Lessons in hardship at Dorset opt-out school: Peter Dunn reports on a comprehensive in its first year in the grant maintained sector

GOVERNORS of the Woodroffe comprehensive school in Lyme Regis, Dorset, once hailed as a flagship of Thatcherite opt-out philosophy, face angry questions from parents tonight after a disastrous first year's trading in the grant maintained market place.

Heavy debts - estimated at pounds 100,000 on a pounds 2m budget - have culminated in the loss of seven teachers (four through early retirement, three through redundancy) and the suspension of the school's head, Paul Vittle. The Parent Teacher Association, once a vital fund-raiser, is in disarray.

And in a clash of wills the chairwoman of the governors, Eddi Woodridge, has been replaced by Tony Terrett, a Tory member of Dorset County Council.

One of Mr Terrett's first duties was to berate teaching staff on a vote of no confidence they had passed on his predecessor and Mr Vittle, warning them to learn to 'live in the real world where grant maintained schools operated within budget'.

A thinly-disguised threat that more jobs might be on the line if parents took their children away (there is a new, well-equipped comprehensive in nearby Axminster) was followed with a vote supporting the new regime.

Since then Mr Terrett has imposed a news blackout on the tangled affairs of Woodroffe, a former grammar school (motto: Audacia Constantiaque) with panoramic views across Lyme Bay. He said his decision was based on 'very firm legal advice' following the redundancies and suspension of Mr Vittle.

Another consideration has been the fear of a haemorrhaging of Woodroffe's 860 boys and girls back into the state system. About 10 per cent are from overseas service families and board (fees pounds 1,250 a term).

Parents will want to know what went wrong with the Woodroffe dream a year after voting 60-40 to opt out.

Leaflets issued in 1990 by parent-governors had beckoned them to a cornucopia of new books, equipment, classrooms and a wider, more challenging syllabus, much of it funded by pounds 250,000-a-year diverted from the bureaucrats at Dorchester county hall to the school's own exchequer. One leaflet even warned that a 'no' vote would mean staff reductions. Tonight's agenda is expected to raise three key issues:

The Los Angeles connection. Mr Vittle, was sent on a management training course, cost unknown, to the United States. Teachers found the headmaster's trans-Atlantic zeal unnerving.

The tuck shop affair. A pounds 15,000 shop, selling tuck and school uniforms and partly operated by the PTA, was taken over by the new regime. Ken Whetlor, former PTA chairman, said: 'They took it away from us because it was damaging profits in the school canteen which is run by an outside firm. We'd been very active fund-raising . . . but that's all gone out of the window because so many didn't like what was happening and have left the PTA.'

The Poop Deck affair. About pounds 40,000 was spent converting the school's drama studio into a reception area and timbered mezzanine to house senior staff. The mezzanine, with its ship's rail effect, is called the Poop Deck because the school bursar, Peter Rickard, is a retired navy commander. Pupils call it Elmo's Place because its pink walls remind them of the wine bar painted pink in the BBC sitcom Brush Strokes. Governors emphasise it was paid for with a special grant but the lavish set- up looks simply profligate to parents. 'You know what happens when they get power,' Mr Whetlor said. 'First thing they do is build themselves bigger offices. I admit they were crowded but in the light of what's happened they couldn't afford to do it.'

Mr Rickard, shooing the Independent politely off the premises this week, declined to talk about the school's problems. 'What we've got is quite a complex situation here,' the Commander said. He waved aside complaints about the school shop. 'That's down among the weeds,' he said. 'I'm trying to run a pounds 2m business here with 860 kids.'

Mr Terrett refuses to be drawn on the wider political implications of the Woodroffe experiment. 'I object to people making the school a political football,' he said. 'My political beliefs or political party have basically no relevance.'

Mr Whetlor, an enthusiast for opting-out two years ago, has changed his views. 'Everyone used to complain about the old three-tier system - school, parents and education committee,' he said. 'But . . . you always had another body overseeing you and that was the education authority. Now where can we turn?

'One of the problems here is it was all done with whispers. Parents never even knew about the Poop Deck until the work started. If you had another vote on this among parents you'd have a landslide against it.'

One insider shares Mr Whetlor's critical views about the school's management. 'It was spend, spend, spend,' he said. 'The proportion of staff wages had risen to over 90 per cent. A new head of sixth form was taken on, from outside, when the school was already in debt, which caused resentment.

'Everyone's meant well, of course, but I think there's been a succession of arrogances. It's a rather sad lesson in as much that this could happen anywhere, any place, to other schools.'

Despite its problems Woodroffe was one of three grant maintained comprehensives warmly-recommended in yesterday's issue of the Daily Telegraph schools' guide, which even reinstated Paul Vittle as head teacher.

The school's atmosphere was described as well-disciplined and good-mannered, 'an open community which welcomes and shares its activities with parents, visitors and neighbours'.

(Photograph omitted)