The deal was to educate. What went wrong?

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The Independent Online
Why were things allowed to get so out of hand? One in 10 children in the school has been pronounced ``unteachable''. The head and one of her deputies have resigned through sheer exhaustion. Now the teachers are threatening to go on strike. At last the crisis has become sufficiently severe for the Government to intervene: Gillian Shephard sent in the schools inspectorate yesterday.

But 600 children are still dependent on this school for their secondary education and their start in life. Some start that is. Only 7 per cent got at least five good GCSE passes this summer, compared to a national average over 40 per cent. Those children are getting an appalling deal from a society that owes them an education. We need to know what went wrong, and why it was continued for so long - first, because this is a real school and affects the future lives of many people, and second, because Ridings school is not, sadly, a one-off failure in an otherwise successful system.

Start with the objective facts. Ridings school was created out of the merger of two schools with falling rolls a couple of years ago. It is slap in the middle of a council estate with high unemployment. So far, not great - but other schools have done well in similar circumstances.

Now add the Government's education policies. There are two selective schools nearby, and a couple of church schools too. Children without academic ability, religion or rich parents end up at Ridings - charmlessly referred to by more than one person this week as a ``sink school''.

Yet, thanks to the local authority, Ridings has absorbed all the pupils other schools don't want. Twenty of the 60 children the teachers want to exclude have already been excluded (we used to say, ``expelled'') from other schools in the area. They were clearly considered to be so disruptive that their teachers couldn't cope, and the education of other children was suffering. But where do these excluded children go? Calderdale local authority was apparently not prepared to kick them onto the streets, and couldn't (or wouldn't) find them places in special schools. The result? Ridings was told to cope.

The task facing the staff there was immense. Other schools have indeed managed to motivate, discipline and teach classes full of teenagers from difficult backgrounds - not least the school led by headteacher Philip Lawrence in London. But remember that Mr Lawrence himself excluded 60 pupils in a year, in order to set the standards of discipline he wanted. Establishing workable systems of discipline when that ultimate sanction - expulsion - is not an option, is a huge challenge. But without effective and enforceable rules, teachers will have no hope of controlling their classes, and pupils will have little chance of learning.

We don't know the truth about the teaching staff at Ridings comprehensive. The Chief Inspectorate says 18,000 teachers across the country are not up to the job - so maybe a few at Ridings are among them and should not have been teaching. The rest there are, we assume, average, competent teachers. But in the circumstances Ridings needed super-teachers.

It had very little chance of attracting them. There were no extra bonuses to motivate and reward teachers in their difficult task, no higher salaries to recruit the most talented teachers in the country. Not surprisingly a large proportion of the teachers at Riding are supply teachers because permanent staff have left. Only a deep sense of moral duty would keep good staff at Ridings, and quite frankly we cannot blame those who decided it was all too much and moved to easier jobs nearby.

Most important of all, Ridings needed a truly inspirational headteacher to guide the troubled school into calmer waters. But again, that isn't so easy. Good headteachers need an amazing mix of skills. Most of all they must be able to motivate both staff and pupils, to manage people as well as money, and to recognise that the buck stops with them. Schools are not democracies, and so much depends on the strength at the top; schools in difficulty require heroic headteachers.

In practice, headteachers receive little training, and little proper screening to check they are up to the job. But then beggars (or in this case school governors) can't be choosers. Dynamic leaders who might make good heads are bound to be attracted to other higher status, more rewarding jobs.

Turning round a failing school is as much of a challenge as pulling up a collapsing company and turning it into a success. Yet the business leader who achieves it gets rich, well praised, and probably awarded an even better job afterwards. The successful headteacher has often achieved far more of real worth, but is recognised only if - as in Mr Lawrence's case - something terrible happens to make us realise what has been lost.

Schools these days are having to bear the strain of all kinds of social problems that we fail to deal with elsewhere. Children with family problems, living in grim circumstances, and convinced that they have little to hope for once school is over, bring all their emotional and behavioural difficulties into the classroom - for no one else in the community is giving them support.

So what is to be done? If all the difficulties are concentrated in one school, then that school needs the extra resources to attract excellent headteachers and teaching staff. Teaching in tough schools should become a high-status, high-skill profession.

And all those parents who are - understandably - taking advantage of the Government's policies on parental choice to take their kids out of Ridings should accept the inevitable consequence: paying more tax to improve the bad schools they left behind. There has been a lot of talk of duty recently; this is partly what duty means.