'You're useless!'.'Oh no we're not

23rd October 1998 at 01:00
On Wednesday November 27 1996, halfway through our third full week and with the deadline for submitting our action plan almost upon us (OFSTED had declared the Ridings a failing school and placed it on special measures at the beginning of the month), I attended the disciplinary meeting for the first of the two remaining permanent exclusions with a mixture of confidence and trepidation.

As Rastrick (Rastrick High, where he was head before being seconded to the Ridings) was a grant-maintained school, I had not attended a meeting of the "Star Chamber", although I was more than familiar with its notorious reputation for returning excluded pupils to their schools, in some cases even if both school and parents believed it was the wrong move.

Given the history of decision-making since the inception of the Ridings, I should have expected nothing else but a decision to reinstate the pupil.I had been very clear in my discussion with Michael Higgins (Calderdale chair of education) and Ian Jennings (director of education), which I had repeated to the Ridings staff. I would not accept my stance on discipline being undermined. Michael had said: "All you have to do is walk away if we don't back you. "

. . . The officers left to give Ian my response: I would not take the child back. I hadn't decided whether to resign or just refuse to accept the decision. Let them sack me, I thought.

Anna (White, associate head) said at once that if I went she would leave too. I was convinced that the committee would think again if we spelled out the consequences of their decision . . . Anna and I went into the weekly staff meeting that afternoon seemingly without a care in the world, determined to conceal what had happened. We briefed the staff on the final draft of the action plan, and explained the teaching audit and the changed focus of classroom support I had agreed with the advisers. We also discussed how we would monitor the progress of the 29 children Anna had identified as candidates for improving their GCSE grades, and explained our ideas for re-timetabling lessons and changing the timing of the school day

The next day, as Peter Clark arranged to meet Calderdale leaders to restate his position on the exclusion, the BBC had also arranged a visit to cover the completion of the action plan.

While messages flew back and forth, Anna, Morton (Morton Roberts, another Calderdale head) and I held our hastily called council of war while waiting for two BBC correspondents . . . For about 10 seconds I was strongly tempted to give the two journalists a scoop and tell them I was about to resign because the council had reneged on its promise to back me. But I felt rather more confident at the news that the second exclusion case had been unanimously upheld. I tried to answer the questions positively and express confidence about the future. I enthused about our plan and concentrated on my five basic points, reiterating: "We need to improve behaviour, teaching and learning, attendance, the teaching of pupils with special educational needs, and management and administration."

I was now in a bizarre situation: I was desperately trying to save the school - and the LEA's face - and with some success. Yet those very people who had begged me to take on the job were making it almost impossible. I was being bombarded with requests for interviews, and I knew that with one slip of the tongue, or deliberate press briefing, I could blow up everything into an even more controversial story, potentially with highly damaging repercussions for the LEA. For them to make problems for me at this time was putting themselves dangerously in my power. I could have understood if it was the result of one party scoring points off another, but it was an all-party decision. This had to be more cock-up than conspiracy, surely?

As Morton, Anna and I entered the small room in the town hall I was confused, frustrated and extremely angry. It was a high-powered delegation that greeted us: the leader of the council, the chairman of education, the director of education and the chief executive. The traditional description of the ensuing meeting would be that there was "a full and frank exchange of views". In fact, it was a far from equal exchange, as I was just not interested in the problems they had caused for themselves, and told them so. I had an ultimatum to deliver: "If you undermine us on this, how can we trust you not to undermine us on other difficult issues? You have to back us or decide to close the school. "

The ultimatum had the desired effect: the pupil was not reinstated. Meanwhile, Gillian Shephard accepted the school's action plan. By the end of the autumn term, she had ruled that the Ridings could stay open and the fortnightly inspections became monthly. By spring term 1997, there were signs that efforts to change attitudes inside and outside the school were bearing fruit.

I reported the findings of our first monthly inspection - that we could tick off key issue 1 (see below) - to the heads of department who formed the newly established curriculum planning group, and repeated them to the weekly staff meeting held the next day after school. It was a boost to everyone to realise that all the hard work had been rewarded with a marked improvement in the percentage of satisfactory lessons. Previously Anna and I had dominated the staff meetings, explaining, exhorting, enthusing; in contrast, this meeting generated genuine discussion, which I was pleased to witness - it was clear that the majority of the staff felt actively involved. . .

External publicity was also important to the self-image of both staff and pupils. Towards the end of January, Joan Williams, who was running the project for difficult younger pupils (set up the previous term) based in the Furness Youth Centre, had attended the pantomime at the Bradford Alhambra, Aladdin, starring Frank Bruno. Each performance had a reference to the Ridings: "You're thick - you must go to the Ridings!" or "He's not very well-behaved. Where does he go to school? The Ridings?" Other parents and teachers who saw the show grinned and bore it; Joan, who had thrown herself into the project enthusiastically, with that mixture of dedicated care and cynicism which is so often the hallmark of truly effective teachers working with difficult children, did not. She sought out Frank's manager and spoke her mind. As a result, Frank Bruno offered to visit the kids at the Furness project . . .

Frank was very good with the youngsters, friendly and encouraging. He told them: "I wasted my time at school and I regret it now. You do as your teachers tell you - education is important" . . . His message made the headlines later that evening and in the next morning's papers. The youngsters, whose need for attention so often resulted in negative, anti-social behaviour, had been rewarded for their efforts . . .

We needed publicity, not only to improve morale, but to change the school's image. The Ridings was the first preference for the parents of just 33 children starting in September 1997. Such a low number would be educationally and financially catastrophic, requiring a much bigger subsidy than I had predicted. The future looked bleak: not only would low numbers restrict the curriculum to unacceptable levels and not generate sufficient revenue to make the school financially viable, but such a small intake would send all the wrong signals to local parents, leading them to lose faith that the school had a future. Without an intake of around 90 we would be in very serious trouble. Positive publicity would help persuade parents to trust us with their children . . .

Right on cue, GMTV contacted us, keen to feature the school in an extensive news item. I decided to use it as an opportunity to "sell" the school. At the same time a daytime Channel 4 programme was eager to do a report on how the school had progressed in the few months since the crisis.Both crews arrived on February 3 . . .

The next day, a radio reporter spent hours in the school trying to find a chink in the united front. He seemed to have little experience of state schools, and was clearly expecting the "school from Hell". I took him round and introduced him to people whom he interviewed. He had just about admitted defeat when by chance I took him to the art room at lunchtime and we found some of the older students who had set up a fund-raising event, selling freshly baked scones with jam - complete with Vivaldi in the background: I took pity on him and let him go round on his own. Previously anyone with a microphone or a camera unaccompanied by a staff member would have been immediately surrounded by the worst-behaved children, but not now. He said to me later: "Have you got them all brainwashed?"


Take immediate action tore-establish good order and control, to ensure the physical safety of pupils and to have systems in place which will make sure that the school knows the whereabouts of all pupils.

* Raise standards of pupils'achievement in all subjects.

* Improve the quality of teaching in order to tackle underachievement and in particular improve classroom management and discipline.

* Strengthen management and leadership at every level and ensure that communication is improved and policies are implemented.

* Improve the governing body's systems for decision-making, financial control and for monitoring the life and work of the school, and the quality of its educational provision.

* Raise levels of attendance and improve behaviour.

* Fully implement the sound policy for special educational needs.

* Collaborate to bring about a unity of purpose among the staff, including a collective and individual acceptance and discharge of responsibilities, on behalf of the pupils in the school.

Extracted from 'Back from the Brink: transforming the Ridings School - and our children's education' by Peter Clark.
Published on October 22 by Metro Books, #163;12.99.
'TES' readers can order 'Back from the Brink' on Metro Books' credit card hotline (tel: 0500 418419) for the discount price of #163;11.99 (inc pp).

Peter Clark and Anna White will be participants in the 'TES' Schools and the Media conference on November 30 (tel: 0181 780 9674)
* Next week part three: lessons for the future

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