Light at the end of the isolation corridor

15th November 1996 at 00:00
Peter Clark, new head at The Ridings, School talks to Josephine Gardiner about his first week. The infamous isolation corridor at The Ridings School is now deserted - the little row of plastic punishment desks empty and the reinforced glass doors locked. It's a strange sort of place to see inside a school; sterile and featureless, reminiscent of a psychiatric hospital or a privatised prison. Under the old regime, two members of staff were permanently in attendance on this corridor, supervising miscreants sent there by a despairing staff.

A week is a long time in education. This Tuesday, The Ridings had been open under its new head, Peter Clark, and his "associate head" Anna White, for just under a week, and it is difficult to spot any scars from the paroxysm of chaos which shook the school so recently.

The huge media circus has (almost) departed, the walls are undefiled by graffiti, Mr Clark barks at the odd child who has the temerity to drop a crisp packet, several classrooms smell of new carpet and the corridors, which the emergency inspection team described as resembling a racetrack, have been sectioned off with traffic-calming doors. The only visible evidence of the recent crisis is the presence of two uniformed security guards in the lobby, hired at an estimated cost of Pounds 1,600 a week to patrol the grounds and keep out vengeful ex-pupils, local vandals and unscrupulous cameramen. The guards certainly give the school an American flavour, but Mr Clark insists they are temporary.

Most noticeably, the pupils seem friendly, cheerful (if a little hyperactive), a long way from the feral delinquents demonised by the national media. Which lends weight to Peter Clark's assertion that the situation at The Ridings has been "grossly exaggerated".

"So far," he says, "I haven't seen anything here that you wouldn't see in any school, including independent schools, anywhere in Britain."

One of the first acts of the new heads was to jettison the old discipline policy, Discipline for Learning. This system has been used in other schools, but the two new heads concluded that it was having a negative effect on the school "It was very punitive and mechanistic," says Peter Clark, explaining that a child could accumulate "checks" (black marks) so rapidly "that you could descend through the levels of badness and be excluded in the five minutes we've been having this conversation." The decision to abandon it, he says, was taken with the approval of all the staff, and the new interim behaviour policy, which lays out some basic principles of civilised behaviour, was drawn up with the help of the pupils. "They know as well as the staff that things have to change very fast."

Peter Clark is anxious to dispel the idea that he and Anna White "descended on the school like an SAS hit squad of super-heads - the plan was to come in and act as though this were a perfectly normal school." He did, however, take the decision to exclude the 12 most obstreperous pupils permanently, and to suspend 21 others. "The priority now is to get the 21 back to school." Today, negotiations begin with them and their parents to do just that. He says that it was not difficult to decide which pupils to expel; their records and conversations with staff told them everything they needed to know.

Several times during his interview with The TES, Peter Clark had to dash out to do short interviews for an American TV station; last Friday he gave 11 interviews in an hour; he has received phone calls from a director of education in Bogota asking for advice on failing schools; he has turned down invitations to appear on Breakfast with Frost and Richard and Judy. Mr Clark is a confident, genial character whose endearing lack of pomposity makes him a natural for interviews, which is just as well, for there can be few teachers in history who have been subjected to such intense public scrutiny. He seems ambivalent both about his sudden celebrity ("My daughter sees me in a new light - she lies on her bed and watches her father at work") and about the effect of the media spotlight on the school.

On the positive side, it has had the effect of "lancing the boil - the crisis has been almost cathartic for the school, making my job more possible by bringing people face to face with the fact that this is the last chance for The Ridings. Without that, the situation could have trickled on for ages." The storm has also brought much needed attention in the form of LEA advisers, a curriculum support team, money, and the clean-slate feeling that comes after finally hitting bottom.

But neither he nor Anna White are in any doubt that the barrage of media attention created an unreal and highly volatile situation, making normal behaviour impossible for pupils and staff, and that some journalists deliberately inflamed the crisis. What obviously angers both of them is the way the pupils and the school have been portrayed as uniquely awful.

The Panorama crew, Peter Clark says (and Anna White agrees) set up a 100-foot gantry in order to film pupils through the windows. "The police forced them to move on, and they then did a deal with a guy who owns some land behind the school and set the gantry up there." Anna White adds that they also "paid some old people to film from their flats". Last Monday, the school received a phone call from the manager of a petrol station telling them that another camera crew was bribing children claiming to be from The Ridings for interviews (all sorts of would-be rebels are now, apparently, claiming to be Ridings pupils).

Both heads dispute the impression created by one scene in Panorama in which an apparently helpless teacher watches her class throwing paper and workbooks around. "This was a newly qualified teacher who had been asked to take a class unaided; the scene was filmed a few minutes after it had been announced that the school was closing, so you can imagine the atmosphere. She is in fact a very good teacher, but was put in a totally unfair situation."

Mr Clark adds that the boy who was throwing books was spotted on TV by his father. "The boy came in the next day and said 'my father clattered me'; so you see we do have some supportive parents."

A spokeswoman for Panorama said that "the crane was only used for aerial shots - we didn't use it to film pupils." She did not know whether Panorama had paid for the use of adjoining land, but said that a "disturbance fee" had been paid to a flat-owner. The other scene that seems to have imprinted itself on the public retina is of the girl who made a rude gesture behind former head Karen Stansfield's back as she went up the school steps. "I'm not saying the girl was bribed to do it," says Peter Clark, "But what was not reported was the fact that minutes later she had apologised. She was actually very upset about it. I think she was swept up in the heat of the moment. It is difficult to act normally with 30 cameramen shouting at you and taking your picture.

"What I've learned from this is how television focuses in on a very small part of reality, and influences it." He confirmed that Calderdale Council is considering a complaint to the Press and Broadcasting Complaints Commission.

On Monday, the school had the first of its fortnightly "check-up inspections" decreed by the Education and Employment Secretary, Gillian Shephard. The Office for Standards in Education criticised much of the teaching, condemning it as boring and undemanding. But the new heads are not contemplating sacking teachers - or not yet. "The last thing they need at the moment is more pressure. We need to establish an orderly atmosphere in which people can learn; many of the dull lessons would have been a product of the poor discipline - it's a vicious circle." There will be a blitz on literacy with the aim of lifting pupils' reading ages by two years before the end of term, and more attention for the brightest pupils so that their achievements inspire the others.

Both heads were careful not to be seen to parcel out blame for past woes, but their views on the three-tier selective system in and around Halifax were uncompromising. "I would certainly say that without grammar schools these problems would disappear," said Peter Clark, and Anna White added that "if the aim is to create a grammar school in every town, I think there is a lesson to be learnt from this school."

A group of eight sixth-formers taking A-levels and general national vocational qualifications said that they would like to see an end to selection. They were also loyal to the school and resentful of the way it had been portrayed. "There are many far worse schools than ours," said Louise Roscoe, 16, who intends to go on to university. Michelle Foster, 17, said that it was "funny to hear people on buses talking about 'that awful Ridings school'."

Several of these pupils confirmed that they and others had been offered money for interviews and "to act stupid". They were full of praise for the new management. "At least he's doing something. You can see the difference already - better security, nobody running round the corridors. He's an improvement on the last one - she was OK, but she just wasn't very assertive."

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