Two years after it sank to the bottom of the national league tables, Ramsgate school seemed buoyant again, having turned back the tide of narrow, results-based definitions of success. But now a third of its staff have quit.
What went wrong? By Wendy Wallace
Pictures of the Queen are big in Ramsgate - there's one in the lobby of my hotel and another, unexpectedly, in the reception area at Ramsgate school. A St George's Cross flag flaps out of the bedroom window of one of the semis opposite. This is Albion, even if some pupils are from abroad and French lavender is growing outside the door. And even if, jutting out into the North Sea, the Isle of Thanet in east Kent feels cut off, socially and geographically, from the rest of England.
Ramsgate, an 11-16 secondary school, has suffered more than geographical isolation in the past few years. Situated in the middle of a scruffy estate outside the harbour town, the school was damned in 1997 when it came bottom of the national league table for GCSE results, with just one pupil managing five A-C grades. A press drubbing predictably followed. But things have improved since. Staff have worked hard to contain pupil behaviour and improve learning; results have risen (7 per cent received five A-Cs last year), and pupil numbers have increased. So why, at the end of this term, has morale been battered once again and a third of the staff decided to leave?
Ramsgate school is not the only one to face large-scale departures this summer. The most dramatic case has been that of Moor Lane junior school, in Kingston-upon-Thames, where the entire staff of 15 teachers, including the head and deputy head, will have left by the end of term following a negative Ofsted report. And the bulging jobs section of The TES suggests that huge numbers of teachers all over the country have decided it's time to move on - or get out.
Weak schools are, rightly, the focus of concern. But teachers, too, risk their futures in the most difficult schools. If they don't throw themselves heart and soul into school improvement, schools face closure. But, even if they do, they may still end up as casualties of the politics and upheaval that surround under-performing schools.
Ramsgate school epitomises the difficulties of managing change in schools that are under pressure. Ruth Simpson, 43, is head of special needs at the school, where she has taught for the past 10 years. She has been its energetic champion during its recent troubled history, writing letters to The TES to challenge the Government's narrow definition of a failing school, and pointing out that Kent's selective system creates schools such as Ramsgate, where three out of four pupils have special needs.
A little over two years ago she wrote: "This is not a failing school. It is not a school that fails its pupils or doesn't live up to parental expectations. It is a school that opens its doors to the insecure and vulnerable. It provides a safe, caring learning environment in a world that has precious little of those values anywhere else in it."
In her office, first thing on Monday morning, Mrs Simpson is on the phone to a foster mother. "Has he calmed down? Has he mentioned coming back to school?" She fixes up a meeting. "Bring him if he's in the mood. That would be something, if we could get him through the school gates. That would be a result."
A Senco's job is always onerous, and nowhere more so than here. Almost one in 10 of the 600 pupils has a statement, and every one of them, says Ruth Simpson, has special needs in the widest sense. Many of the children who come through Ramsgate's doors have been rejected by four other local schools - the grammar, the church school, the single-sex school and the foundation school. Some are here waiting for elusive places at a special school to materialise.
With high unemployment locally, fostering is a growth area, and "a lot of kids are dumped in Ramsgate", says Ruth Simpson. Many come from south London, their hard-pressed social workers too busy to travel almost 100 miles for meetings. "Liaison is a mess," she says. "Even within the county, social workers can't spare the time to come from Dover. Or they don't want to."
Parents are too readily blamed for children's complex problems, she says. Many of them are worried sick and doing their best. She pulls out a letter from a desperate mother. "Very worried about my son... very much a loner... very frustrating child to deal with... worried he may do something silly to himself."
Ramsgate school does try to offer something to some of the most disadvantaged children in the UK. It has a unit for Kosovan and Czech Romany children, employs 28 learning support assistants, and runs literacy and numeracy summer schools.
Ruth Simpson puts down the phone and heads for a Year 9 remedial maths group, entering the classroom door like a sharp sea breeze. Getting the children to sit down and open their books at the right page takes considerable energy. "Matthew, move yourself towards the front. Casey, take your jacket off please. Ripped? It looks as if it's been eaten."
She's just got them going when she's called out of the class for a meeting with a parent, mother of another troubled boy. As the mother stands up to leave, clues to her son's angry disaffection begin to tumble out. "He saw his dad last night for the first time in six months. He's kept on letting him down. He's got a car that talks to him and a phone with the Internet on it and the kids are still waiting for their Christmas presents. I've tried to talk to his wife, and she understands, but basically he's so thick he doesn't realise any of this could ever be his fault." It's typical, says Ruth Simpson afterwards, of the "boy problems" they have in numbers in Ramsgate school.
But Mrs Simpson, who has seen the school come through two Ofsteds (the first, in 1997, identified serious weaknesses; the May 1999 inspection was slightly better), who knows the children and their families, knows the intricate network of support services available to children who need them, is leaving Ramsgate to take up a special needs post in a school 30 miles away. Up to 14 other staff have given notice, and more, she says, would have liked to. Why?
Staff speak of a "culture of uncertainty", and the situation at Ramsgate is a salutary reminder, if one were needed, of the crucial importance of leadership. Following the departure of the previous headteacher, Brian Lippitt, to a larger school last July, the authority brought in 57-year-old Ken Russell from the local grammar school, Chatham House, to act as deputy head for a year. But the chosen acting head did not materialise (governors of his own school wouldn't grant the exit visa), so Mr Russell found himself headteacher for a year.
He is softly spoken and beautifully dressed, and despite his background - he has spent the past three decades teaching physics at Chatham House, whose alumni include the former Conservative prime minister Ted Heath - he has been accepted by staff and students. "We all rallied round Mr Russell," says one teacher, "even though we knew probably better than he did the difficulties he'd have, coming from a grammar school."
Now Ken Russell has gone native. "I don't think you could have a system that militates more strongly against disadvantaged youngsters," he says, after his year at the other end of the class spectrum. "All the warnings and dire notices given to me by colleagues were untrue. Pupils here are not desperately bright but they're mainly eager to please and polite." He wakes at 5am, he says, wondering how he could have done more. "You've got to have goals. It's just that the goals are more or less unattainable," he says.
Mr Russell, who turned down the offer of the permanent headship, returns to Chatham House next term. But when the authority advertised for a permanent headteacher it failed to appoint from a shortlist of three candidates. Enter Gwen Porteous, current head of Pent Valley high school in nearby Folkestone. Mrs Porteous, also in her late fifties, was approached by Kent in March to take over as head of the school - but only on a fixed-term, two-year contract. "What I'd really like to do is change the school's reputation," she says. She arrives with her own team of two other senior managers and is "really excited". Ken Russell too expresses great optimism.
But some staff are less enthusiastic. The failure to appoint a permanent head has been a hammer blow. "We've been through being the worst school in Britain," says one. "We've been through two Ofsteds where we could so easily have been put into special measures; we've done a year with an acting head. We've done all that, and the school is much improved. Now we desperately need some security and assurance. But instead the school is being run by a crony culture of the authority's choosing."
"There's a lot going on that we don't know about," says another departing senior teacher. "At county level, people in offices are playing around with people's lives and I don't want to be part of the unknown. Not any more." Just how much that teacher dislikes the idea of being part of the unknown is made clear by her acceptance of a new post that comes with a pound;7,000 drop in salary. She says that, for the first time in her career, she has put her own interests before the children's. "It's consistency and experienced staff that will get results from them. But that's what they won't have now."
With continuing concern from Kent about Ramsgate's vulnerability, a local authority "special support team", headed by John Woodroffe, has had extensive involvement in the school. "What we decided to do was support the school from the top," he says. But some staff feel change is being foisted on them from on high and that they are being "treated like mushrooms". Some believe the local authority's longer-term plan is to turn Ramsgate - seen by many as a de facto special school - into an actual special school, although this is denied by Kent council.
Rumours abound in the school, but what is certain is that some staff don't know what is going on, and there is resentment that senior managers have been brought in above the heads of experienced staff.
"I'm very sad to be leaving," says maths teacher Kath Starkey. "I like the sort of children who are here and the thought that we were maybe making some progress with them. But I need to be somewhere where I know I'm going to have a job in two years' time, and it's just not clear what's happening."
Ruth Simpson has thank-you cards arranged along the top of her office bookshelves and leaves the school and her post as Senco with regret. "There's a huge job to be done and, arrogantly I suppose, I thought I'd be the one to do it," she says. It's the end of the day and she's on the phone again. "That statement is mad, that one that came with him from Lewisham. It's donkey's years old and since then the situation has blown up in our faces even more."
Mrs Simpson may be moving on, but she certainly hasn't given up.