Ridings head to the rescue

11th February 2005 at 00:00
Woman who transformed infamous Halifax school is leaving to help others in trouble. Graeme Paton reports

The headteacher who helped save the notorious Ridings school, once dubbed the worst in the country, is quitting to become a troubleshooter for other failing schools.

Anna White leaves the Halifax comprehensive this summer, almost nine years after being parachuted in amid chaotic scenes.

The Ridings had been temporarily closed and placed in special measures in 1996 when its head resigned and staff threatened to strike over 60 "unteachable" children. The crisis attracted unprecedented media attention - the BBC's Panorama programme even hired a crane to spy on the school - as staff fought to save it from permanent closure.

Mrs White was deputy head of the Todmorden high, in nearby Hebden Bridge, when she was asked by Calderdale council to step in. In 2000 she won a CBE for her efforts.

Now aged 50, she says the school has been transformed and the time is right to move on.

But she still says the coverage back then - some newspapers tagged the Ridings the "school from hell" - was wide of the mark. "It placed a huge burden on the school which was mostly unwarranted," she said. "There is no doubt morale was low and staff were very down but behaviour was never as bad as was made out.

"There was an overwhelming sense among everyone involved, the children and the staff, that they wanted this school to succeed and in the past eight years or so I believe we have proved that.

"I think I've reached the stage now when it is time to move on. I don't want to go to another school. The Ridings is very special to me and I don't think anywhere else can quite compete with that, so I am going to work with other schools in special measures or serious weaknesses."

Mrs White was brought in as deputy to Peter Clarke, the school's troubleshooting head, in November 1996 before taking over six months later.

Initially, hard-line measures were needed, 12 of the worst pupils were expelled, another 23 were suspended and eight new teachers brought in.

By February 1997 inspectors reported behaviour had improved and in under two years the school, which draws pupils from a deprived part of Halifax, was taken off the failing register.

Since then changes have been more subtle. Links with feeder primaries have been improved and the curriculum broadened, with an emphasis on expressive arts like drama, dance and music to build confidence.

The school was praised again for being good and improving when last inspected by the Office for Standards in Education in January 2001. It is now close to its 830 capacity and in September will have 90 teenagers in its sixth form.

But pupil achievement remains a huge challenge. Half the pupils have special needs and last summer just 14 per cent of children left with at least five C-grade GCSEs. When Mrs White was appointed it was 8 per cent.

Caroline Gruen, the local council's education director, said: "Anna and the staff have done an outstanding job. She will be difficult to replace but there will be many new challenges for the new head, not least continuing to improve pupil progress."

She will work as a consultant for the National College for School Leadership and other school improvement bodies.

Mrs White added: "The school is still a challenging environment to work in.

This is an area of high unemployment, a high number of families are on income support and there are high levels of illiteracy - this is all reflected in the intake of the school. But there is a clear commitment to improving standards."

* graeme.paton@tes.co.uk

leadership 27, Primary Forum 24

What they did at the Ridings

* Behaviour was one of the first issues tackled: 12 pupils were expelled immediately and a further 23 suspended.

* A new policy, which emphasised praising good behaviour rather than punishing misdemeanours, was introduced.

* Staff were given new pastoral roles, lunchbreaks, identified as a peak time for disruption, were cut to 45 minutes, and a learning support unit set up.

* Poor attendance was targeted and an electronic registration system installed, which drastically reduced the number of children skipping classes.

* Education welfare staff were taken on to work with truants.

* Pupils were offered up to pound;80 for 100 per cent school attendance.

* A pound;6.5m building project was launched, culminating in a new library and multi-media centre and a sixth-form unit which opened recently.

* In 2002 it became one of only eight struggling secondaries given new ring-fenced government cash to tackle educational disadvantage. It spent the extra pound;150,000 on increasing the number of teachers from 45 to 50 and giving 25 lower-achieving pupils catch-up lessons.

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