Having just watched the Panorama programme on The Ridings School, I felt compelled to respond on behalf of the school and the headteacher. Is it any real surprise that The Ridings pupils and staff feel let down by their local education authority and the Government?
Surely not, in an LEA with selection and the creaming off of pupils to grammar schools and grant-maintained schools. The Ridings pupils and parents are bound to feel that their school is at the bottom of the pile. This is clearly exacerbated by the poor socio-economic position of the catchment with high unemployment, poor council housing and a feeling of low self-confidence and self-esteem.
Had the LEA been allowed the funding to improve the school buildings, and its community credibility through this expenditure, maybe then the story would have been a different one. But again, hopes were dashed and the school was left to get on with establishing a positive ethos, appropriate systems and structures with little support or extra resourcing.
Through the media coverage last week, I got the impression that Karen Stansfield was a weak headteacher. I changed my opinion after watching Panorama. She took her responsibility on the chin and accepted her part in the failure of The Ridings school.
Yet I felt that she had done all that she could, and perhaps more than was humanly expected, in order to try to keep the show on the road. She covered for staff absences, worked with disruptive pupils and their parents and did her clear best to work with governors and the LEA. Yet both of these bodies failed to see the seriousness of The Ridings situation and her lack of time to be able, with senior management colleagues, to stand back, reflect and properly prepare and plan for strategic school improvement changes.
This is not an uncommon feature of senior managers in inner-city schools. The experiences of teachers in these schools are clearly different from many mainstream more advantaged socio-economic catchment areas. It comes as no surprise to most teachers that recent failing schools, are those facing the most challenging inner-city difficulties. We are not just teachers of pupils and subjects, but are counsellors, friends, social workers, quasi parents, disciplinarians and ambassadors of moral values.
I believe that good teachers in inner-city areas have much to offer their colleagues in more advantaged schools, as they are generally adept at "motivating and stimulating" pupils. Yet through the Office for Standards in Education inspection process we are compared with schools which have different challenges (which I do not devalue) in terms of national norms without any real rigorous programme of standardisation.
Having always worked in inner-city schools with some fine examples of professional teachers, committed to bringing out the best in pupils, I would have to suggest that such schools deserve more consistent and holistic support from LEAs, the Government and governors and should not be left to their own devices. We are not, after all, just trying to improve on GCSE results. We have also to implement rigorous behaviour policies, attendance policies, be creative in our rewards systems in order to enhance morale and self-belief and bring parents on board in all of these procedures which are perhaps taken for granted in many schools.
I would personally throw down the gauntlet to Chris Woodhead and his OFSTED colleagues to "stimulate and motivate" young people over a sustained period of time in an area where self-belief and self-esteem are at rock bottom and where the community feels disenfranchised by the present society engineered by the Government.
We are spending more per head in the UK on the prison service than the education service. This is a serious and worrying indictment of our society. How many more Ridings Schools will emerge with the same story to tell until those responsible - headteachers, LEAs and the Government included - realise that our society is not an equal one and that some schools and communities need serious and sustained strategic support in terms of personnel and resources if schools are to turn themselves around.
Barnsley Road, Sheffield