Poor teachers, bad behaviour and a ‘culture of racism’ - Former head describes leading failing Fenland school in new book

Head on the Block by Tony Cooper.

Head on the Block by Tony Cooper. - Credit: Archant

A HEADTEACHER for more than 20 years, one of which was spent leading a Fenland school in special measures, Tony Cooper knows more than most about our country’s education system.

Tony Cooper.

Tony Cooper. - Credit: Archant

But does he know more than the politicians who fiddle with the curriculum? Or the Ofsted inspectors who condense years of effort into words such as “satisfactory” or “inadequate”?

These are among the questions posed by a new book titled Head on the Block... and it is written by Mr Cooper himself.

Mr Cooper retired in 2011 after spending almost a quarter of century as head of Cottenham Village College, near Ely.

He earned such a level of respect that in 2006 he was asked to take a secondment from his post in order to improve Wisbech’s failing Queen’s School - now the Thomas Clarkson Academy.

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It was a challenge he accepted.

Mr Cooper left his school, which had just been judged as “good with outstanding features” by Ofsted, to take the reins at the poorest performing school in East Anglia.

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Although his first meetings with staff in the Fens were “extremely encouraging”, the head soon found out the size of the task he was faced with.

“Student behaviour was extremely poor - with frequent disruption to lessons - as was school attendance and punctuality,” writes Mr Cooper.

“The school’s financial management had been inefficient, with a significant lack of transparency or accountability.

“There were staff capability and conduct issues, and other personnel matters requiring intervention and, in some cases, formal action.

“Communication with parents had not been a strong feature of the school, and the curriculum and timetable left much to be desired, contributing in part to the classroom indiscipline.”

In November, 2006, inspectors returned for the first monitoring visit since the school had been placed in special measures. The news was not good.

“Inadequate was the blunt summary of progress to date,” says Mr Cooper. “A sublime summary of personal human failing.”

Exam results were woeful, teachers had “little or no control of their classes” and attendance “remained stubbornly well below average”.

In his book, Mr Cooper reveals the extent of the problems.

“There was a barely-concealed culture of racism that lurked distressingly close to the surface, erupting at times into serious conflict,” he says.

“Incidents - sometimes violent - occurred both within school and outside, in a community which could not be described as being at ease with the issue of race.”

But as the year wore on improvement began to take shape and by the summer Queen’s was deemed by Ofsted to have made “satisfactory progress”.

“That might be regarded as a modest epitaph for a full year’s work,” writes Mr Cooper.

“But it was enough to be proud of - I was more than prepared, indeed extremely pleased, to accept the dictionary’s definition of satisfactory.”

Reflecting on his time in the Fens, the head adds: “Some days were joyful and positive with a sense of enthusiasm and excitement; other days left me wanting to weep.”

Indeed, in his final week at Queen’s, Mr Cooper had a “troublesome encounter” with a badly-behaved student.

He writes: “Unable to accept his culpability, he fled my office in raging temper, consequently repaying me by giving his fifty-pence coin a grand tour of the bonnet of my car.”

When Mr Cooper returned to Cottenham, his successor, John Bennett, lasted less than a year.

But he was followed by Maureen Strudwick, a leader Mr Cooper describes as a “rightful heiress to the post” who triggered “tremendous advances”.

Last year, Thomas Clarkson Community College, complete with a £30million Building Schools for the Future refit, became Thomas Clarkson Academy as Northamptonshire-based Brooke Weston Partnership won the right to run the school for the next 30 years. Mrs Strudwick was replaced.

Commenting on Mrs Strudwick’s time in charge, Mr Cooper writes: “During those years, ambitious plans to improve the school’s accommodation and facilities were made.

“Finally, in January 2012, those plans were realised and the school moved into new, purpose-built, state-of-the-art premises, only to be taken over - after all the hard work had been done - by an educational conglomerate which will no doubt be given the ultimate accolade for ‘turning round the school’.”

• Head on the Block will be published with Troubador Publishing on Feburary 1, priced at £8.99.

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