School of many initiatives enters its 4th incarnation

4th May 2007 at 01:00
They've tried every ministerial wheeze of the last 15 years to keep this comprehensive afloat, writes William Stewart. As yet another is launched, staff are asking: will academy status work?

Next month a group of past and present teachers will gather to mark the demolition of an unremarkable flat-roofed 1960s secondary school building in Bradford, West Yorkshire.

Collectively they have experienced virtually every tried - and often failed - government attempt to transform inner-city secondary education in the past 15 years.

A get-tough approach started under the Conservatives and intensified under Labour as David Blunkett "named and shamed" schools and the Government unleashed a series of reforms.

Fresh start, excellence in cities, league tables, Church and academy takeovers, education action zones, special measures, super-heads: the school that is currently called Bradford Cathedral community college has had them all.

When a pound;20 million shiny new academy opens next door in September it will be the school's fourth incarnation in just 11 years.

A glance through the records paints a depressingly familiar picture of an inner-city sink school, with low GCSE results, record truancy rates and damning Ofsted reports leading to falling rolls, failed restarts and decline.

But talk to teachers at the school, in East Bowling, south Bradford, and the story becomes less clear-cut.

It originally opened as Fairfax community school in 1963, not in a concrete jungle but on a site surrounded by private, stone-terraced housing, yards from the neat lawns of medieval Bolling Hall.

It has always served two of Bradford's biggest council estates but, as one of the city's smallest comprehensives, has never been anonymous and impersonal.

During the 1970s and 1980s a good reputation for the performing arts and an innovative community-centred approach helped to attract middle-class parents.

"It was seen as a bit different, a bit special and it was a good place to send your kids if you didn't want them to get lost in a big school," one former teacher said.

In November 1992, the Conservatives unveiled the first official league tables, naming and shaming schools where fewer than one in ten pupils achieved five or more good GCSEs.

With just 6.8 per cent reaching the benchmark that year, Fairfax was immediately in the line of fire. Critics said the policy was unfair, took no account of pupils' backgrounds and would further pressurise schools, encouraging parents to vote with their feet. Their prediction soon came true as Bradford council was taken to the High Court by 30 Asian families protesting at being allocated places at Fairfax, which their barrister described as a sink school with an appalling record. The Daily Mail ratcheted up the pressure, naming it as one of a "dirty dozen" schools with the worst truancy records in the country and in 1994 Fairfax was one of the first schools to be placed in special measures by Ofsted.

It had been a "different epoch, a time without league tables" in 1981 when John Craig arrived to teach PE. A softly spoken, no-nonsense Liverpudlian, he is part of a core team that stayed through the troubled times. "It has clearly had problems but I have always been proud of what went on here," he said. "As a PE teacher I went to other schools regularly and we often compared well." He was proud when parents mounted a successful campaign against Bradford council's plan to close Fairfax after the 1994 inspection.

Mr Craig remembers a man proclaiming at an emotional public meeting: "This is a working-class school for working-class people and it needs to be kept open." Mr Craig added: "It was nice to see people did appreciate there were more subtle things going on than league tables. Most staff want to produce well-rounded kids, not work in an exam factory."

But there was little danger of that, with the proportion of pupils achieving five good GCSEs stubbornly failing to break the 10 per cent barrier. Consistently undersubscribed, the school has had to take difficult pupils other schools did not want. It has also had above-average economic deprivation, special education needs and pupils at the lower end of the ability range.

It was events completely outside the school's control that plunged it into its deepest crisis. By the late 1990s, after a relaunch as Bowling community college, it was led out of special measures by its then head, Glynis Gower, to a point where staff believed it was, "close to taking off".

Meanwhile the Church of England, encouraged by an enthusiastic Blair government, had decided to expand its educational role, particularly in areas such as Bradford, where it had no existing secondaries. The local diocese agreed to help Bradford council as it reorganised from a three-tier to two-tier authority in 2000, by taking on two of its newly expanded 11 to 18 schools.

The second rebranding, as Bradford Cathedral community college, was disastrous. Ms Gower's replacement was in her first headship and had to cope with a sudden increase from 350 to 800 pupils as it converted from a 13 to 18 upper school.

Many had to be taught in a shanty town of temporary classrooms because permanent buildings were not ready. There was a shortage of permanent staff - a third of the teachers were either supply or on temporary contracts.

Overseeing it all was a local education authority just failed by Ofsted and a Church diocesan education board with no previous experience running secondaries.

The result, as a Church insider admits, was that the "new" school "seemed to fall between the gaps".

Less than 18 months after the relaunch it went back into special measures.

David Brett, the head who came in to pick up the pieces, argues that inner city schools are fragile institutions, vulnerable during change.

"The school has suffered from a boom and bust approach," he said. "It is easy to make it look good in the short term but it is harder to turn that into longer-term success.

"Once you get it functioning normally, a school in challenging circumstances can be a very harmonious place. It is the outside events, the league tables and the requirement for almost instant success that cause the problems."

To that end Mr Brett made stability and steady improvement his goal during his five years in charge. Somewhat counter-intuitively, a key component was the bid to turn the school into an academy. While other schools have resisted the change, staff in Bowling cheered when they heard that approval had been granted for the new academy. It was the only way they could see a viable future for secondary education in the area. The school had become crippled by debt. At one point it faced a pound;1 million deficit out of a budget of between Pounds 3-pound;4 million.

Mr Brett left at the end of last term to make way for a new figurehead in a concession to the academy programme's rip-it-up-and-start-again philosophy.

But Gareth Dawkins, the energetic new principal, is determined not to waste his predecessor's progress. He opted to help the existing school before the Bradford academy opens in September, even though this could make it tougher for him to show that the new status has been a success compared to the old. "The received wisdom has been separation - clear blue water between the predecessor schools and new academies," Mr Dawkins said. "But we never felt that was going to work because every school has strengths and it would be ridiculous to disregard them."

The academy, sponsored by the diocese and Toc H, an international charity, is being marketed as a totally new school, a tactic that is already helping to increase applications. But continuity may be the key to its success.

The assistant principal is very excited at the prospect.

His name? John Craig.

Back from the brink

1963 Fairfax community school opens

1992 Named and shamed in the first official league tables? 1994 Placed in special measures and threatened with closure. School saved after campaign by pupils, governors and parents

1995 Only 2 per cent of pupils achieve five A-C GCSEs

1996 Relaunched as Bowling community college

1997 Out of special measures

2000 Reopened as Bradford Cathedral community college in a Church of England takeover as school expands from 13 to 18 to 11 to 18.

2002 Back in special measures

2004 Out of special measures

2007 Bradford Academy due to open in September

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