The Curiously Missing Past of My Alma Mater: Outwood Grange

The Curiously Missing Past of My Alma Mater: Outwood Grange

You probably haven't heard of my old school on the outskirts of Wakefield, but you'll almost certainly be aware of 'Outwood'. Yes, it's half of that Morley and Outwood constituency, the one that produced the shock 'Ed Balls loses his seat' result at the 2015 general election.

These days, the Outwood Grange seems to be the leading force of a body of 16 academies. But when I was a pupil there it was much more humdrum, a stone's throw from the Lofthouse Colliery and the Farm Stores - what we euphemistically called ASDA's abattoir and food processing plant.

Outwood Grange School opened in September 1972, from the merger of two former secondary modern schools. When I started there in 1980, it was the third largest comprehensive in the UK, with just under 2,000 pupils.

Remnants of the secondary modern ethos lingered in some of the teaching, which could be lacklustre. But like most of us, I also have memories of inspiring teachers whose lessons stuck with me - how many 47-year-olds can still recite the formula for quadratic equations? And after all, Outwood Grange did its job in getting me through to higher education.

So far, so bog standard.

What unfortunately makes Outwood Grange stand out like a beacon is what happened there on the night of Thursday 3/Friday 4 December 1980 - 35 years ago this week. A massive fire, started by an arsonist, destroyed almost all of the Upper School - over half the buildings on the site. The blaze was the second serious fire at the school, coming on the fifth anniversary - almost to the day - of a previous arson attack.

The school's website is silent on the fires of 1980 and 1975. Not only that, there's nothing said about the school's history at all. You might expect a list of previous headteachers, achievements, the date it was founded, networking for alumni... Nothing. All that's mentioned is the opening date of the current Academy incarnation. For Outwood Grange it seems, September 2009 is the year 0.

Contrast that with the 'posh' school up the road, which too had been destroyed by a fire -75 years before Outwood Grange. Silcoates was burnt down in 1904, leading to its corny Latin motto Clarior ex Ignibus - 'Brighter through the Flames'.

I don't want this piece to get stuck in the quagmire of educational inequality in the UK, but Outwood Grange and Silcoates do show a peculiar polarity. On the one hand, private schools hyping their illustrious past to the point of celebrating the year some local grandee winked at the headmaster. On the other, the state-school-turned-academy churning out an educational product with no sense of its past, a sausage machine with no soul. The quickest of Google searches shows Outwood Grange and Silcoates are not alone.

Surely there's a happy medium, with the school's educational philosophy anchored in its history, and appropriately celebrated.

How might that look like for Outwood Grange? The week after the 1980 fire, our headmaster handed out copies of a letter that looked like it may well have come out of a John Bull printing set (clearly the school's reprographics department had gone up in smoke):

'What I must say is that the prophets of doom and gloom are wrong! The character of the School is such that we shall function and function well. All the Staff and all the pupils will ensure that the best of Outwood Grange will not just survive, but be even better.'

Why not celebrate the Dunkirk spirit of Mr Snowdon and his teaching staff, demonstrated by their untiring work in the months after the fire?

Who knows what lies ahead for England's state schools a decade from now? And what happens should the academy system go out of favour? Another reinvention, another year 0? This, in turn, would wipe out all record of Outwood Grange Academy's current achievements.

So please Outwood Grange Academy, give my alma mater back its history.


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