'Outstanding' school facing closure in reorganisation

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The Independent Online

A school just praised by inspectors for outstanding work is being threatened with closure despite a remarkable turnaround in its fortunes.

When Deirdre Murphy arrived as headteacher at Harrowden Middle School in Bedford seven years ago. her initial assessment of it was that it was "pretty, pretty poor" and on the verge of failure.

"There was disorganisation in terms of teaching and learning, behaviour wasn't good at all and special needs provision was poor," she said.

She immediately commissioned her own audit of the school by a team of education experts - including an award-winning headteacher - who backed up her conclusion by saying that if there was an inspection now "this school would go into special measures", i.e fail.

At that stage just five per per cent of teaching was rated as good while 30 per cent was classified as less than satisfactory.

Local authority school improvement staff later echoed their fears.

Now, though, seven years later it is a flourishing school with inspectors praising it as good with oustanding features, parents queueing up to send their children to it (it had been under-subscribed) and the best rating in the borough for improving the performance of its pupils.

However, its reward for its achievement is that it could close within three years as a result of a reorganisation.

How the school, which now has 480 nine to 13-year-olds on roll, was turned around was not exactly rocket science, its headteacher admitted.

Ms Murphy brought in a number of teachers - including a deputy, Scott McGregor, from where she had previously worked at a comprehensive in Tottenham, north London, and set about establishing a policy of "zero tolerance" of poor teaching.

Those who were underperforming were not just kicked out - they were given help to improve - but if they could not make the grade they had to go.

Good teachers were also seconded to help their colleagues improve their lessons.

However, her get tough stance on poor teaching did not win everybody over - an inspection by Ofsted, the education watchdog, was brought forward after a series of anonymous letters complained she was "no good". During the middle of the inspection, she arrived at school at 7.30am one morning to find the area near the food technology centre crawling with maggots.

""They were fishing maggots (obviously placed there deliberately)," she said. "I called in the police."

Ofsted, however, praised the efforts made by the school to improve. The latest assessment of its teaching standards showed 30 per cent was deemed outstanding and no lessons were rated inadequate.

In its latest report on the school, it says:"It is the depth of good leadership across the school, coupled with staff teamwork, rooted in shared values of high expectations and commitment to the pupils (the school serves an area ranked as the fifth most deprived in the country) which have brought about the improvements.

"Pupils take pride in their school: they have very positive attitudes to learning, their behaviour is good and - because they are confident to approach an adult if troubled - they feel safe."

Innovations with the curriculum have helped to encourage a love of learning amongst the pupils.

On Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, 11 to13-year-olds are able to choose what they learn from a range of options - including hair and beauty care, journalism, photography, music and theatre.

The school will add to the list on consultation with parents and pupils. They have recently asked for lessons in Spanish and child care to be included, too.

After school and Saturday morning sessions in a range of areas (sports include dodgeball - in which they are the local champions - as well as the traditional football, cricket and rugby) - have also proved popular.

Maggie Froggatt, a maths teacher at the school for 20 years, said: "Without doubt, this is the best the school has been.

"When I first came it was very insular and I was told 'these kids do not stay after school'."

However, she is now running a successful out-of-hours music group at the school.

But the school's transformation has failed to avert the threat of closure - which first emerged when the local authority wanted to abandon its middle school policy and revert to just having a two-tier primary and secondary system.

However, capital funding for the programme disappeared with the advent of the Coalition Government.

Two schools are still under threat , though - Harrowden and one other middle school. In Harrowden's case, a nearby school which had taken in 13 to 18-year-olds and was struggling has been converted into an 11 to 18 academy and it was thought it would not be possible to run the two systems side by side.

Ms Murphy, who has recently been diagnosed with cancer, is perfectly prepared to take on the battle for the school's survival. She is drawing up her own plans for the school to take in pupils from pre-school to 16 in conjunction with a lower school on an adjacent site.

"I've got cancer and I know I'm going to survive because I know I'm working in a joyous and brilliant community in our school," she said. "This school will survive, too.

"How could anyone consider closing a school like this (good with outstanding features) in today's climate? No, it can't close. That's not going to happen."