Time to Head out of school

Not long after England won the World Cup in 1966, Colin Richardson began a long career in education. Along with a batch of other headteadchers in Leeds, he's calling it a day. Ian Rosser reports

HE wasn't even supposed to be in a classroom. Fresh from completing his A-levels, an 18-year-old Colin Richardson had plotted his career out as an administrator in the shipping industry.

Over 40 years later, and he's calling time on being one of Leeds's long-serving headteachers.

So how did that happen?

"I wasn't going to be a teacher," said Mr Richardson, speaking in his office at Cockburn College of Arts in Beeston.

"I started off by working for a firm in Gateshead. I was going to be a personnel manager for a ship turbine maker and go to Newcastle University to do a short degree course.

"The problem was, I just hated it. I realised after just three weeks that I had made a mistake.

"A couple of my friends were teachers so I thought I would do that. A few people said I shouldn't go down that road but I decided to become a teacher ."

Turning down Newcastle, Mr Richardson instead landed a place on a three-year teaching degree course at Hull College of Education, arriving in the city in 1966.

On qualifying, he started his career as a business studies and economics teacher in a tough part of Middlesbrough. After working in two comprehensives there, he moved to Leeds in 1974, becoming the head of economics and vocational studies at Foxwood School in Seacroft.

At the time, the school was run by Bob Spooner, a leading light in the world of education who was known for appointing radical teachers who used innovative teaching methods.

"Foxwood used to be an all-boys school and had only just gone co-ed," said Mr Richardson. "There were 20 new staff starting and it was like a baptism of fire. I was only in my early 20s when I went there.

"It was a school where things were really happening. We had to experiment and engage with the children, most of which were from very deprived backgrounds. It worked because we got really good results with the pupils."

Ambitious

Leaving Foxwood in 1982, the ambitious teacher headed for Beeston, where he became deputy head at Cockburn High School.

"I was only ever going to stay for a couple of years, to get experience before moving on to a bigger school. At the time, Cockburn only had about 750 children and I wanted to work somewhere with about 1,100, which is more your typically-sized comp.

"We had a major asbestos crisis and the whole school had to decamp to north Leeds, to Moor Grange near Lawnswood.

"It was only supposed to be a short-term move, but then the workmen discovered asbestos right through the school. It ended up with the school building closing and being knocked down because it was contaminated.

"Everything in the school was condemned."

Eventually, the pupils and staff returned to south Leeds and settled into new school buildings. Because of the disruption, numbers at the already small high school had fallen further, and were down to about 500.

The return to Beeston also marked the beginning of a long-running saga between the school and education inspectors.

As it sought to re-establish itself, Cockburn became the last high school in the city to be inspected under the former HMI inspection regime.

Rather than today's "light touch" Ofsted system, where a couple of inspectors spend a day or two on site, the old-style approach saw 15 HMI inspectors camped in the school for a week.

"We really were poor then," said Mr Richardson. "The HMI report was really quite damning for the school."

The signs for the school were not encouraging, and when the then head retired in 1993, Mr Richardson took over with a raft of problems to solve.

Apart from the fall-out of the inspections, the school was 200,000 in debt and had one of the worst exam pass rates in the country, with just three per cent of pupils gaining five or more good GCSE grades.

Improved

"Within four years we got rid of the debt and the exam scores were up to 20 per cent," said Mr Richardson. "We then had a good Ofsted and the school was really on the way up."

But just as Cockburn improved, there was another twist in store when in 1997, it was decided to close Middleton Park High School. After its last set of exams, in which not a single child gained five good grades, the school was labelled the worst in the country

Staff from Cockburn were called in to draw up an action plan and most pupils transferred into the roll at Cockburn, although for two years pupils were taught over the two sites.

Gradually, exam results began to improve, rising from 11 per cent in 2001 to 38 per cent in 2006. Last year, they jumped to 50 per cent, making Cockburn one of the most improving schools in the UK.

Even so, Ofsted inspectors decided in November 2006 that the school needed a formal "notice to improve", which they then removed 12 months later.

"I've always thought that measuring schools by their exams results alone is far too simplistic," said Mr Richardson, who, along with his long-serving deputy head Janet Jackson, steps down on Tuesday. "We knew we were doing the rights things and, importantly, the community stayed with us."

The school, renamed Cockburn College of Arts following a successful bid to become a specialist arts centre in 2005, is currently undergoing a 15m extension and refurbishment under the Government's Building Schools for the Future programme.

Mr Richardson, whose job will be taken by the school's current deputy head Dave Gurney, will return on a part-time consultancy basis

He said: "There are going to be fantastic new facilities and an excellent new headteacher. The school is on an upward spiral and is just going to get better and better."

Recognition for a dozen class acts

The long service of 12 retiring headteachers was marked at a ceremony in Leeds this week.

Education Leeds organised the special reception at Haley's Hotel in Headingley, in recognition of their dedicated service to the city.

Each one was given a commemorative gift from Chris Edwards, chief executive of Education Leeds. He said: "The dedication, determination and talent shown by these headteachers characterises so much of what is truly amazing about Leeds schools.

"It is thanks to wonderful colleagues like these that our schools are improving, inclusive and successful places, where other extremely- talented headteachers want to work."

Coun Richard Harker, Leeds City Council's support executive member for children's services, also paid tribute to the heads.

"These headteachers have all played their part in the success story of education here in Leeds, and I wish them all the best in the future."

The retiring heads are: Jane Butler, Kippax North Primary; Cecilia Hyland, Corpus Christi Primary in Halton Moor; Bob Young, Aberford CoE Primary; Bridget Forbes, St Philips Catholic Primary in Middleton;

Peter Bell, Hollybush Primary in Bramley; Margaret Brown, West Leeds High in Armley; Anne Clarke, Benton Park High in Yeadon; Val Forster, Rosebank Primary Burley; Anne Matthias, Oakwood Primary; John North, East Garforth Primary; Colin Richardson, Cockburn College of Arts in Beeston and Peter Woodhead, St Peter's CoE Primary in Burmantofts.

'It will be the students and staff I will miss most'

Margaret Brown, pictured, is retiring as head at West Leeds High after 14 years at the helm. She started her teaching career in 1974 at City of Leeds School. She was instrumental in the school achieving specialist technology status in 2005.

Mrs Brown's successor will be Steve Kelsey, who is current deputy headteacher at the school, which is to merge with Wortley High next year to form Swallow Hill Community College.

She said: "West Leeds has been part of my life for 14 years and as schools are about people – it will be the wonderful students and staff that I shall miss most. I am very proud of West Leeds and all its successes."