Gill Hornby: Nice school, shame about the arsonists

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The Independent Online

Can there be any more purposefully hopeful creature than the liberal parent inspecting a local comprehensive?

Can there be any more purposefully hopeful creature than the liberal parent inspecting a local comprehensive? We are the middle-class parents the state sector so badly needs. We're also lucky in having the financial freedom to choose the type of school in which we would like our children to be educated. For various reasons, we'd both prefer them to end up in the state one.

We live in a boom area of the South, with the lowest unemployment in Europe, its cosy affluence founded on the mobile-phone business. The school we visited first is the one with the reputation: the one based on the two original grammar schools, with the nice old buildings, air of academic rigour and decent performance in the league tables.

While I approach all independent schools as a difficult customer, lip ready to curl at the slightest shortcoming or snobbery, desperate to find fault and poor value for money, I bend the other way at the gates of a state school. Rarely do I display such good will. Allowances are made, sounds are encouraging, positives duly accentuated.

Why, I'm not sure. We are paying for them as well, after all. That didn't cut any ice once we got through the doors. At no point in our visit did any member of staff formally acknowledge our presence or show any interest in our interest in their school – other than the receptionist who linked us up, without introduction, to our two student guides, and then left us to get on with it.

The school itself is not that dissimilar to the one I attended. So when we came across catering staff bellowing at pupils and teachers bawling out classrooms, I was hardly shocked. The stress, the strain, the class sizes – you read about it all the time. Our sympathy was still firmly intact when we got to the history and geography corridor – or rather, where the history and geography corridor used to be, until it was burnt down in the most recent arson attack.

We clucked, said what a nice corridor it obviously once was and commented positively on the char-grilled aroma still clinging to the walls. It wouldn't be fair to blame a place for its arson attacks, after all.

On we went, into another corridor so littered with crisp packets, cola cans and other detritus that we found ourselves more wading than walking down it. Our guide explained that the cleaning staff had all walked out a year ago, and the school's solution was to pay the pupils to do the work. That way they earned a bit of money, the school got cleaned and everyone was happy. Except that the pupils had obviously got bored, the school did not get cleaned and everyone worked in a tip.

Never mind, eh? Out we went, over toward the music block, which was just underneath the site of the last arson attack but one. Our interest in the arson attacks began to overtake our interest in the educational facilities. How many attacks had there been, exactly? Just the three. Any idea about the arsonists? Yes, they are definitely past pupils, not present ones, so that's good news. We nodded vigorously in agreement. Very good news. Past pupils coming back to burn the place down. Splendid.

Two thousand pupils attend this school, and there obviously isn't enough room for them – even before the pyromaniacal alumni began revisiting. A big, smart, new building is going up, but not to provide classrooms or anything like that. No, this is "the Lifelong Learning Unit, a Study Resource Centre for the Wider Community". And what does that mean? That the school's already limited library service will in future also serve any adult with past or present connections to the school, leaving even less room for the pupils.

Within its still-standing walls, there are some talented teachers bringing on some very talented pupils. It is admirable that people are striving and succeeding in an environment that is probably less cared-for than Wormwood Scrubs. It is heart-warming to see people try so hard in an institution that sends out signals of total indifference. It is always impressive to see a triumph against the odds. But why, in a prosperous market town in a corner of the country that can count itself a fortunate part of Britain, do we have these odds to contend with? And isn't it very odd of us to put up with them?