about being a one-man band; it is about trusting the people around you."

The day after meeting the parents, Mr Wallace introduced himself to the pupils. In back-to-back assemblies, five over the course of an hour, he sought to win their confidence. "I said to them `You are either with me or against me'," Mr Wallace says. "I told them `If you are against me you are going to find it tough; if you are with me you are going to have a much better school, one you can have some pride in'."

One initial step was to provide a secure area for key stage 3 pupils so they felt safe at breaktimes. Staff also needed reassurance. The new academy had inherited teachers from both its predecessor schools and a reorganisation was pending. This was a source of anxiety for many and contributed to the high sickness rate that in turn had prompted pupils to complain about being taught by supply teachers. There was also uncertainty over who was in charge in many subject areas, where senior roles were duplicated.

"We had too many staff for the number of pupils, but we agreed we would postpone any reorganisation until the end of the academic year," says Mr Wallace. In the end, 36 staff out of a total of around 300 left the academy.

Health and safety had been a major concern. The academy's temporary home had previously housed around 600 pupils when it was North Cumbria Technology College, although it had a capacity of 900. The arrival of around 900 pupils from St Aidan's High had swelled the numbers beyond safe limits.

An extension of the dining hall was already in the pipeline, but the new management brought in additional temporary classrooms. The staff car park - no more than a muddy field in the rain and described by Mr Gibbons as "like Passchendaele" - was given a hard surface; carpets were ripped up and replaced with industrial flooring; toilets were torn out and the school was painted top to bottom over a weekend. "It was a statement to the kids that things have changed," Mr Wallace says.

He also recruited an experienced former head, Ian Gibson, to lead on behaviour issues, another key concern. The academy had opened without a behaviour code in place, and although one was subsequently introduced it was seen as ineffective and inconsistent.

The vertical tutoring system, where pupils were grouped across age ranges, was seen as blurring responsibility for discipline and was scrapped and replaced by the more traditional division of forms according to year group. An inclusion suite was set up for pupils sent out of lessons, and staffed by teachers so they didn't miss out on teaching. The behaviour policy was completely rewritten.

"There are clear steps now, and the staff know what they are and the kids know what they are and what the consequences will be," says Mr Gibson. "There is more consistency across the school."

He also reshuffled the pastoral team to make sure the head of each year was a teacher, and provided a visible link between behaviour and attainment by making the heads of year responsible for both.

"Before there was a lot of uncertainty, but it's a lot clearer now and you know what is going to happen," says Tony Threlkeld, a PE teacher whose first year in teaching coincided with the academy's annus horribilis.

It's not just the staff who feel more settled. Pupil Chloe Maitland, 14, joined last year's walkout - more "annoyed" at the disruption than anything else - but says the atmosphere in school is now completely different and that the change in leadership has contributed to that.

"I didn't have anything against the guy (Mr Yearsley) but people didn't respect him as much as they do Mr Wallace," she says.

While the first priority had to be restoring order, Mr Wallace knew his success or failure would ultimately be decided by exam results. "More than most schools, we need our five A* to Cs with maths and English to be good," he says. "Whether we like it or not that figure is the one people look at."

A second former head, Nigel McQuoid, was recruited to help tackle curriculum issues. Senior deputy head Jacky Kennedy says initial attention was focused on those children for whom it was a matter of urgency: Year 11 pupils whose exams were just four months away.

"You can have a five-year plan but most of our pupils need a one-year plan and with the last Year 11 we had just a few months," she says. "We needed to quickly analyse where we were - we needed to know what the bad news was - and then work out what we had to do."

Maths and English became the focus. The tactics included setting up after school maths clubs, breaking down classes into smaller groups, recruiting additional staff, running targeted revision sessions and holding weekend and holiday sessions. Individual plans were drawn up for every Year 11 pupil, highlighting strengths and weaknesses.

When Mr Wallace arrived, the prediction was that 13 per cent of pupils would get five A* to C grades, including English and maths, at GCSE. The final figure was 27 per cent, well up on the forecast but still below the Government's floor target of 30 per cent.

Instead of a breathing space, the summer holiday provided an opportunity to extend this strategy to the rest of the school. "We have turned our attention to all the other year groups," says Mrs Kennedy. "We're making sure Year 7 are where they should be, Year 8 are where they should be, and so on."

The academy has since had two monitoring visits from Ofsted, confirming that it is making satisfactory progress. In November, Ofsted noted that there was a "more consistently stable atmosphere" and said pupils now felt safe and secure on site. The academy's leadership was commended for developing a sense of common purpose, although there is still a long way to go before it can overcome its past underachievement.

There was also still the thorny problem of planning permission. Construction of the new school, on the site of the former St Aidan's High, would involve demolition of the last remnants of the Carlisle and County High School for Girls, built early in the last century. Protesters argued the surviving Edwardian facade should be retained as part of the city's heritage, potentially scuppering the academy's plans. Residents were also concerned about parking problems and the extra traffic associated with a 1,500-pupil school in a city centre.

Mr Gibbons knew his efforts to restore trust in the school's leadership would fall at the first hurdle if the move was even delayed, let alone abandoned. In conjunction with property developer Brian Scowcroft, one of the academy's sponsors, he launched a vigorous effort to win hearts and minds.

The campaign focused on the academy's aim to raise aspirations in a traditionally low wage but high employment area. But with its reputation still damaged, there was considerable scepticism over whether the new building should go ahead.

In the end it proved successful. Following a two-hour debate, Cumbria County Council's development control panel voted to approve the scheme by nine votes to six, with eight abstentions. It was a turning point for Mr Gibbons. The consequences of failure had been steep.

think I would have resigned," he says. "I had said to parents there isn't a single promise I make that I can't keep, and I had promised the school community that they wouldn't have to spend more than five terms on the temporary site."

Now, with less than a year to go to an opening date of January 3, 2011, the new building is taking shape. The steel supports are in place, the concrete frame is expected to be completed by the end of next month and the building work itself by June, leaving six months for internal fittings.

The pound;30 million, three-storey school is designed to be future-proof. Removable internal walls mean it can be adapted to both open plan and classroom teaching.

In the wake of last year's turmoil, Central Academy set up a Parent Voice group, to keep parents in touch with what is happening in school, and, just as importantly, keep the school in touch with the parental mood. "It is imperative for schools to involve parents," says parent Lynne Izon, the group's vice-chair.

She knows of parents who went home and cried when the Ofsted report came out. The new leadership's acknowledgement of how bad the situation had become, and determination to turn things around, was the key point in persuading parents to give them a chance.

"They said what I wanted to hear," says Mrs Izon, mother of Ben, 15. "That it was absolutely appalling but this is day one."

Parent Voice is a useful sounding board for Mr Wallace. "If I'm not sure about something I'll phone Lynne up and say, `What do you think of this?'," he says.

Joe Herring, now 15 and in Year 10, wasn't one of those to walk out last year. He believes much of the unrest was a result of lingering unhappiness that the merger had gone ahead in the first place. The decision to bring forward the new academy by two years had not allowed pupils to get used to the idea.

Time has also helped. Pupils from the two schools have had time to get to know each other, and last year's strike is now a distant memory. "It is back to how it should be," says Joe.

For his part, when Mr Gibbons arrived at Richard Rose, he believed the academy had to embark on three separate, but linked, journeys. The first was to get out of special measures. The second was to get into a new building. And journey three is to become a force to regenerate the city's economy. The first is now accomplished, the second well on the way. Only journey three remains

The journey so far


  • November - Plans to merge St Aidan's High School and North Cumbria Technology College (NCTC) brought forward a year.
    • 2008

      • April - Around 900 St Aidan's pupils transferred to join the 600 NCTC pupils on a site designed for 900 pupils. 38 temporary classrooms are installed.
      • September - The Richard Rose Central Academy opens.
      • December - Ofsted arrives on an emergency visit. Its report is published in February.
        • 2009

          • January - Hundreds of pupils walk out in protest at what they say is an inadequate education due to number of teachers off sick.
          • January - Federation chief executive Peter Noble and academy director Mark Yearsley resign, replaced by Mike Gibbons and Russ Wallace.
          • June - A monitoring visit by Ofsted declares the school is making "satisfactory" progress.
            • 2010

              • June - External work on the new academy expected to be complete.
                • 2011

                  • January - Central Academy pupils move into their new building.

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