What does it take to turn around a school failing so badly that pupils were on strike?

Richard Garner meets the 'hero' head of this Carlisle academy to find out
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The Independent Online

It was the first day of Russ Wallace's headship at the Richard Rose Central Academy. The pupils were being brought in on 17 buses for the start of lessons – as happened every day. One boy stood out from the crowd. He casually lit up a cigarette as he looked around him.

"Excuse me, put the cigarette out," said Wallace.

"Who the f*** are you?" came the response.

"I'm actually the new headteacher."

The boy carried on smoking, sneered at the head for "sending for reinforcements" when he spoke to a colleague, and eventually shambled away – still smoking, but now in the company of another mate. If he had not known it beforehand, that moment brought home to Wallace the difficulties he was to face turning round the failing flagship academy in Carlisle.

The story had a happy ending, though. A few weeks later when Wallace and the chief executive who hired him – Mike Gibbons – had set up the first of their special Saturday morning study sessions to help pupils struggling with their GCSEs to reach their potential, the boy – who had previously been excluded – was there ready to do his maths revision work.

It was the start of the fightback that culminated a few weeks ago with Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, taking the academy off its list of failing schools and the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, naming Gibbons as one of the "heroes" of the education world for the way he had given pupils the chance of a decent education. Both Gibbons and Wallace are "serial" headteachers with a track record of turning schools around. Wallace admitted, though, that the Richard Rose Central Academy – one of two Richard Rose academies in Carlisle – was his biggest challenge. The academy had come about as a merger of two failing schools and there was said to be rivalry between the two sets of pupils. It had been rushed through as a result, some critics claimed, of a desire to boost the then Labour government's flagship academies programme as quickly as possible.

It led to the two sets of pupils being crammed into one building, with teachers who were unprepared for the merger and unclear as to what their role in the new school would be. There were, for instance, two heads of departments in some subject areas. "I'd put it this way – the first day we came here we lost 5-0," said Wallace. "Eventually we got this down to 2-1 and a score draw. Then we started winning the odd game. We turned on Waterloo Road [the television series about a struggling comprehensive school]," Gibbons added, "to see what a normal school was like."

The first thing the duo did was to give the school a makeover. They painted the whole school in a weekend – laid carpets, stripped the toilets and repaired them and paved the front of the school so pupils stopped tripping over potholes as they arrived in the morning. "It gave people some pride in what they had," Wallace. "I still think paving the front of school area had a major effect in improving morale." The next step was to establish a sea-change in the culture of the school. Following his altercation with the youth at the start of the first day, Wallace had the unenviable record of having excluded a pupil before he started his job as headteacher. There were 20 exclusion orders pending from the previous regime. "I signed them all," he added. "We had to establish that we meant business."

There was a meeting of parents, who had been so worried they had called in Ofsted themselves to inspect the school. It started off as a potential confrontation with 500 angry parents, lined up to put them on the spot. The sponsor, millionaire businessman Brian Scowcroft, took the initial flak before Gibbons and Wallace took the floor.

The parents were promised three things: within five terms, the school would be taken off Ofsted's hit list, progress would be made so they could move to new premises being built down the road on the site of one of the predecessor schools, and their children would have quality teaching. All three have been achieved: previously 20 per cent of the teaching had been inadequate now 60 per cent is good or better, the school came out of special measures this autumn and most of the pupils will start the new term in their brand new classrooms.

The rise in teaching standards followed significant changes to staffing levels. Previously, the school had been overstaffed with (as mentioned previously) sometimes two people – one from each of the merger schools – having the same job. As many as 37 staff left at the end of the summer term, with some hand-picked replacements taking their place.

Perhaps surprisingly, it turned out not to be too difficult to attract staff – although this was possibly explained by the comment: "There are teachers out there who relish the challenge of taking on a school like this. After all, why take on an outstanding school? The only way is down."

The new team at the helm have also delivered in terms of exam results. They inherited a situation where only 13 per cent of children achieved five A* to C grade passes in maths and English and managed to more than double that figure to 27 per cent within a few months of taking charge. (They took over at the beginning of 2008). In 2009, the figure rose to 33 per cent – hugely significant because it passed the hurdle of 30 per cent, below which the school would have remained on the then Labour government's list of underperforming schools.

This year Wallace is confident the figure will rise to 40 per cent – again significant because it clears the new minimum "floor standard" outlined by Michael Gove in his White Paper, published in November, of 35 per cent.

The school also has a flourishing sixth-form college – which it shares with its sister academy, the Richard Rose Morton Academy. (Richard Rose is taken from the names of sponsor Brian Scowcroft's son, and the daughter his son never saw, because he died at an early age from cancer.) The number who stay on into the sixth form has risen from 150 to 350 in five terms. "For the first time in the history of three failing schools (Richard Rose Morton Academy replaced a school which was in and out of special measures as well), the majority of young people are staying on," said Gibbons.

Parents are now being won back to the school as a result of all this. Last year only 60 parents put it down as their first choice school – but this year that had risen to 130. "The current year seven (the first year of secondary schooling) has 128 pupils in it," said Wallace. "By September 2012 I think we could well be up to 240 [the annual intake figure] if we continue to make the same progress."

Sharon Atkin, whose 14-year-old daughter Sarah goes to the school and has been through its hard times, said: "At first, Sarah was coming home and complaining about having to do the same work. She said, 'no one seems to know what they're doing'. I think very, very quickly students realised that if they didn't want to stay in lessons, they didn't stay. Sadly, at the meeting with the parents, Russ Wallace got shouted down because he was the one in the middle and all the parents were so angry. Within 24 hours the atmosphere changed. Students tell their parents they're now treated like adults."

The final word, though, should probably rest with the pupils. Connor Errington, aged 14, switched to the new academy after his first year in secondary school. "It was obviously scary – you were a new year seven and you'd just got used to the school and you've just settled down," he said.

"Then they rip all that out and you've got to do it again in year eight."

Mia Abbott, also aged 14, added: "When the new head came in, we didn't know whether he was going to turn it around."

He did, though. So much so that Connor was moved to say as they approached the Christmas break: "Two months in [to the new regime] we went into the form one day and said 'Oh, my God, this headteacher is brilliant'. The only thing you want to do is pat him on the back and say 'thanks for what you're doing and giving me a chance.'

"I am sure if you asked any student they'd say the same thing: 'Thank you, Mr Wallace for everything you're doing for the school'."

A TRIUMPHANT TURNAROUND

September 2008: Richard Rose Central academy opens following closure and merger of pupils from St Aidan's School and North Cumbria Technology College.

December 2008: Parents trigger off emergency inspection of school by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, after complaints about discipline.

January 2009: Academy closes as pupils go on strike. Head and chief executive resign. New leadership team comes in.

August 2009: Percentage of pupils gaining five A* to C grades at GCSE including maths and English more than doubles from 13 per cent to 27 per cent.

November 2010: Ofsted removes school from its list of failed schools in "special measures".

January 2011: School moves into new buildings on the site of the former St Aidan's School.

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