Life emerges beyond the failure abyss

8th November 1996 at 00:00
Officials are calling for an educational rescue code, a once-ailing school breathes again and evidence mounts that discipline problems begin young. Meanwhile, opinion is divided over how to tackle problem children.

As staff and pupils at The Ridings and Manton junior school continue to struggle against problems that have threatened to tear them apart, they could look south to a school which has pulled itself back from the abyss.

Northicote school , a mixed comprehensive on the outskirts of Wolverhampton in the West Midlands, was the first secondary on OFSTED's special measures list. Last November it became the first to emerge from the list and is now back on track.

Examination results have improved dramatically - more than doubled from 13 per cent of pupils gaining the top GCSE grades to around 27 per cent this year - attendance is up, and the school's reputation locally has been transformed.

The entrance to the school is clean and business-like, with exhibitions of pupils' work pinned neatly on the walls. The head's office contains a collection of framed prints of Old Masters, won in a national art competition. Pupils recently painted a mural at the local teachers' centre and almost pipped a prestigious nearby private school in the finals of a general knowledge quiz. All pupils wear uniform and appear polite and studious.

But things were very different. Staff speak of a drift over several years towards Northicote's day of reckoning at the hands of OFSTED in November 1993.

"It was a slow process that seemed to happen without people really noticing, " says Josie Hyde, pastoral co-ordinator, who started at Northicote as a probationary teacher 26 years ago. "There was no sense of where we were going. If a school is to be successful it must constantly review what it's doing and strive for better. It's what we expect of pupils. But we weren't doing it."

Staff speak of their devastation when the school was failed. But they also describe a process of picking themselves up and rising to the challenge. "We had to move forward very quickly," says Miss Hyde. "We couldn't stand around saying how awful it was. We had to do something concrete."

Geoff Hampton, newly-installed as head only a couple of months before the damning inspection, had studied management in the private sector in his previous deputy headship and took the critical report as a challenge. "What OFSTED did was to set out the ground rules and a series of targets fairly and squarely," he says. "We were very aware that we had deadlines to hit and there would be people coming back to see that we had done so."

Radical reforms, in which there were winners and losers among the staff, cleared away the separate departments which had operated virtually in isolation for decades and created a new management structure based on the "twin pillars" of the school's curriculum and pastoral roles.

Five faculties covering the subject areas were created, each with its own head and with a curriculum manager in overall control, responsible for what was taught throughout the school. The team including the curriculum manager and faculty heads now meet as a team every two weeks to discuss any problems or questions which arise.

Similarly, the school's caring and disciplinary role is under the overall control of the pastoral co-ordinator, Miss Hyde, who meets heads of year every two weeks.

New procedures have been established for pupils' work and behaviour. These include stick and carrot approaches. A pupil transgressing the "classroom code" - pinned to the wall in every classroom, stuck into pupils' books and spelling out rules for behaviour - or the school rules, is liable to face a detention graded according to seriousness. Parents are immediately informed of detentions and of any unauthorised absences.

Clarity, consistency and structure are words which crop up again and again in discussion of the new Northicote. "There are clear structures in place now and the pupils like that," says Mr Hampton. "When pupils don't know what their roles are it is easier to drift into inappropriate behaviour. Now if you try it on you know where the line has been drawn."

The parents seem to like the clear disciplinary codes too. "Parents want their kids to look nice when they go to school," says Glenys Hornsby, secretary of the parent-teacher association, who has two children at the school. "They feel that if their child is not behaving properly they will be made to toe the line and do the job they're coming here for, to learn."

The new disciplinary and pastoral structures and more rigorous approaches to classroom performance including regular tests, seem to have strengthened morale and achievement.

"They used to come out of lessons not having learned anything and thinking it was OK," says Miss Hyde. "Now it's not. They have a clear view of what they are striving for."

"Kids are more enthusiastic about working," said Stuart Banbury, 15. "We know if we work, we'll get results in the end."

Staff at Northicote are understandably reluctant to prescribe remedies for other schools such as The Ridings. But they think they have discovered the key to their own success and can see why some other schools are falling apart.

"I think I can see what's going wrong," says deputy head Gay Hadley of The Ridings and Manton. "They aren't pulling together. That leads to an enormous amount of wasted energy. People seem to be against each other rather than working together to make the school successful."

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