School sinks into debt

26th January 2001 at 00:00
Rochdale secondary owes pound;900,000 as costs for language centre spiral, reports Clare Dean

A specialist school ran up debts of more than pound;900,000 after embarking on an ambitious plan to build a 12-room language centre.

The huge deficit at Oulder Hill, an 11-19 specialist language school in Rochdale, is revealed in an inspectors' report that exposes serious weaknesses in leadership and management.

The Office for Standards in Education said governors at the 1,600-pupil school had been unable to exercise proper financial control as they were not provided with up-to-date statements of spending.

"Poor financial management, monitoring and control have resulted in the school spending far more than it should have done," said inspectors. "Hence, despite the satisfactory exam results and good ethos, it must be concluded that it gives unsatisfactory value for money."

Oulder Hill gained specialist status in 1998 and embarked on its programme for a language centre, including two labs with state-of-the art multimedia equipment. But the builder went bust. Building work resumed with a new contractor in 1999 and the project's cost spiralled.

Headteacher David Wilson accepted responsibility for much of the debt but also blamed Rochdale Council. Mr Wilson, who has been at Oulder Hill for 15 years, said: "We are working to a balanced budget, and the figure has come down to pound;870,000."

The council denied it was o blame and said the school's debt was a combination of over-optimistic estimates on income, general over-spending and the language centre building programme. It has agreed the school, which has an annual budget of more than pound;4 million, can pay back the debt over five academic years.

Inspectors said the debt had hit morale among the 100-plus staff. They were worried about their jobs and there were significant shortages of books and equipment.

Accommodation was unsatisfactory for the number of pupils. Food technology facilities were old and unhygienic and in drama areas , floors were dirty and curtains would not close. The curriculum was unsatisfactory overall as it did not meet statutory requirements, especially in religious education and information technology.

However, inspectors said teaching was good, as was the choice of options at key stage 4 and in the sixth form, which with 406 students is one of the largest in the country. Last year, Oulder Hill was awarded a Schools Curriculum Award.

Oulder Hill offers seven languages to pupils including Russian and Japanese. It is heavily used by the local community, with between 250,000 and 300,000 visits annually.

Alongside its specialist language status, the school boasts the only permanent theatre in the borough - celebrating Rochdale's most famous daughter, singer Gracie Fields.

Government's response to Nuffield language inquiry, 10

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