Sweet revenge of once failing school

25th April 1997 at 01:00
Glynis Gower, head of Bowling Community College in Bradford, keeps a guillotine in her office. It was built by the woodwork department last month to celebrate the school coming out of special measures. Ms Gower uses it to decapitate mini marzipan humans. "They represent all those who wanted us to fail," she said. "As they're made of marzipan I can stick the heads back on then cut them off again."

Her victims come from Bradford council and the local press but there is less hostility towards the Office for Standards in Education, which initially identified the school as failing. She said: "I have no problem with teachers being accountable." But as OFSTED comes to the end of its four-year cycle she wants reform. "I'd like to think OFSTED has learnt as much from all this as we have."

Special measures were imposed on the school, then called Fairfax School, in May 1994 after OFSTED found "weaknesses" in levels of attainment, attendance, quality of teaching and middle management. A huge campaign by the community in East Bowling stopped Bradford councillors from acting on local authority advice and closing it immediately.

Ms Gower was appointed in spring 1995 and used the OFSTED report as a starting point for recovery. "We focused almost exclusively on the classroom. Some staff felt they were being sent back to training school but everyone pulled together. "

The management team deny that there were any enforced redundancies and say any resignations over the past two years were unconnected to Ms Gower's arrival.

The transformation of the school became complete when the name was changed in September 1996 to Bowling Community College.

Things have improved. The number of pupils getting five A to C GCSEs rose from 2 per cent in 1995 to 9 per cent last year. The most recent HMI report says the quality of teaching has risen from 50 per cent of lessons satisfactory to 90 per cent. Most significantly this year's intake is up from 105 to 135 with 98 of them putting Bowling down as first choice.

Sue Howland, a parent governor at the school, admitted the evidence was inconclusive and that attendance was still bad. But she said: "When I first came to the school the atmosphere was leaden. Now there is a cheerful sense of belonging."

Peter Leech was part of the management team criticised by the original OFSTED inspection. He said the emphasis on "naming and shaming" failing schools is counter-productive. "The OFSTED experiment was a witch trial - the staff were deskilled, they had their confidence taken away and replaced with guilt. There must be better ways to stimulate than the blunt instrument they used."

Ms Gower added: "One 14-year-old child said to me 'Why have you come here, Miss? Don't you know we're rubbish? It was in the paper.' It can't be right to make a child feel like that."

A key reform to the OFSTED process she and her colleagues would like to see is the use of "value-added" measures, taking children's attainment level on entry into account so that school performance can be judged more accurately. Ms Gower said: "With a significant number of failing schools the same issues come up, such as unemployment and deprivation. These issues are not of the schools' making."

Ms Gower praised the support she received. "HMI are steely in the judgments they make but they are always prepared to talk about how things can be improved and what they've seen in other schools.

"As for Bradford LEA, once the decision to close the school went against them they decided to support with a vengeance. We've had fortnightly meetings, advisory support and they set up a co-ordinating group. There is nothing I've asked for that's been refused."

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