Judgment day follows trial by media

1st November 1996 at 00:00
The latest skirmishes in the teacher and parent conflict over disruptive pupils have exposed doubts over who has authority to intervene. By the end of this week The Ridings in Halifax, a school besieged by the media, may be officially confirmed as failing to provide adequate education for its 620 children.

The judgment of the five senior HM Inspectors in the building on Tuesday and Wednesday will seal the fate of an institution that was always going to have a tough time living down the image created by newspapers and television crews.

Families from the neighbouring council estates have been vying with each other to tell horror stories - often for money - about indiscipline in the school.

As journalists gathered on the Ovenden hillside in west Yorkshire to capture the arrival of pupils at the school after half-term, there was a constant supply of youngsters keen to express on camera their views on the school's faults.

Linda McDermott had turned up for the benefit of GMTV, even though her two sons are permanently excluded. The 13-year-old, she said, had been falsely accused of starting a fire and the 15-year-old had been excluded allegedly for slashing tyres and smashing windows. "It is Steven with a 'v'," the 15-year-old volunteered for reporters. He now attends a special unit outside the town.

His mother blamed the teachers, who, she said, should have provided more help, rather than suggesting to her sons they might go to sleep at the back of the class.

None of the anecdotes were verifiable, though that did not appear to deter reporters seeking further sensation. In its innocence, the local authority had encouraged the media circus by arranging a press conference in the school hall before morning assembly.

The director of education, Ian Jennings, complains of the distorted coverage the school has been getting, but he cannot escape the reality of the problems it was facing before the media arrived en masse in Calderdale.

The Ridings has only existed for 20 months, but it is little different to the school that used to be in the building, Ovenden High, except it now takes the pupils from another school further up the valley.

The two schools that merged to create The Ridings were former secondary moderns with falling rolls and poor exam results. Although Halifax finally went comprehensive a few years ago, the two grammar schools preserved their selective intake by opting out. The two church schools on the same site as North Halifax Grammar have also become grant-maintained.

At the time, Calderdale had around 2,000 surplus places, a problem worsened by the expansion of the grant-maintained schools. The merger of the two half-empty schools took out 750 places.

It was always going to be an uphill struggle to make The Ridings an attractive option. Parents can choose between grammars and church schools, and the well-established comprehensives in other parts of Calderdale often have places for Halifax children.

Initially, millions were to be spent on the new school to present it as a sparkling alternative, but hardly any of the work has been done because of the council's capital funding crisis. However, Mr Jennings says the promised sports hall is about to go ahead. Pupils from Holmfield, a school where exam results were among the country's poorest, moved down to Ovenden, a school with a truancy problem.

According to Mr Jennings, the local authority first became aware of what he describes as "a failure to progress" around Easter. That term the school permanently excluded Sarah Walker, the 13-year-old who has now had a baby, for fighting with another pupil and for assaulting a teacher.

The independent appeals committee accepted that the incidents had occurred, but decided that permanent exclusion was inappropriate. At that point, the National Union of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers held its first ballot on industrial action among its 30 members.

The local authority attempted to tackle what it considered to be failings in the management by setting up a taskforce of teachers, governors and officials. However, it appears to have been unprepared for the rapid escalation of events this term.

The NASUWT decided on another ballot, provoked by three incidents - a firework narrowly missed a teacher, a stone was thrown at another and a third was punched. In the midst of the crisis, head Karen Stansfield handed in her resignation, complaining of exhaustion.

Journalists descended in droves when it emerged that the union had collected a list from staff of 61 pupils they considered to be unteachable. The union is now claiming the list was intended for its own use and it was not suggesting all those named needed to be excluded, but that those pupils required serious attention.

The local authority disputes the figure, but Mr Jennings acknowledges that there is probably a hard core of between 12 and 13 pupils who make life difficult for teachers and other pupils.

It is his view that the school should be responsible for identifying such pupils so that the appropriate arrangements can be made. The governors have asked for a review of the exclusion procedure. The school has only permanently excluded four pupils - two of whom were reinstated - but there have been 124 temporary exclusions involving 44 pupils in the last school year.

The local authority rejects the claim that The Ridings ends up with pupils excluded from other schools. Mr Jennings's records show only one or two excluded pupils have been placed there, though he accepts the school has had problems with pupils who have voluntarily transferred from other schools. Because the school is not full, it cannot turn any pupils away.

Extra help is being provided for the 45 pupils that are recognised to have special needs. Another 85 pupils are being assessed.

The school has declined to put its case. The head, Karen Stansfield, appointed just before the merger, leaves in a couple of weeks when the new head plus an associate head are due to move in. The chair of governors, the Rev Stan Brown, has an answering machine which requests journalists to allow the school a period of calm.

Neither the school nor the local authority appears to be accepting the blame for the crisis. The local authority took a risk in bringing together two schools that had independently failed to attract aspiring parents. On the face of it, the council does not appear to have taken adequate steps to prevent the school taking on the worst aspects of the two it replaced.

The Ridings is one of the six remaining local authority secondaries, the other nine are all grant-maintained. Since the last local elections, Calderdale has been Labour-controlled, but over the years the constant swings between Labour and Conservative or minority administrations has meant a lack of strategic planning.

Consultation over the merger of the schools coincided with a troubled period for the administration. It sacked its education director, Jacky Tonge, after 11 months in the job. She is now education director in Haringey, north London.

The Education Secretary can take a failing school out of the hands of an LEA where she considers it does not have the ability to bring about improvements. That would bring the GM tally in Calderdale to 10.

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