Harrowden Middle School's pupils are thriving, and Ofsted has praised it - so why is it closing?

Richard Garner reports on a bizarre educational decision
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The Independent Online

Question: what do you do when a school's teachers are praised by Ofsted as "good" and "enthusiastic" and its head for "outstanding commitment" to her school. Answer: in the case of Harrowden Middle school in Bedford, you close it down a week later.

In a bizarre twist of fate, the education standards watchdog carried out its final inspection of the school just a few weeks before it was due to close. The inspectors' verdict – that it was good with outstanding features – was published last Thursday, which was the day before it was staging a celebration of its achievements to mark its closure. The school actually shuts its doors to pupils for the last time tomorrow.

The Independent first disclosed the closure threat to Harrowden two years ago, when it was argued by headteachers' leaders that its fate was one of the unintended consequences of the Government's drive to create more academies. Harrowden, which takes in pupils from eight to 13 years old, had already shown marked improvement in the number of pupils reaching the required standard in English and maths tests at 11, whereas the neighbouring lower and upper schools were struggling.

As often happens in the case of struggling schools, the upper school was turned into an academy, with a cash injection of £22.5m from the Government. It then started competing with Harrowden for pupils by lowering its admission age from 13 to 11.

Bedford Council, in the throes of reorganising its system from lower/middle/upper to primary/secondary (and with no powers to close an academy) decided that Harrowden must go. It was argued at the time by teachers that it would have been a better bet to keep the one successful school open – but to no avail. Last week's Ofsted report appeared to confirm that those who argued for a reprieve were right. "Teaching is good because teachers are enthusiastic, have good subject knowledge and plan lessons carefully," it concluded.

"Care and support for students are excellent because students' well-being is a high priority for the school. Arrangements for keeping students safe are outstanding."

Children perform at the farewell party for Harrowden Middle School, which closes this week (Micha Theiner)

The school, Ofsted noted, serves an area with a large number of pupils for whom English is a second language. Harrowden's catchment area covers a largely disadvantaged part of Bedford – a town not noted nationally for having to deal with the associated problems of immigration.

Yet, Ofsted notes, the percentage of pupils going on to reach a higher level than expected in national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds is growing. Ofsted, it has to be remembered, is not noted for its gushing praise of a school – many a headteacher has withered on the vine as a result of its conclusions.

As for Deirdre Murphy, the headteacher of Harrowden for the past 10 years, though, the inspectors concluded: "The headteacher demonstrates outstanding commitment to the school. Her passionate belief that every student can succeed motivates leaders at all levels."

That, then, was the background against which the school staged its farewell celebrations last weekend, with games and competition and an accent on the musical ability of its pupils.

"The perception here right up to the end is that morale is very, very high," says Ms Murphy. "There is, of course, some sadness, but we know we've got a lot to celebrate. We can't do anything about what's happened, but we can show that we've tried our best right up until the very end.

"The legacy I've tried to instil here ever since I started is that if you want to do something, you can do it and – if that's to go to university, set up your own business or whatever – don't let anything stop you."

Richard Fuller, the Conservative MP for Bedford, one of the guests at the final celebrations, adds: "You're lucky if your children were at this school. It is a fantastic school. When you know you're closing and, against that background, to get an Ofsted result that marks you so well in so many categories, that is an outstanding achievement for all the teachers in this school."

Ms Murphy confessed to being "quite shocked" when she heard Ofsted was going to visit the school just a few weeks before its closure. It was on their schedule for a visit, but she and the staff had thought it would be cancelled because of the school's circumstances.

"Then I thought, it's a chance for us to show them what we can do and what we have achieved. We're going to show them exactly what this school is all about."

In that, the school appears to have succeeded. Ofsted notes a number of initiatives that the school has pioneered – in particular, on World Book Day, encouraging all pupils to dress up as their favourite fictional character.

With the school's success, there is a sense of surprise that little has been done to make use of its achievements in helping the remaining schools to improve. In particular, the nearby lower school, which has, up until now, had no experience of preparing children for national curriculum tests, but will be taking in pupils up until the age of 11 as from September.

Deirdre Murphy, headteacher: 'The legacy I’ve tried to instil here is if you want to do something, you can do it' (Micha Theiner)

"If you had a successful school on your doorstep, wouldn't you be looking at the good things that school had done and how you could be using them to benefit your other schools?" asks Ms Murphy. "They haven't asked us." Most of the teachers at the school have jobs to go to in September and Ms Murphy says of her future: "I will look after my grandson and put a lot of energy and my educational passion into the service of the National Union of Teachers."

It has been a difficult few years for Ms Murphy. As if fighting against the closure of the school was not enough, she was also diagnosed with cancer. She informed the children and the staff of her illness at an assembly and credits their support for helping her battle the illness. She is now in remission.

In an address to staff, teachers and parents at the school, she described her time at Harrowden as "one of the most challenging and joyous experiences I've had in my life. Going back to the time I was diagnosed with cancer, one of the only things that kept me alive was your support and you asking, 'Are you all right, Miss Murphy?' and 'You can do it, Miss Murphy'.

"Today is tinged with sadness because of the closure of a school that has been so successful. It has not just been about academic success – although that is very important – it is about the young people in this school and offering them what they need to succeed."

She expressed her hope that the two remaining schools – the new primary and the academy – would meet with every success in the future. Mr Fuller argued: "Good teachers can deliver good education, provide strong leadership and demand higher standards."

Expressing hope for the future, he argued that it was not the buildings that created a successful school, but the staff. Perhaps the last word on this occasion should rest with Ofsted.

"The school is a happy, friendly and caring community where students thrive." Everyone connected with Harrowden Middle School would ask: can we really afford to start closing schools that have received that epithet?