Sad tidings for The Ridings as school dubbed Britain's worst is closed down

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The Independent Online

Sir Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector, is normally quite measured in his comments about the education system.

His assessment of a day spent inspecting conditions at the notorious Ridings school in Halifax, West Yorkshire is therefore quite telling. "It was clear," he said, "that the school could not account for the whereabouts of their pupils or guarantee their safety."

It was that and other comments in his emergency inspection report on the school 11 years ago (such as the school corridors seeming like "a race track") that led to it being described as the worst school in Britain – a tag it never lost.

Now, 11 years after it first made the headlines when teachers belonging to the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) threatened to go on strike unless 60 named troublemakers at the school were excluded, the authorities have finally run out of patience and ordered it to close in August 2009.

To a certain extent, The Ridings never stood a chance. It serves a neglected area of Calderdale, the authority in charge of the school, which is mostly made up of run-down council estates, and competes locally with two faith schools – one Church of England and one Roman Catholic – and a selective grammar school for pupils.

It is, local teachers' leaders point out, the only community comprehensive school in the area. However, because of the status of its neighbouring schools, many argue it should be called a secondary modern.

The Ridings is also a salutary tale when it comes to assessing New Labour's policies for turning round failing schools – which originally centred on the idea of "superheads" coming in to get things back on track.

The Ridings had not one but two such heads – Peter Clark, the head of a neighbouring, successful school, and Anna White, who was groomed as his successor. Both Mr Clark and Ms White were awarded CBEs in recognition of their initial successes at The Ridings.

Sadly, improvements in GCSE results were not sustained and, last year, it resumed a position in the bottom 10 schools for GCSE performance nationally.

This year's figures showed an improvement but by then many parents had voted with their feet, with only 42 new pupils being admitted this September compared to 133 four years ago.

In many similar instances, schools have been replaced by one of the Government's privately sponsored academies. However, a statement issued by Calderdale council after the closure decision appeared to rule that out as an option.

Pupils transferring from The Ridings can be accommodated in other Calderdale schools, it said, adding: "Figures show there are sufficient surplus places in those schools." By the start of this term there were only 383 pupils at The Ridings, which can accommodate 800.

The Ridings was in a desperate plight when the NASUWT first drew attention to its problems in October 1996. Three teachers at the school had been assaulted by pupils in the space of a week.

An emergency inspection of the school was ordered. As a result, the school had to be closed because it was considered unsafe. In one instance, an inspector had to break up a fight between two pupils because there was no teacher to be seen.

Into that maelstrom came Mr Clark, headteacher of neighbouring Rastrick comprehensive, with a promise of "firm but fair" discipline, a homework timetable for all 11- to 14-year-olds, expulsions for poor behaviour and merit awards and prizes for good behaviour and work.

When he left after a year's secondment, Ms White took over and – within two years – the school had been taken off the Ofsted hit-list, a sixth-form had been opened and the school was celebrating its A-level passes.

It soon started to unravel. By 2003, it was one of only 23 schools in the country to fail two years running to achieve the Government's minimum target of getting 15 per cent of pupils to obtain five A* to C grade passes – and was threatened with closure within a year.

Ofsted inspected it again and, in March 2006, gave notice it was once more giving "cause for concern". The Schools minister, Lord Adonis, wrote to Calderdale council, saying: "The situation at The Ridings school is serious and unacceptable." He urged it to consider "the complete closure" of the school.

Calderdale council's ruling cabinet concurred. Craig Whittaker, in charge of children and young people's services, said: "The Ridings is currently only half full and parents have been voting with their feet by sending their children to other schools across Calderdale."

It brought an end to 11 years of investment, including £6.5m for new buildings, "superheads" and Ofsted "hit squads".

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said the decision was "the final act of betrayal of the staff and pupils by those who have presided over and contributed to the deteriorating situation without taking effective action".

The Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, is being urged to order an investigation into The Ridings' failure.

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