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New head plans to transform Ridings School
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The Independent Online
The troubleshooting assistant headteacher parachuted into the Ridings School in Halifax after a discipline crisis was yesterday appointed as the school's permanent head.

Anna White, brought in from a neighbouring comprehensive as associate head of the West Yorkshire comprehensive last October, said that after six months helping restore order she "could not not bear to walk away".

In an exclusive interview with The Independent, she described the school's atmosphere as "infectious" and insisted she wanted to stay "to see the green shoots of success flourish, as I firmly believe they will".

Ms White and acting head Peter Clark, on loan from another Calderdale comprehensive, were put in joint command of the Ridings after teachers threatened to strike over "unteachable" pupils.

Headteacher Karen Stansfield resigned and the school was temporarily closed following reports of assaults on staff before facing a highly critical inspection by the schools watchdog Ofsted.

Since then, monthly reports by government inspectors have recorded steady progress, and the school this week won the regional final of a youth drama competition with a dance performance expressing pupils' frustration at their vilification by reporters camped outside their classrooms last autumn.

Ms White's appointment came a day before the submission by Calderdale council of an emergency education action plan to Gillian Shephard. The Secretary of State demanded the plan after the Labour-controlled authority came under fire in a damning report by Ofsted on its education service in the wake of the Ridings crisis.

The plan includes a proposal for a major school improvement project to be launched throughout Calderdale. It will aim to increase progress made by all pupils and will cover both exam success and issues such as attendance and motivation. There will be an urgent consultation with headteachers to establish priorities and a survey of secondary school students to establish how they feel they learn best. In answer to Ofsted criticisms that it possesses too little information about pupils' achievements, the education authority proposes to keep much tighter checks through a new database. The authority also proposes a series of methods to re-establish communications, including appointing two teacher representatives to its education committee.

Ms White, 42, who began her teaching career 17 years ago in Bury, Greater Manchester, said she would have hated to walk away from the Ridings without having seen through the changes she had helped set in motion. "Order has been restored for a long time now and behaviour standards and staff and student morale have improved dramatically," she said. "What is needed is a period of continuity and commitment."

The key priorities were now to continue efforts to raise teaching and learning standards at the school where, inspectors found, more than two- fifths of lessons were unsatisfactory and a religious education lessons for GCSE students consisted merely of drawing a church.

A further challenge for the new head will be the raising of pupil numbers, though the school's roll has stayed surprisingly steady in the wake of its discipline crisis. Of 108 pupils allocated a place for next year, only 15 have appealed and moved elsewhere.

The hardest task for Ms White could prove to be the restoration of confidence for pupils and staff after the school's very public humiliation. She admitted: "We need to raise their self esteem and convince them that they will not be stigmatised by their experiences."

But she added: "It is an infectious place, once you are here you want to stay. This is job that is certainly never boring and where you feel you are really achieving something."

A bad report ...

25 August 1996: Sarah Taylor, 13, is expelled for a violent attack on a teacher

3 September: Sarah Taylor returns to class after being reinstated but 31 members of the NASUWT union vote to refuse to teach her

22 October: Head girl Karen Stansfield resigns

28 October: School inspectors arrive after being sent in by the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Shephard.

1 November: Calderdale council closes school after reports of attacks on teachers

5 November: Peter Clark, temporary head teacher, expels 12 pupils and suspends another 23

6 November: School is given three weeks to clear up its problems of indiscipline and under-achievement or face being taken over by the Department for Education

17 December: Ofsted inspectors reveal that the school is failing