The ride is over

24th July 2009 at 01:00
Stuart Todd took on "the worst school in Britain" at the height of its reputation. But its closure comes at a time when the school has never been more successful

The staffroom furniture went this morning. Teachers coming in for their mid-morning break carried the chairs to a waiting van, before standing around the staffroom with their tea and coffee. As well as the chairs, Stuart Todd has sold 30 interactive whiteboards so far this week, and has just put 68 machines in the computer suite up for sale.

There's something of an end of days feeling at The Ridings. It's not just the equipment: most of the pupils have gone too, having moved into their new schools for the last few weeks of term. Those teachers who remain find their days largely lesson-free. Even the school's website looks forlorn, January's Holocaust Memorial Day is the last entry in its calendar of events.

When Mr Todd arrived in Halifax, he knew it would take time to turn the school around. He reckoned three to four years. What he hadn't reckoned with was that within two years a decision would be taken to close it and that within four years he would be flogging the furniture.

"We all want schools to improve, and by and large they do, but sometimes they're expected to improve in an unrealistic timeframe," he says. "Central government seems to think it is five terms maximum, but how long it takes to move a school forward depends on what the issues are within that school."

The Ridings had never managed to shake off its tag as the worst school in Britain. Its reputation was made in the mid-1990s when staff refused to teach a pupil who had been suspended for assaulting one of their colleagues, exposing an examination of the school's rampant behavioural problems, low attendance and even lower achievement.

A subsequent improvement in fortunes proved only temporary, and two weeks into Mr Todd's tenure the school was given a notice to improve. It was perhaps then that its fate was sealed, even though this was not immediately apparent. About 18 months later the school went into special measures.

The tragedy for the pupils is that its closure comes at a time when the school has never been more successful. It came out of special measures last year, when it was rated "good" by inspectors, who praised the "stunning" level of support for pupils. Four years ago about 20 per cent of pupils got five A-C grades at GCSE, just 5 per cent when English and maths were included. Last year it was 65 per cent and 13 per cent. Mr Todd expects about 80 per cent and the mid-20s respectively this summer.

He believes the decision to close The Ridings was taken on political rather than educational grounds. But if he feels bitter, he isn't showing it. "The school had to close because it had become synonymous with failure," he says. "But it isn't about keeping a school open. If the closure of this school leads to better provision for the children and families in north Halifax, then you couldn't say it was a bad idea."

It's a phlegmatic approach born of experience. Mr Todd has become something of a specialist in turning round failing schools. He is the only head in England to have brought three schools out of special measures, and has gone through more Ofsted inspections - 22 or 23, but who's counting? - than any other head.

It's all a far cry from his first two headships, of high-achieving, over- subscribed schools in Northumberland. He had been at one, Killingworth Middle School, for 13 years when he took the decision to apply to run a school in special measures.

"There were good academic standards, good behaviour, I had appointed three-quarters of the staff, and when I walked the corridors it was more about saying hello than making any big changes. I felt the challenge had gone," he says. "I chose to seek a more challenging role, leading this particular type of school."

His eureka moment came on holiday in Scotland at Easter 1999. He was flicking through The TES while his wife, a lay preacher, was writing a sermon. He saw there were about 10 schools in special measures advertising for new heads, told his wife he was going to apply, and spent the weekend writing letters. He can still reel off the schools, and their GCSE pass rates at the time, but it was King's Heath Boys' School in Birmingham that got him, on the grounds that they were the first to interview him and offer him a job.

King's Heath pupils were predominantly Pakistani Muslims, with a sizeable contingent of Afro-Caribbean children. He made it a condition of his appointment that the education authority installed six artificial cricket pitches, and shortly after added 12 new basketball hoops. "Instead of having arguments about territory, we broke down the animosity between them, which was only superficial," he says.

The school came out of special measures within two years, with Ofsted praising its "highly effective" leadership. The year Mr Todd arrived there were 56 in the new intake; by the time he left there were 370 applications for the 110 Year 7 places on offer.

After three years at King's Heath he moved to Onslow St Audrey's, in Hertfordshire, although he admits this was a result of getting his sums wrong. Throughout his time in Birmingham, his family had remained in Northumberland. He rented a room during the week and drove home at weekends. When he got the job at St Audrey's he thought it was near London, and only later realised the drive back home took five hours, or up to seven on a Friday evening.

Despite this, he enjoyed his three years there. He says the children were fantastic and his job was made easier by a willingness in the school to address its problems. "You go into some schools and they almost deny they're in special measures and try to justify the previous regime, but at St Audrey's they accepted it," he says.

"I enjoyed the challenge and the pace and the demands, although at times they were quite overbearing. Some weekends I didn't go home and many a night I spent working until 2am because I was fire-fighting during the day."

Two years after his arrival, St Audrey's came out of special measures, Ofsted reporting that the head "inspired both pupils and staff". A year later, he moved to take up headship at The Ridings.

He had twice turned the post down on the grounds it was too political, but in the end the temptation proved too much. His experience in Birmingham and Hertfordshire had given him a taste for turning around schools, and The Ridings was perhaps too irresistible a challenge.

But the level of interest in the school - both from the educational establishment and the media - still took him by surprise. While his previous schools rarely attracted negative media coverage, despite being in special measures, anything that happened in The Ridings was fair game, a reason to knock the school and ultimately to close it.

Its reputation often outweighed any other factors. It took until three years ago that Mr Todd could persuade any local venues to host the school prom. Was The Ridings a school too far, a task doomed to failure? Mr Todd thinks not. "It is not impossible to raise standards or for the children to feel they have had a good education," he insists.

Still, in retrospect, the headship of The Ridings looks like a poisoned chalice. A few weeks before the end of term, Mr Todd learnt that not only was the school to close at the end of this term, but that it was to be demolished, perhaps in the hope of obliterating all traces.

But after taking three schools out of special measures, Mr Todd is in a good position to know what it takes to improve a school's chances.

He suggests all failing schools resemble one another. They have similar problems, albeit to differing degrees of complexity. His approach in all three of the failing schools he has taken over has also been broadly the same. "The single most important thing is to build a good team, who have the determination and integrity to give a commitment to the youngsters and make a difference."

At The Ridings, the changes started with the curriculum, offering more vocational subjects, with the aim of improving attendance, punctuality and behaviour. "If attendance is exceptionally low, then the students are voting with their feet, and there has to be a reason for that," he says. A new curriculum needed new staff and that took time.

There was also the teaching to address. He says when he arrived he judged only about 50 per cent of lessons to be satisfactory or better, while a few weeks later Ofsted rated it at a slightly more pessimistic 48 per cent. A staff restructuring followed.

Technology is a particular interest for Mr Todd. He invested heavily in new equipment at all three schools: every Year 11 pupil at St Audrey's had a laptop that they were allowed to keep if they stayed into the sixth form and went on to university. Hence also the proliferation of whiteboards and computers at The Ridings.

He says the lesson at The Ridings is not that it was a bad school, but that for schools in challenging areas the boundary between success and failure is always going to be narrow. Small changes - the departure of one or two key staff, a slight dip in performance, an increase in expectations - can turn success into failure.

One of the problems at The Ridings, he believes, was that there was an impression the school had been turned around, when in reality it was only a small slip away from being considered failing again. When that happens, it's easy to blame the new head.

"It's great at the time, but if you build a school up and tell everybody how well it's done, you are asking for a fall, and to some degree I was the fall guy" he says. "There are schools who serve difficult neighbourhoods who will always be walking that delicate continuum. If you're not careful your head is under the water before you realise."

Not surprisingly, his changes did not always go down well. The Ofsted inspection that placed the school in special measures, in January 2007, reported that too much management time was taken up with internal disputes, singling out a minority of staff who refused to co-operate and take new ideas on board.

Just before the school went into special measures, NASUWT members at The Ridings voted for industrial action, citing a strained relationship between staff and management, as well as pupil behaviour. At the time, Steve White, the union's executive member for Yorkshire, said that although it was hard to pin the blame on one person, there were "problems with Stuart Todd".

This view isn't shared by the NUT, which represents the majority of teachers at The Ridings. Sue McMahon, the union's Calderdale secretary, says she has found Mr Todd very professional and a stickler for using the proper procedures. Differences in opinion have always been resolved by negotiation, she says. Mr Todd says the experience with the NASUWT at The Ridings was the only time he has ever had an issue with a professional association.

After taking three schools out of special measures, it could be time for a break, but Mr Todd hasn't yet had enough. He has agreed to work with two more schools in special measures from August, although his role - executive head is one option - is still under discussion. "I like to see schools make progress, and it is important that people with experience share that experience," he explains. Details are still being finalised, but he will reveal that the schools are in the Yorkshire and Humber region.

At 62 he could have retired, but instead chose to continue to work away from home. When he started at King's Heath he would find a hotel room for the night on the internet, before he eventually found lodgings. Rooms in people's houses have been his Monday-Thursday home for the past 12 years. At his Halifax lodgings - 138 miles from home, he notes - he has an en suite bathroom but no cooking facilities, so for the past four years his evening meal has been a tin of sardines and oatcakes. "I like sardines," he says.

There is one job he regrets missing, though, one that would have brought him home at last. Last November he was approached about running a new academy in Northumberland, but they wanted someone to start in April, he didn't want to leave The Ridings before it closed, so he didn't apply. After much to-ing and fro-ing he was eventually interviewed in April, but didn't get the job.

"It is the only job I have ever passionately wanted, because I felt I could make a difference to my own community," he says. But it wasn't to be, so September will see him working elsewhere. It looks like his return home may have to wait a little while.

What Ofsted says

"(Stuart Todd) . has a clear sense of vision and a strong sense of purpose" (report on King's Heath, March 2001)

". he has inspired pupils and staff to bring about the improvements that are now so evident" (report on Onslow St Audrey's, 2004)

"The inspirational report of the headteacher and his deputies has focused relentlessly on the needs of individual students" (report on The Ridings, September 2008)

Stuart Todd's headships

  • 1983-86: Tynedale Middle School, Blyth
  • 1986-99: Killingworth Middle School, North Tyneside
  • 1999-2002: King's Heath Boys School, Birmingham
  • 2002-2005: Onslow St Audrey's, Hertfordshire
  • 2005-2009: The Ridings, Halifax.

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