Tough mandate

8th November 1996 at 00:00
The day after Bill Clinton's crushing presidential election victory, every British daily newspaper carried articles on the challenges that lie ahead for a 50-year-old who has been asked to fill one of the most demanding posts imaginable. It is a job that will require managerial and trouble-shooting skills of the highest order and the stamina of a triathlete. We are, of course, talking about Peter Clark, the caretaker-headteacher who has taken charge of The Ridings school in Halifax.

Anyone who watched Monday's Panorama programme on the debacle that led to the resignation of the previous head, Karen Stansfield, and the temporary closure of the school, did not need Wednesday's inspection report to tell them that it was a failing school that had spun wildly out of control. The 10-second clip of two teenage girls giving vigorous V-signs to Mrs Stansfield as they followed her into the school was all the proof that was needed. One would have to go back to another infamous Panorama programme on Faraday School in Ealing in 1977 to find another piece of film footage that was as damaging to the cause of state education.

Those members of The Ridings teaching staff who were glimpsed amid the mayhem in the mobile classrooms looked dazed and ineffectual. Inevitably, they and their head have been held largely responsible for the disaster, and Mrs Stansfield, at least, pleads guilty. But the dock will evidently have to be expanded if it is to hold all the other guilty parties.

The management may have been weak and some of the teachers may have given the children ludicrously undemanding work, such as colouring in a snowman picture in geography. But the local education authority undoubtedly let the school down, too. Ian Jennings, the director of education for Calderdale, has admitted as much. Of course, the LEA can say that it set up a task force for The Ridings despite having many other problems to attend to. Nevertheless, given that the school had appalling exclusion and attendance figures, and that only an abysmal 8 per cent of its pupils passed five A-C grade GCSEs this year, more advisers should have been pulled away from other work to serve at the front line.

The governors also lacked foresight and should have offered Mrs Stansfield more than sympathy. Some of The Ridings parents should be in the dock, too. But the political architects of an education system that allows sink schools like The Ridings to be created are also culpable. As Andrew Collier, general secretary of the Society of Education Oficers has said (page 6), we are now seeing the fruits of the "survival of the fittest" education policy. This was not a comprehensive school which failed, but a de facto secondary modern, something that should be borne in mind by the pro-grammar lobby.

The media pack must also answer serious charges of inciting some pupils to misbehave, and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers leadership will surely be chastened by the robust criticism of its tactics from within the labour movement. There will be no public admission that it was a mistake to suggest that 61 of The Ridings pupils were unteachable but it will be astonishing if the NASUWT "A" team continues to swoop on troubled schools and demand mass expulsions.

It may be that, given the unique circumstances at The Ridings, the new managerial team was right to expel 12 pupils and temporarily exclude another 23. Such action was perhaps necessary pour encourager les autres and give the school the respite it so badly needs. But exclusion is invariably the strategy of the defeated. What we need are social and educational policies that do not conspire to produce ghetto housing estates and "leper" schools. As such utopian reforms may never be introduced, however, it would be sensible to follow the advice of the SEO and David Bell, Newcastle's chief education officer (opposite), and increase LEAs' powers to intervene when a school gets into difficulty. It is also essential that the staffing profile of schools in problem areas should be kept under constant review. When experienced and talented teachers leave, schools and LEAs must make greater efforts - and perhaps resort to bribery - to ensure that equivalent replacements are found.

A soon-to-be published report by the National Foundation for Educational Research also suggests that secondaries such as The Ridings would be more likely to succeed if more preventive work were done in primary schools and if teachers received more training in behaviour management. Offering disaffected pupils additional vocational curriculum opportunities - a policy that is often talked about but seldom implemented - would also help.

But Peter Clark has probably had all the advice he requires already. What he needs now is a period of relative calm in order to restore The Ridings to something akin to normality. We wish him all the best.

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