IMPROVEMENTS are well under way at a once troubled Sheffield academy, according to its new principal – although she accepts its reputation is bound to lag behind its performance.
Maria Nightingale, aged 53, took charge of Sheffield Park Academy in the spring after being brought in to help improve behaviour and boost attendance levels the previous year.
The school is now off the failing blacklist – though it has continued to attract negative headlines after a series of campus disturbances allegedly fuelled by racial tensions.
The latest trouble at the beginning of the year saw Sheffield Central MP Paul Blomfield seeking answers after eight pupils were arrested on suspicion of public order offences.
“We are seeing real improvements here across the board, but it is inevitable that the academy’s reputation will lag behind its performance,” Mrs Nightingale said.
“The incidents we have had have been portrayed as racially motivated, but I feel these are simply instances of students behaving badly.
“Sometimes the young people involved have not even been students at this school and it has clearly been anti-social behaviour which has no relation to skin colour.
“We tell the students that, whatever may be happening in the broader community, those issues should be left on the other side of the school gate and they should be nice to one another.”
Mrs Nightingale’s previous post was at Manchester Academy, which like Park is also run by the United Learning Trust – and which went from failing to an Ofsted rating of outstanding.
“When I arrived at Park the core objective was to get the academy out of special measures,” she said.
“I knew there were challenging circumstances but what I found here were the most friendly and welcoming students I’d met in my 30 year career.
“They were clearly deserving of a really good school – I told them ‘work hard, be nice, and together we can achieve something’. We were delighted that we came out of special measures a term earlier than had been anticipated.
“If a school provides interesting and engaging lessons then the children will respond – what Ofsted found was being achieved with the same teachers and the same children.
“But urban communities can be complex – while youngsters there have every right to have a good school, students do fall out and at times behave badly.”
Park’s target is to be rated ‘good’ – the second highest category – by the end of 2012 and Mrs Nightingale hopes in the longer term for the school to be ‘outstanding’, a goal which Manchester achieved in six years.
“We want to be the first choice for parents for education in this area,” Mrs Nightingale added.