Britain’s most infamous school reborn and set to be an asset to its community

Colin Davies pictured outside the Ridings School and an artist's impression of the future site, below.Colin Davies pictured outside the Ridings School and an artist's impression of the future site, below.
Colin Davies pictured outside the Ridings School and an artist's impression of the future site, below.
It was once dubbed the worst school in the country, but could The Ridings finally be about to rise from the ashes? Sarah Freeman reports.

As headline-grabbing news goes, the story of The Ridings School had everything.

In 1996 – before the phrase “Broken Britain” had even been coined – it was announced that teaching had been suspended at the school amid reports of bullying, vandalism and truancy.

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Its notoriety was assured when the finger was pointed at 60 pupils running riot in the classrooms.

For those looking for evidence that Great British discipline and respect had been sacrificed in favour of touchy-feely education policies – and there were plenty of them – The Ridings was it. Its harshest critics painted the pupils as a feral underclass and blamed weak leadership for a school out of control.

Ken Lambert remembers it well. He was a former pupil back in the 1960s and still lives just a few minutes down the road from the school in Halifax.

“There was a time when journalists were camped out on that bit of grass over there,” says the retired businessman who is part of a team which believes it might just be able to engineer a new future for the school. “And those steps are probably the most photographed in the country.”

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He may be right. Every news report was generally accompanied by a picture of the main entrance. With railings in front, it often looked as though the school itself had been caged.

That initial closure was the start of a decade of turbulence. New headteachers came and went, millions were invested into new facilities and yet despite the dedication of some staff and the determination of some parents, The Ridings could not escape its reputation.

While one year it was ranked as one of the most improved schools in the country, the next it was again at the bottom of the GCSE league tables. Intake fell as parents voted with their feet and sent their children to nearby schools and finally in 2009 The Ridings admitted defeat and closed.

However, the school once dubbed “the worst in the country” may soon boast a much more edifying claim to fame. The Ridings, empty now for four years, has just been handed over to a development group in what is believed to be the largest ever community asset transfer in England.

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While the past few years have seen small community organisations take on the running of town halls and vacant pubs, the Threeways group, of which Ken is chair, has secured a rather bigger proposition.

Spread over eight acres, The Ridings’ warren-like network of buildings has been touched little since it closed. The desks and chairs have been moved out and there’s a notice on most of the windows informing opportunist thieves that all valuable items have been removed, but pupils’ artwork still hangs along the corridor walls and in some of the classrooms there’s remnants of the last display of work.

“It’s a big project,” says Colin Davies, Threeways chief executive and a man skilled in the art of understatement.

“But that’s why it’s so exciting. Calderdale Council was first approached in 2010 not long after the school closed about a possible community transfer, but given the scale of what we are trying to do it has taken a long time to cross the Is and dot the Ts.”

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The five-year plan includes turning over part of the building 
to a community centre and nursery, creating another 
section dedicated to health and wellbeing and opening up space for start-up businesses and social enterprise.

Calderdale Council has said it is keen to move some of its services into another part of the site, but even with its support the development will come at a price – £3.5m to be precise.

“It doesn’t sound that much if you say it quickly and actually 
for what we want to do I think 
it’s a pretty reasonable figure,” says Colin.

“We are exploring a number of funding options, but until the transfer of assets took place we weren’t able to submit formal funding applications.

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“Now that we have the building, raising the money is our priority. Of course in times of austerity it’s going to be tough, but I think that this is an attractive investment.”

Ironically, the school’s previous reputation may work in its favour. The kudos which will come with being associated with a project to turn the country’s most notorious school into a thriving social enterprise should be an attractive proposition for businesses looking to prove their corporate responsibility credentials.

Threeways says that the on-site sports centre is evidence of what can be achieved. Much of the equipment in the gym was bought not long before the school closed and the rest has been donated by the council. It may not boast a sauna and steam room, but with membership costing £15.99 month, crucially it’s affordable.

“We are in a largely white working class area, where long term unemployment is above the national average, and where there is a real lack of decent facilities,” says Colin. “Having the gym already up and running gives us a real foundation to build on. When we took over the site there were just 10 members and to be honest it was barely ticking over.

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“In just two weeks we’ve added another 20 members and as word of mouth spreads I have no doubt that will keep on rising.

“The membership fees are being kept deliberately low. It’s about getting people through the door and getting them on board with the rest of the project. It says that someone thinks this area is worth investing in. This isn’t about us coming here and saying, ‘right, this is what we think you need’, it is about the people who live round here.

“I am from Sheffield, but of the six board members, five are local to the area and the sixth lives in Dewsbury. The only way this will work is if the people we want to use the facilities are with us from the start.”

Under the asset transfer system, councils hand over sites on a long- term lease and with cash-strapped authorities keen to off-load buildings which are costly to maintain, the scheme has already had some notable successes.

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Three years ago, the Grade II- listed town hall in Hebden Bridge was barely used and had fallen into disrepair. Dating from 1897, in 2010 the Victorian building was passed over to the Hebden Bridge Community Association which went onto raise £3.7m to develop the site.

Now home to office space, a café and one of the largest conference and event venues for miles, the HBCA says it is now back at the centre of the town’s civic life.

While The Ridings may not have the architectural grandeur of the Hebden Bridge Town Hall, in an area which was derided for a decade and which has been quietly forgotten in recent years, the Threeways project could have an even greater impact.

“Development isn’t just about building houses; it’s really about building communities,” says Councillor Steve Sweeney, cabinet member for communities. “Local people have been involved in planning the centre from the outset and they will continue to play a big part in its future.”

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Artist’s impressions have now been drawn up and if you look closely something is missing from this vision of the future.

While much of the plans involve adapting what’s already there, those much photographed steps leading to the entrance will be removed.

It’s partly to allow for a lift to run over three floors, but Threeways admits the decision is symbolic.

“It’s about drawing a line under the past,” says Ken. “I saw some old photographs of this area recently which showed how much had changed. There used to be a thriving shopping street and at one point there were nine butchers. I’m not saying we can get back to that, but I think we can inject a bit of pride back in the area.

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“In the past whenever there was trouble at The Ridings a few of my work colleagues would joke, ‘Hey Ken, I saw your old school on telly the other day, it’s a wonder you turned out okay’. Things did get out of control there, but now we have a real chance to consign The Ridings to history once and for all.”

People power taking control

Across Yorkshire there have been a large number of successful community take-overs, from Bramley Baths in Leeds to the historic Portland Works in Sheffield.

One of the most high- profile took place in the North Yorkshire village of Hudswell where a group saved their local pub, the George and Dragon, through a community share issue.

Having secured a £20,000 loan through the Key Fund, the group was able to secure additional funding and it now boasts 190 local owners.

Back in West Yorkshire, the Threeways is now looking for volunteers 
to help make their dream a reality. Anyone interested can call 
0845 2699 289 or 
email countmein@