Education: How can a school pull itself out of catastrophe?: Under siege since the middle classes went elsewhere

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OUT of 51 secondary schools and 30 primaries visited under the new inspection framework this year, two have so far fallen into the 'cause of concern' or 'cause of serious concern' category. That means they will be the first to be visited again next year, and may be designated as being 'at risk' under the terms of the present Education Bill. If ministers are still unhappy with them a year later, they may appoint an education association to run the schools. The Independent visited the two most prominent 'failing' schools to find out their reactions to this pressure.

PETER RAMSDEN, 57, has decided to retire early this summer. The comprehensive school that he heads has been criticised so severely by national inspectors that he feels unable to stay on.

Dyke House, in Hartlepool, was the second school to be judged by Ofsted, the new national inspection agency, as 'causing concern'. Standards of achievement, both in lessons and in public examinations, were too low. The quality of learning was 'often unsatisfactory'. Assessment lacked rigour. There was no policy for special needs, and the school failed to support less able children. Attendance was poor. Management was 'generally ineffective', and too preoccupied with administrative matters to provide effective leadership.

Ofsted said that Dyke House staff were hardworking, sensitive to the problems facing pupils, and aware that many needed extra support. None the less, it reported: 'Few teachers deal adequately with mixed-ability groups and too often their expectations are inappropriate.'

In the lexicon of school inspection, those comments come close to a language of excommunication. They certainly left a sour taste in Mr Ramsden's mouth. Staff, he says, had never felt so pilloried.

Last year, only 10 per cent of pupils achieved grades A, B or C in five or more GCSEs; the national average is 36.5 per cent. In maths, results had worsened significantly: only seven per cent got grades A, B or C compared with 18 per cent the year before and 45 per cent nationally. Just 34 per cent of pupils - half the national average - stay on in education after 16. Nearly half of the rest join youth training schemes. Only 6 per cent find work straight from school.

Teachers say the poor examination results partly reflect a decline in the school's intake. When the Government gave parents the right to select schools, middle-class parents rapidly transferred their children elsewhere. Eight years ago Dyke House had more than 1,000 pupils and about 60 teachers; now there are 537 pupils and 36 teachers.

Dyke House is an inner-city school under siege. Once subject to weekly break-ins, it has installed a powerful alarm system. But windows are still broken - the school had to pay about pounds 2,000 for 10 windows in a recent incident. Nor did the alarms prevent pupils setting fire to a teacher's desk.

The music block roof is strengthened with steel: children were in the habit of removing whole sections to steal instruments 'instantly saleable in local pubs,' Mr Ramsden says.

Local newspapers love to hate it: 'Dyke House Damned]' ran the lead story in the Hartlepool Mail after the Ofsted report was published.

A bleak, barracks-like Thirties building, with even bleaker Sixties extensions, the school is in the middle of an area of about 7,000 people, with a male unemployment rate of 24 per cent. About a third of the children come from single-parent homes and more than 50 per cent are entitled to free school meals.

The area has a mixture of drab and battered private and council housing. On one side lies a depopulated industrial estate, on the other the docks of west Hartlepool and a sea-coal tip.

The estates are home to vandals, criminals, drug-takers, the poor and the illiterate. 'Immediately out there is a jungle,' says Griff Hosker, head of English, one of the few departments praised in the Ofsted report. 'We face an uphill battle with these kids all the time. We achieve some good things. The report said discipline was generally good, and when you consider the kind of kids we have, that is something we should have been praised for more forcefully.'

He adds: 'I don't believe they will ever close this school, because nobody else would take our kids.'

In the upper forms, absenteeism is rife: attendance sometimes drops below 80 per cent. Although the school is setting up a scheme to reward eight consecutive weeks of attendance, staff are sceptical about the prospect of success. Many parents condone absenteeism. 'The local authority has no effective sanctions against them,' says Mr Ramsden. 'They know that.'

Parental input is low. The English department recently involved a group of parents and former parents in reading support but there are no takers for the vacancy of parent governor.

Thirty per cent of all Year 7 pupils last year required specialised literacy support and a further 23 per cent were in need of 'urgent and significant support'. The results shocked the staff: they saw it as evidence of the rapid decline in the quality of intake. But it makes the lack of a special- needs policy seem badly negligent. Mr Ramsden admits that it is an area in which management has failed.

Nevertheless, he believes the Ofsted inspection came at too-short notice, and at a time of painful upheaval. As a result of the report, a special policy is being prepared, but Mr Ramsden has no idea how it will be paid for. Dyke House, once generously funded by the local authority because of the area's deprivation, has found itself squeezed by devolved funding, which is now determined mostly by pupil numbers.

When the report came out the head and senior staff went away to the Royal County Hotel in Durham to thrash out a set of strategies for change. One was to begin informing parents immediately a child fell below an 80 per cent attendance threshold, and to reward good attendance.

Mr Ramsden also proposed setting up special needs 'booster groups', taking out small numbers of the less able for a part of the week for intensive numeracy and literacy training. Each department has been asked to come up with a special-needs policy for next September.

The third major strategy was to introduce a pastoral curriculum and a pastoral induction course for all Year 7 pupils: 'We were praised for our pastoral and pupil profiling work, so we decided to build on this,' says Griff Hosker. 'Staff are working on draft proposals at the moment.'

But none of these strategies can be put into effect until the new head takes the reins in September. The post was advertised only three weeks ago and interviews take place today.

Time is short for Dyke House. Turning around a school with endemic problems of this kind is notoriously difficult. The prospect of the school being taken over is one the staff must face.

The level of special-needs support now required in the school demands an immediate response. Present proposals could well be seen as too little too late. 'We've put a bolt on the stable door but the special-needs horse had gone galloping away,' says Griff Hosker.

Ofsted has been approached on behalf of the school to delay its next inspection to give new strategies a chance to take hold. Officially, Ofsted is not open to making such concessions and holds strictly to timetables.

Mr Hosker feels the school can be turned around - given time. 'There is a lot of goodwill among staff,' he says, 'and I hope the new head recognises that.

'The Ofsted report has shown us what we are doing wrong and what we have done right. We have to change some things and build on others. But we need breathing space. If the school is to remain, we need to put down good foundations, and not just make short-term cosmetic changes to meet the next inspection.'

(Photograph omitted)

Education: How can a school pull itself out of catastrophe?