To hell and back
As the pupils began to arrive, Karen [Karen Stansfield, the headteacher who had recently resigned] rushed around the school, encouraging and reminding before the arrival of the inspectors. There were five of them, male and grey-suited, clutching briefcases and boxfiles, dropped outside the school by taxis. Ignoring the press, they entered the Ridings for day one of the inspection . . .
The press presence was not only maintained, but increased with the arrival of the worlds media in the shape of CNN (Cable Network News) from the United States. The anxiety around the school was almost tangible. There was the odd scuffle amongst the pupils and much jockeying to be caught on the now resident television cameras. Karen and the staff tried to carry on normally - or as normally as one could under such scrutiny.
The situation must have been particularly difficult for Karen. She had, after all, already resigned, and been told that all she had to do was see out the week. She was simultaneously responsible and not responsible, and it must have been well-nigh impossible for her to maintain any feeling of commitment to the process.
The first day went reasonably well . . . Wednesday morning started in similar fashion, although there were now rumours that the less scrupulous members of the press were paying pupils to misbehave for the cameras.
The staff were appalled to see the BBC's Panorama crew with an enormous cherry-picker hoist, the type used in outside sports broadcasts. The camera could now peer right into the classrooms and the previously hidden parts of the school site.
The police were called, and the team moved on, but a local businessman, who was also a governor, allowed them to park it on his site. "They said they only wanted some background shots", he said later. The camera lenses focused in on staff and pupils through the windows, heightening the pressure on the already dispirited teaching force.
Karen was so nervous that she asked Peter Bartle [chief adviser of Calderdale local education authority] to sit in on her assembly, but afterwards she felt it had gone well, and the inspectors told her there was little she had to do to comply with the rules on collective worship.
The HMI responsible for evaluating Karen's report on the school, an ex-headteacher, told her he would circulate it to the other inspectors as he felt it would give them a better picture of what was going on, and one teacher, praised for teaching in small progressive steps, was told, "Everyone in this school should be doing what you're doing." While Karen felt grateful for any little bit of understanding and support, overall the "vibes" remained ominous.
As the inspection continued, the pupils' behaviour gradually grew more out of control: it was all Karen and her staff could do to get them into classes and keep them there. Even the brightest, most well-behaved child could not help but be affected by the tension in the school that day.
Ian Calvert, head of English, was attempting to teach his own group whilst keeping an eye on a teacher next door who had been having problems and who now had an inspector in his lesson. The class was not responding well, and the inspector realised that his presence was making the situation worse. As Ian left his class to help the teacher, the inspector was just leaving.
"I think I'm exacerbating the situation," he said, as he moved towards the door.
"Are you going now?" asked one of the pupils.
"Well f*** off, then."
The lunchtime bell went. The time-bomb of excitable pupils, who had been just about contained in their classrooms, exploded out of the building and into the gaze of the media. Karen, realising that there would be trouble, particularly if the more enterprising pupils went seeking sponsorship from the press, was out patrolling the school field, so it was Maggie Binns, a senior member of staff, who was called to deal with some kids throwing stones at a man in the car park.
The rather drunken man often deliberately provoked pupils. She broke the disturbance up and returned inside, but a few minutes later the drunk was involved in another fracas at the front of the school. Some pupils were inevitably filmed attacking the old man, and Karen instructed that the police be called. The inspectors were aware that the staff were unhappy at dealing with the incident in front of the sensation-seeking press corps, and one of them, Mike Tomlinson, volunteered to go. Fortunately, the situation broke up and the police arrived. They reported that the drunk and the television cameras were more to blame than the students, but that was not the kind of statement to make headlines . . .
In the middle of the commotion, a health and safety official had arrived to look at the Ridings gym, an appointment made before the inspection had been arranged. The ceiling was in such poor condition that a fine dust was continually falling, making the floor slippery, and an adult education student who had fallen had made a claim against the school. Instead of rearranging the appointment, Karen left the fraught situation at the front door and went to the gym. The inspector gave Karen a choice: shut the gym down, or have it mopped every hour as a temporary measure.
Although her inclination was to shut the gym, she realised that rather than attempting to re-room all the PE classes, mopping was the better alternative in the circumstances.
It was no surprise that when Mr Webb, the lead inspector, and Mike Tomlinson, OFSTED's deputy chief inspector, asked to see her, they told her that they were about to inform the chairman of governors, the local authority and OFSTED in London that in their opinion the school was in danger of getting out of control. There was nothing much Karen could say. The inspectors were right: things were getting out of control. When she had tried earlier to reprimand one boy, he had asked, "Why should I listen to you any more? Youre not my headteacher now." Somehow she had to calm the pupils down and reassert her authority, or it really would become "Anarchy at the Ridings", as the papers had already called it. As the inspectors got busy on their mobile phones she decided to call an assembly to read the riot act.
"How will the world regard you when you look for a job?" she appealed to them - words repeated almost verbatim the next day by some of the pupils interviewed for the Six o'Clock News, so at least some of them must have been listening. But, as the hall was only big enough to house half the pupils at a time, she had to get them together in two groups. Rather than let the first house out early, as some senior staff suggested, Karen decided to keep the pupils from the first session in school for the final quarter of an hour of the day. This proved to be an expensive mistake: some became demob happy and they played it to the hilt, throwing books across the classroom in full view of the supportive Panorama team, now filming from the windows of a pensioner's flat. The inexperienced teacher, in the first half term of her first job, was seen to lose control. An hour later, the inspectors were ready to present their initial findings.
Karen, the Reverend Stan Brown (chairman of the Ridings governors), Peter Bartle, Peter Lloyd [deputy chief adviser] and Ian Jennings [Calderdale director of education] waited in the staffroom. The five inspectors entered and Mr Webb proceeded to explain that the school had failed on all counts . . .
As Peter Bartle listened to the inspectors he must have felt a sense of vindication: the inspectors agreed with all he had seen emerging over the previous months, and his professional assessment of the previous summer had highlighted the same issues. In many ways the school was now in a much worse position, burdened with the national notoriety gained during the last week. With hindsight, however, the d#233;b#226;cle of the inspection made it possible to take much tougher and more far-reaching action. Would the LEA's plans for quiet closure, followed by Anna White [his associate head] and myself working with the staff toward an OFSTED inspection in December, have given as good a springboard for action?
The meeting ended and the inspectors went out to make a brief statement to the press. They said little except that they had finished, and the report would be published when it was ready. They got back into their taxis, clutching even more papers than they had arrived with, and left. The press stayed.
Karen walked to her car ignoring the turmoil around her; the sea of cameras now stretched in both directions as far as she could see. She drove straight home, but some of the press had beaten her to it. All that she could remember later were the Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Times offering large amounts of money for her story. The journalists left her with a general impression of polite, friendly, sympathetic people who all wanted to be her friend and help her. She went to bed after taking the phone off its hook.
Thursday October 31 was not to be a good day. As Karen drove into work, the skies were grey and the rain was pouring down. There were no inspectors to contend with, but the media rat pack, half-drowned and busy trying to keep the rain off their cameras, was still around the school gates. The pupils and teachers straggled in as if everyone was shell-shocked, and because of this lessons started quietly. Later that morning, Karen was called to a classroom to find a teacher distraught after one of his class had refused to accept his authority and thrown a chair across the room. A very conscientious man, the teacher had finally buckled under the constant pressure.
Karen decided to drive him home to his anxious wife. Although he was clearly at the end of his tether, he insisted that he would be back in school the next day. Unable to persuade him or instruct him to stay home, Karen took the drastic step of formally suspending him . . .
I set off to meet Karen for lunch. We came to that meeting from very different mornings; Karen was at the end of a long and bruising period in the press limelight, while I was just stepping into it . . .
Karen had obviously been distressed by the episode of the V-signs which had been widely publicised on television and in the newspapers. After asking the photographers to stay outside the school grounds, as she turned her back on the cameras to walk up the now-infamous steps a photographer shouted encouragingly to some of the pupils: "Flick some Vs". Two girls enthusiastically obliged, and the moment was recorded for posterity, the lowest of low points in the publicity saga.
I later discovered that, although the picture had been set up by one of the photographers, it was pure bad luck that it had been recorded for television. Most of the cameras had been switched off, but one cameraman had been distracted and left his running. Those pictures made an enormous, and unfair, impact across the nation and the world. They struck a chord with all those who like to see young people as nasty, violent and anti-authority, and epitomised the Ridings as "the school from Hell".
What upset Karen most was that she had accompanied the two girls back to meet the press, and they had apologised tearfully and profusely in front of the cameras, but that interview had only been shown once and at a time when few people were watching.
Karen outlined the instances of press bribery to either misbehave or report misbehaviour that had never taken place. Children were being encouraged to set off fireworks in the school grounds, and relatively minor incidents were reported in the most sensational terms. Many pupils were paid, or at least promised payment, for their stories, and some of those interviewed were in fact pupils of other schools.
Stories claiming to come from the "inside" may not have come from Ridings pupils at all: a popular girls' magazine headlined a story about the school with allegations of sex in the toilets - then going on to say much lower down that this rumour was in fact not true. Some of the stories were outright fictions, such as the reports of boys urinating in drinks cans and throwing them at teachers. Other interviews were with unsupportive parents, happy to criticise and undermine the school's efforts to discipline their children, and some families were taken to stay in quality hotels in London and actively encouraged to speak disparagingly about the school. But Karen had co-operated fully with Panorama by giving two long interviews and was convinced that those she saw as responsible would be exposed and held to account, a prospect that she understandably viewed with some relish.
The background to the Panorama programme (as it had been outlined to her) was a fantastic tale of intrigue involving a number of local personalities: some of it rang very true, but I felt that it failed to hold together completely. I was surprised that they had gathered so much hard evidence to broadcast.
After a couple of hours we parted. Karen looked much better and seemed quite optimistic. She was confident that her story would be told, and the relief of leaving all the pain behind was palpable. I left to prepare for the Rastrick governors' emergency meeting [where his secondment as head of the Ridings was to be approved] whilst Karen returned home, expecting to count the days of the next week until it was all over: the plan was to close the Ridings on the Friday of the next week for a staff training day, then re-open under new management the following Monday. But, unknown to either of us, there had been a dramatic turn of events at the Ridings.
The appearance of the cherry-picker had heightened the press activity at the school, resulting in deteriorating pupil behaviour and staff morale. As one teacher rather dramatically put it: "The cycle of decline inexorably dragged us down into the vortex of despair."
In one lesson a boy made some sexually explicit remarks to one of the younger female teachers and touched her bottom. At a lunch-time union meeting it was decided that staff would not take their timetabled lessons, but only work with their own form groups. Children were roaming the corridors, fighting amongst the general shambles. Maggie Binns looked on it all in despair with Peter Bartle and Peter Lloyd. She turned to Bartle and said despairingly, "This can't go on. " Bartle walked away. "Don't worry, "Lloyd said, "we are doing something."
In fact, Peter Bartle had gone to phone Ian Jennings to advise him in the strongest terms to close the school. Ian met with senior councillors, party leaders, the chief executive Michael Ellison and his deputy, Paul Sheehan. Everyone agreed: the children would be sent home with a letter to parents informing them that the school would be closed until further notice. Peter Bartle held three separate assemblies in the undersized school hall to inform the pupils . . .
The older ones were concerned for their futures and GCSE courses, but when the younger ones were told there were many smirks. "I understand why you're pleased," Peter Bartle told them, "but in time you'll look back on all this with regret."
Many staff were very upset. Others saw the closure as a step forward; at least, they felt, something would now happen. Some also saw it as an opportunity to make sure that when the school re-opened it was on their terms - perhaps they would play a more significant role in its future management. So, Karen had spent her last day at the Ridings and, ironically, the final act that closed the school had occurred whilst she was absent.
After the children left, the assistant caretaker locked all the doors of the main school. The staff whose teaching rooms were away from the main block had to run the gauntlet of cameras in order to fetch their belongings. They noticed some of the journalists writing a sign on a piece of card. Fittingly, the journalists, who had passed from merely recording the situation to being an intrinsic part of the problem, provided the final image: the television news programmes on that evening and the papers next morning showed a sign propped against the gates, reading "SCHOOL CLOSED".
The next day Peter Clark's secondment to the Ridings became public. He received massive media interest and was given the tag of "Superhead". By the time pupils returned to the Ridings the following week under Clark and his associate head, Anna White (then deputy head of Todmorden high school),the school had been placed on special measures. It was to receive fortnightly inspections and had 20 days to submit an action plan to Education Secretary Gillian Shephard. The inspectors identified eight key issues to be taken up by the staff, governors and local authority with urgency (see below).
OFSTED'S KEY ISSUES FOR ACTION
*Take immediate action to re-establish good order and control, to ensure the physical safety of pupils and to have systems in place which will make sure that the school knows the whereabouts of all pupils.
* Raise standards of pupils achievement in all subjects.
* Improve the quality of teaching in order to tackle underachievement and in particular improve classroom management and discipline.
* Strengthen management and leadership at every level and ensure that communication is improved and policies are implemented.
* Improve the governing bodys systems for decision-making, financial control and for monitoring the life and work of the school, and the quality of its educational provision.
* Raise levels of attendance and improve behaviour.
* Fully implement the sound policy for special educational needs.
* Collaborate to bring about a unity of purpose among the staff, including a collective and individual acceptance and consistent discharge of responsibilities, on behalf of the pupils in the school
Anna and I took the first assembly together. The students behaved impeccably. Attendance was around 75 per cent, so there were about 170 in the hall. I introduced the two of us, making a joke of my celebrity status.We operated as a double act.
"Things have now changed", I explained as they listened, politely and attentively. "We're here to ensure that there'll be no return to the shambles of the previous weeks. It's not in your interests, and it won't be allowed to happen. I have excluded some students who will return if they promise to behave, but some others will not return. We want to work with you to rebuild the school."
I read out sections of the OFSTED report that were positive about the teaching and the behaviour of pupils, telling them, "It's not all bad - there are plenty of good things about the school that together we can build on."
When they heard that we had abandoned the hated DFL [Discipline for Learning policy] there was an audible sigh of relief and smiles all round. We handed out new guidelines on our "Positive Behaviour Policy", which emphasised taking responsibility for looking after oneself, each other and the environment of the school. I told them, "This is the new deal. It's not all about punishment; rewards will be introduced to reinforce good behaviour. But there will be a range of sanctions, including tellings-off, detentions, and so on, not simply isolation and exclusion. "
Anna carried on to outline our other plans. "We plan to set up a school council to look, with your help, to amend the behaviour policy over time and suggest other improvements." She also explained the purpose of the locks [on corridors] and extra staff. "It's to make the school a better and safer place to attend,"she said. "Other schools are carpeted, why shouldn't you have the best?" We ended by saying that we had every confidence that they would play their part . . .
When I drove down Nursery Lane the next morning, everything was quiet. No press! The Year 9 students returned that day. Along the corridor two boys were larking about, jumping up to hit the lights and ceiling. I told them to stop.
"Are you the new headteacher?"
"Yes. Calm down and go to your form room."
"We've seen you on the telly. "
THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL
The Ridings School is created when Calderdale LEA merges two secondary schools to the north of Halifax: Ovenden secondary and Holmfield High, both of which were suffering from falling pupil numbers. Uncertainty about the future of both schools over some years meant many of the more able and well-behaved pupils had been transferred. Karen Stansfield, deputy head of an upper school in Bradford, is appointed head.
The school opens on the Ovenden site after a delay of a term. With lack of discipline a pressing problem, the Discipline for Learning system is introduced. This is based on a series of sanctions (with pupils being given three checks before receiving the next sanction) alongside a parallel series of rewards for good behaviour. The sanctions included placing pupils in isolation and temporary exclusion. The system proves controversial and polarises existing clashes of opinion among staff.
Summer: An excluded pupil, Sarah Taylor, is reinstated by Calderdale LEA.
Autumn: Sarah Taylor is excluded and reinstated for a second time. Karen Stansfield resigns. Calderdale asks Peter Clark, head of Rastrick High School (the first comprehensive to opt out of Calderdale) to take on the job.
Half-term: Other discipline problems at the Ridings attract national publicity, with reporters stationed outside the school. The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers estimates that 60 pupils should be excluded. The Department for Education and Employment announces an emergency inspection.
Extracted from Back from the Brink: transforming the Ridings School and our children's education by Peter Clark. Published on October 22 by Metro Books, #163;12.99.
TES readers can order Back from the Brink on Metro Books' credit card hotline (tel: 0500 418419) for the discount price of #163;11.99 (inc pp).
Peter Clark and Anna White will be participants in the TES Schools and the Media conference on November 30 (tel: 0181 780 9674)