Revolution as Ridings is transformed

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The Independent Online
THE RIDINGS School, labelled the worst in Britain almost two years ago, has transformed itself, Ofsted inspectors said yesterday. No secondary school, they told the head, had ever shaken off the label of "failing" more quickly.

In 1996, the Ridings, near Halifax, was closed after pupils rampaged through the corridors and assaulted staff. Teachers had no idea where children were and a third of GCSE pupils regularly played truant.

Teaching in nearly half the lessons was poor, and four out of 10 pupils left school without a single GCSE; pupils spent entire GCSE French lessons drawing a table.

Now, inspectors say, the Ridings has been "transformed" and it is time to bury the past.

This year more than eight out of 10 children left with a GCSE qualification and the school recorded its first A-level success.

Last year, only 33 families put the Ridings as first choice. This year the figure was 120.

Good order has been restored. Yet the school where teachers threatened to strike unless 60 pupils were expelled has expelled only one in the last 18 months.

A host of lunchtime clubs and activities has replaced playground fights, and teaching in nine out of 10 lessons is satisfactory or better, according to inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education who said the school no longer needed "special measures."

Anna White, the unassuming 43-year-old head who took over 18 months ago, said pupils, parents, staff, governors and local authority officials must all share the credit. "I am absolutely thrilled and proud. There is no magic. We have done it by working really hard together toward the same goal."

Elizabeth Passmore, head of Ofsted's school improvement division, said: "Anna White has done a first-class job. The school has lived up to its motto of `Together we can make a difference'. For all concerned it is time to celebrate and time to bury the past."

How did she do it? Since the closure, the school has had more than pounds 1m spent on a sports hall, science laboratories and an art block, and more is promised.

Although improvements in the buildings have helped, Mrs White insists: "Students see it as a physical recognition of their efforts, but we could have achieved what we have without the money."

When she and Peter Clark, who was seconded to the school for six months as head, took over after the closure, their priority was the restoration of discipline. Twelve of the unruliest pupils were expelled. Twenty more were suspended and allowed back only after they and their parents had signed "good behaviour" agreements.

The discipline policy was changed to put the emphasis on rewarding good behaviour and reducing the number of rules.

That, says Mrs White, was the easy part. Raising academic standards proved harder. Around 40 per cent of 11-year-olds coming into the school had not reached the expected reading standard for their age. So there was a blitz on literacy and numeracy for younger pupils.

Streaming was abandoned to avoid the least-able students feeling they had been written off. The curriculum was changed to included vocational courses such as business studies and the performing arts.

Since the closure, 19 teachers have left and been replaced with new, often young, members of staff. Mrs White says: "New blood breathes life into a staff. There has been a change in morale. People now believe in everything they are doing."

Attendance has improved dramatically - up from 73 to 82 per cent. That has been achieved by working with parents and by a computerised truancy system.

A special unit has been set up for habitual truants off the school site and attendance there is 100 per cent.

Academically, the school still has a long way to go. The percentage of pupils achieving five top grades at GCSE fell this year from 6 to 3 per cent, but Mrs White says the school will do well on the government's new progress measures which show how results compare with a school's intake.

All research shows that heads are the key to successful schools. Peter Clark says of her in his book on The Ridings: "Her fierce focus on her job and determination to prove herself in all circumstances are complemented by a wardrobe of long jackets and short skirts. She can be downright mischievous and has a terrific sense of humour." Mrs White plays down her role. "I don't believe in superheads. Heads can't do it on their own. You have to bring your team with you. I am fairly enthusiastic ... I do believe that as teachers we can make a difference."

Leading article,

Review, page 3

How To Spot

A Failing

School

High truancy rate.

High number of exclusions.

Poor progress among pupils leading to low test and exam results.

Frequent bad behaviour in classes.

Poor teacher-pupil relationships.

High proportion of unsatisfactory teaching.

Ineffective headteacher.

Weak governors.

Loss of confidence in head by staff.

Disenchanted staff.

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