The day my life changed

26th November 2010 at 00:00
I got a notice of closure. My school was being shut to form an academy

I started as head at Breeze Hill School in Oldham 19 years ago, in April 1991. It was in pretty dire straits when I arrived. The following year, we got 6 per cent A*-Cs and were right at the bottom of the league tables.

Within a couple of years, in 1995, we had become the first secondary school in the North West to go into special measures. We came out of that two years later, though, and it has been an upward drift since then, whatever criteria you look at: percentage of A*-Cs, students going on to FE, attendance. They all kept going up.

It was about 2006 when Oldham Council first came up with a plan that five schools would close and merge to form three new academies. We were one of the schools to be closed.

Oldham has had a lot of issues with community cohesion: Breeze Hill had 94 per cent ethnic minority pupils and the nearby Counthill School had 99 per cent white British. The council believed that merging the two schools to create Waterhead Academy would provide a model of community cohesion.

The official notice for closure came in December 2008. People felt very down, no doubt about it, because the model we were trying to create was working. We were making the progress that we always said we would - possibly at a slower rate than the Government wanted, but we weren't taking any short cuts.

I felt I could play a role in helping to get Waterhead Academy set up, particularly on the cohesion side of things. But I also understood that in setting up new schools, the incumbents are often not involved. That is what I expected to happen.

It was difficult and I was unhappy about letting go, but my main concern was managing the transition for the following 18 months or two years so that morale didn't drop to the floor and the pupils' education didn't suffer.

As we approached our final year of operation, I said I wanted people to leave the school with positive memories. I wanted to try to make a record of the school to remind ourselves of the good work that we had done. That was the starting point.

We had the idea to work with a photographer and he trained a group of keen students to compile pupils' views of their school before its closure. At the same time, we took video footage and gave 50 disposable cameras to staff, setting them a deadline of one week to record their images of Breeze Hill.

We have had a lot of links with Pakistan over the years and so we also did a joint yearbook with a school over there. Pupils from both schools took photos, wrote poetry and prose and we put it all into a book telling the story of both schools.

While this was going on, staff were transferring to the new school and I was trying hard to keep up morale. Fortunately, there were no redundancies but a lot of people lost their positions of responsibility.

The final Saturday before our last week in July, we hosted an open day at the school. There was lots of music and food, and photos on display depicting the school's history. My favourite memory of the day was when a former music teacher walked in the door. He must have been in his late 80s and he pulled out these photos of Gilbert and Sullivan musicals that the school used to put on in the 1960s.

It has been a very emotional and traumatic time, and there were plenty of tears on the last day, but overall it has been a positive experience. I have said over the years that, when you look back, you have to ask yourself: "Have I made a difference?" I think we can answer that with pride. Our last exam results were the best ever - that was the real icing on the cake for us. We felt that we had done as good a job as we could of holding everything together.

Bernard Phillips was talking to Meabh Ritchie. If you have an experience to share, email

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