Last year it closed in chaos: now the Ridings School holds its head high

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The Independent Online
It is no longer the Ridings. It is the Ridings School, and it isworking hard to rebuild its reputation.

"The message we constantly reinforce is that we want parents, teachers and children to be proud of the Ridings School, not the Ridings. People say it will end up in the dictionary - 'Oh, it's a Ridings' - but it won't, because we won't let it."

Peter Clark, 50, the "super head", and Anna White, 41, his associate head, believe they are a winning team. The disciplinary paramedics were drafted in after the 650-pupil comprehensive in Halifax, West Yorkshire, collapsed into chaos and closed for four days last November.

"Come and enjoy the exciting opportunity that is the Ridings School. Together we can make a difference," Mr Clark said, paraphrasing a job advertisement published tomorrow. Two months ago, no teacher in their right mind would have applied. Who would have wanted to work in an educational hellwhere children ran wild and staff were physically attacked? Karen Stansfield, the former head, resigned last October claiming she could no longer cope with the chaos in the school formed by the merger of two secondary moderns in 1995.

But today it is a different story. To take up one of the six teaching vacancies would be to share in a new beginning. Mr Clark and Ms White were drafted in from nearby schools for a six-month rescue after Mrs Stansfield left - the former is head of Rastrick High and Ms White is deputy head of Todmorden High. They have put security locks on the doors,expelled 12 of the worst troublemakers, and replaced the old regime's "discipline for learning" approach with a "positive behaviour policy". By September, Mr Clark hopes to have replaced one-third of all staff.

"That was the pounds 4.4m capital programme," announced Mr Clark, referring to an earlier telephone call. "They've [the local education authority] agreed it in outline." By 2000, the school will have a sports hall, two more laboratories, a staff room, two administration rooms, a technology block and a central resources centre.

"Can I talk to you now?" asked Daniel Firth, 13, politely waiting his turn. "It's a lot better than it was now that we've got the new headteacher. There's no one running around. There used to be people getting pushed over, lads running in circles around the school just trying to hurt you ... I wouldn't come to school when they were all doing that. Now it's quietened down I'm wanting to come to school every day."

"You have your own social area where you can listen to music at dinner time," enthused Tanya White, 12. "Before we were just walking around school. We get on with our work now ... there's no messing around."

It is not just the pupils who are relieved to have been rescued by Mr Clark and Ms White. Lynn Sharp, 37, who works as a laboratory technician at the school, had considered removing her daughter, Amy, 15. "Six months ago, I thought I was letting her down having her here," she said. "Now I'm quite confident that Amy is as well educated here as she would be anywhere else."

Mrs Sharp is, however, apprehensive about what will happen next. "As a parent I do worry slightly about what is going to happen when Mr Clark hands the reins over to someone else," she said. "It's at the back of everybody's mind."

"Seamless transition," interjected Mr Clark. "I believed we'd either crack the discipline issue within two or three weeks or we'd end up with egg on our face. I knew the staff would be wanting to co-operate and that, deep down, the kids would want to."

His approach has not been heavy-handed. "You don't want to totally constrain them, but they like to think that they are being dealt with consistently. I think if I had tried to come in here with a rod of iron it would all have backfired.

"The children wanted someone to tell them: 'It's OK.' Before, there was insecurity. Insecurity breeds insecurity. All you've got to do is give people back a bit of self-respect and show them you're going to listen to them. It's pretty basic stuff."