As part of the early transition programme initiated by our LEA, we just finished visiting the two most likely high school choices for my son in 2011. Because he has Asperger's, its important that we choose the school with the best resources for him, things that include teaching, support staff, clubs, school layout, size, etc. Both of our nearest high schools are similar in student population but couldn't be more different in terms of building and resources.
Perhaps its because we went to visit Sowerby Bridge High first, that Calder High appeared so much like its shrunken withered cousin, because the building at Sowerby is nearly brand new. Prior to these visits, I hadn't given much thought to new vs. old buildings, except that I tend to like the architectural charm of Victorian buildings.
Sowerby felt light and open, a nice thing for a high school packed with so many students. The arts and textiles rooms were well stocked with all the tools of the trade, the learning resource centre (library) was well equipped as were most of the computer-laden classrooms. The cafeteria was also laid out well and lunch times are staggered so there's not a seagull- like descent of 1,000 students all at once. Sowerby also has a dedicated ASD provision, which makes it stand out in the valley as it is the only one.
Still, the provision only has space for 6 children, but those not selected for the provision (based on need) can still access it and find quiet spaces for study, help with navigating the school, and all the additional help their statements would provide for. The downside for us is that there is no yellow school bus serving our area for Sowerby, so it would mean independent travel on the main buses. Sowerby also had a lower Ofsted rating at the last inspection, but reading an updated letter indicates that massive improvement has taken place.
Calder High by contrast was built in he 1950's (no charming Victorian architecture there) and for about 450 children. There are now 1,000+ students and we were told the council has indicated they must accept more this next year. Where are they going to put them?? The school itself is overcrowded and there's a maze of portacabins scattered throughout the site housing extra classrooms. The school hasn't been renovated so the ceilings, walls, and floors are worn and torn in many places. Some classrooms used to be cloakrooms, so have insufficient ventilation.
It was somewhat shocking really, and I wonder how many parents have actually been round the school? I wonder why also, in the middle of a fairly affluent valley, the council hasn't managed to upgrade the school? There is a great new "Ted Hughes Theatre" (because he was born in Mytholmroyd) at the front of the building putting on a modern mask for the aging school, and the cafeteria wasn't too bad either, but most of the classrooms we went into were crowded, stuffy and hot. They also don't have a staggered lunch time scheme, so it seems somewhat chaotic.
This is not to say that the quality of teaching is not superior, because the school does achieve some remarkable things. The Ofsted report was much better than Sowerby's and there are alot of opportunities for creative pursuits. They also have programmes in place to help ASD students, but they don't get the same funding that Sowerby gets.
Despite the well-worn facilities, there was a warm feeling (not just temperature!) about the school, a real sense of community. The downside is obvious, overcrowded and outdated, for a child with some sensory issues, I wonder how a dark, hot, crowded classroom will be tolerated? And yet all the kids we talked to had nothing but praise, and as we walked past the 'Remove' room, only one student was present. The Remove room is a narrow little thing where children who have been disruptive and given the requisite three warnings, go to sit out the remainder of that lesson. After that, they go on to their next lesson with a clean slate. Perhaps the room would see more misbehavers later that day, but with only one student out of 1,000+ 'removed' for disruption, well, that seems pretty good.
The yellow school bus also serves our area for Calder, making transport alot more straightforward. I liked Sowerby's approach to homework compliance by having an abundance of afterschool homework clubs to encourage children to finish at school. But Calder's approach is different and they coordinate homework in sections, so for instance, kids might have two weeks history work to focus on and to complete in that time, while no other subjects will be assigning homework. For an Asperger's child who has a hard time getting organised and multi-tasking, focusing on one subject for an extended period sounds just right.
So while I thought visiting both schools would clarify in my mind a definitive choice, I find myself weighing up the pros and cons of both schools equally. In the end it will be my son's choice and he already wants to go to Sowerby because a few of his friends go there now and a some from his class will as well, but he hasn't viewed the schools yet, which I would like him to do, as getting a feel for the places really helps.