'School in crisis' tag bites the dust

26th November 2004 at 00:00
A secondary - once noted for torn lino and nicotine stains - now has a smart new image. Martin Whittaker reports

Name: Baxter college. School type: 13-18 comprehensive. Improved results: in 2003 13 per cent of pupils gained five or more A* - C GCSEs. This year the figure was 25 per cent. Percentage of pupils eligible for free meals: 28 per cent.

Shaking off a school's poor reputation is a huge task. Just ask Dave Seddon. In his first week as principal of Baxter college, a local newspaper carried a story about pupils raising pound;4,000 with the headline "Crisis-ridden school raises cash for charity."

"I rang the editor up and said 'hey, that's not fair. Are we always going to be typecast?'" Since then Mr Seddon has invited the local press in at every available opportunity. "We haven't had any major crises, but if we had they would know. I would tell them."

This direct approach has been a hallmark of Dave Seddon's leadership since he was brought in to rescue the Worcestershire school in April 2003. He has since been commended by the Office for Standards in Education for excellent leadership and was named West Midlands headteacher of the year in last month's Teaching Awards.

The school, formerly Harry Cheshire high, had been in a downward spiral. In a decade pupil numbers had fallen from 1,500 to 460. Exclusions were high and teachers had left in droves. Half the staff were supply teachers. And its exam results were among the lowest in the country.

The new principal found himself in long, desolate corridors with torn lino and bare walls. Some of the school's classrooms had been condemned, while other rooms were boarded up. And an old staffroom had so much nicotine on the walls it took four coats of paint to cover the stains.

Mr Seddon arrived to hear inspectors warning that the school faced special measures. But within his first few months his leadership team managed to convince them that the school was beginning to reverse its slide.

He says they did it by recognising weaknesses, showing that they were tackling them, and by being brutally honest in the school's self-assessment.

"There was no point in protecting the staff and saying it was OK when all the statistics said it wasn't," he says.

Baxter college is a 13-18 comprehensive in Kidderminster. Its 1930s buildings are surrounded by acres of parkland, but many of its pupils come from poorer parts of the town.

This year the school managed to reverse the decline in its GCSE results - in 2003 just 13 per cent of pupils gained five or more grades A* to C and 16 per cent left without any qualifications. This year 25 per cent reached the A* to C benchmark, and only 2 per cent left with nothing.

Then in September 2003 just months after Dave Seddon became principal inspectors found a significant improvement, a dramatic rise in the standard of teaching, refurbished buildings and more resources.

He says much "surgery" had already been done by vice principals Allan Gilhooley and Jo Coleman in the months leading up to his arrival.

His first task was to resolve the school's staffing crisis and end its reliance on supply teachers. "We had to get the teaching and learning right. A school stands or falls by this."

In the school's self-evaluation for the inspection he rated teaching as six on a scale of one to seven between excellent and very poor.

At the same time the school pursued a drive to replace supply teachers with quality full-time staff. It is now fully-staffed and many of his new teachers have worked with Mr Seddon before.

He said: "Quite a few took a leap of faith, but I feel tremendously privileged that people would want to come and work in a place on the strength of my saying 'it's going to be all right'."

Another major area of improvement was in the state of its buildings and resources. The school's caretaker worked overtime throughout the summer of 2003, painting and refurbishing classrooms.

And with little money, the principal scrabbled around to get what the school needed. A fellow head donated all his school's old PCs as they were better than most of the machines Baxter college had.

Mr Seddon also forced the education authority to refurbish a food technology room that was unfit for use. "I held the LEA to account," he says. "I told them it's being used and it shouldn't be - what are you going to do about it?"

The curriculum has also been spruced up with changes to suit the pupils.

"What's the point in a kid coming to the school and failing?" he says.

Dave Seddon admits the school still has a long way to go, but as he patrols the corridors, he says pupils and staff now have a pride in the place that simply wasn't there three years ago. The once-bare walls are freshly painted in the school's purple livery, and school uniform is now strictly upheld.

Encountering a girl who has been sent out of a classroom, he asks her why she's there and says she should apologise to her teacher when she's allowed back in. "She puts a lot of faith in you, you know," he tells her.

Mike Dickins, the school's former chair of governors, says the school has been transformed. He describes the old Harry Cheshire high as a "copybook school in decline".

"Nobody wanted to teach there, discipline was bad, nobody wanted to be a good head there," he says.

"It was just a classic, inner-city syndrome without being in an inner-city.

"When Dave Seddon came the first thing he did was to stabilise the teaching force and then the discipline and the culture of the place, and that turned around surprisingly quickly.

"And the kids actually liked it in the end."

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