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Hope lurks under the snake's belly

David Budge visits one of only three primary schools in the North-east classified as failing. There is a useful rule of thumb for gauging unemployment in any British town or city. Just count the mini-cabs. The more mini-cabs, the higher the unemployment, because so many people turn to taxi-driving when made redundant.

In Gateshead, where thousands of shipbuilding, coalmining and engineering jobs have been lost, one mini-cab magnate has 100 drivers. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that more than half the pupils at The Drive primary school in Gateshead's Felling district - one of only three schools in the North-east to have been classified as failing - are receiving free meals.

Many of these pupils live on a forbidding-looking council estate where the houses are protected by a 7ft-high wooden stockade. Some of the tiny gardens are lovingly tended, but others are littered with broken furniture and patrolled by growling pit bulls and mongrels.

There is, however, nothing forbidding about the school - an open-plan brick building which sits in a daisy-strewn field flanked by neat council houses that are now largely owner-occupied.

At the school's main entrance, two chatting mothers were pinning up a poster advertising a parents' disco. Alongside was a noticeboard bearing beaming photographs of the staff. In the past year, however, those smiles have hidden a lot of anguish, as Marcia Ewart, the head, admits. "Quite frankly, they've been to hell and back."

Both the former head and deputy head were heavily criticised by the OFSTED inspectors who arrived in January 1994: "The management and leadership of the school are very weak. There is no sense of purpose or direction." They have retired early, after extended sick leave.

But the teachers' self-esteem also plummeted after they were told that 73 per cent of lessons were unsatisfactory or poor. One teacher, Sue Littlewood, says she coped by not reading the papers or watching the regional television news during the month after the report.

One year on, she seems to have recovered from the trauma, but she says that the continuing visits from inspectors and advisers create a further pressure (needless to say, the governors have also been monitoring progress carefully). There have been four follow-up inspections - two by HM Inspectorate and two by the local authority - and both the director and chairman of education have come calling.

But Marcia Ewart expects there will be many more visits in the months ahead. "For us to get out of the 'special measures' category we're going to have to be better than OK," she said. "There will inevitably be concern that a school could slip back again. You can't just pull it out of the mud, you have to raise it a few steps as well."

Mrs Ewart was chosen to lead the rescue effort because she has a strong back, figuratively speaking - "I like a challenge. I get bored if I haven't got one" - and because she was particularly well-qualified. She has a master's degree in the philosophy of education from Manchester University, and was head of a Sefton primary school for eight years before becoming an adviser in Devon. She then went on to Liverpool University to study the implementation of national curriculum science.

When she arrived last May, the governors had already drawn up the action plan with the local authority. "The LEA gives whatever support I ask for," she said. "It has provided us with a .5 learning support teacher and if I need help with the humanities, for example, as I do now, it is freely given by the relevant adviser. We also have an attached LEA officer and there's always someone from the local authority at governors' meetings."

The two advisers who visited the school a fortnight ago were pleasantly surprised to find that their presence at a staff meeting did not appear inhibiting. But free speech is something that Mrs Ewart has encouraged.

"I'm not afraid of conflict, of people disagreeing with me," she said. "When I first came here I couldn't get over how people would keep saying: 'Yes Mrs Ewart'." Obviously the staff have got the message that they should not be too deferential, be-cause just as she said that her secretary interrupted the conversation to take her lunch order: "Spaghetti bolognese . . . yea or nay?" Having voted for the spaghetti Mrs Ewart continued her flow - "My general attitude is that if something doesn't work we'll try another approach. I enjoy thrashing out ideas."

To date, there has been a torrent of ideas. A home-school reading project is under way (comparatively few parents withdrew their children from the school following the OFSTED report), and parents and local residents who have joined the new Friends' Association now come in to work alongside the teachers. A revamped school uniform with the motto "Learn and Grow" has been designed with the pupils' help, but Mrs Ewart has told parents not to buy it until their children outgrow the old one: "The parents' personal finances are more important than our image."

There has also been a sustained drive to improve teaching standards and staff confidence. "You don't get anywhere if people are unhappy and their morale is lower than a snake's belly," Mrs Ewart said.

She and her new deputy, Tricia Smith, have spent much time working with the staff and watching them teach. Mrs Ewart has also arranged for teachers to visit other schools, and set up mini-conferences on lesson planning and teaching towards learning objectives. "I think there used to be a lot of whole-class teaching with insufficient differentiation. Some teachers weren't comfortable with teaching one group while getting others to concentrate on another task."

As well as opening professional "windows", she has thrown open the doors of stock cupboards. "We had a bring-out-your-dead day when we pulled out everything we had - it was quite a revelation - and redistributed it. I also sold off all our immaculate filing cabinets which the children couldn't open and used the money to buy boxes and shelves to display the teaching materials. "

Improving pupil behaviour has been another priority because, as the inspectors reported, there were a dozen exclusions in 1993 (nine temporary, two indefinite, and one permanent). Mrs Ewart feels that the high exclusions rate was directly related to the total absence of statements of special need, and though she expects two pupils to be statemented soon, she feels that another eight would benefit from such help. Even so, HMI says The Drive is now an orderly school where 70-80 per cent of lessons are satisfactory or better.

Professor David Reynolds, a school effectiveness expert co-opted on to the governing body at the behest of Mrs Ewart, now feels that the school is doing everything right. "Looking at its outcomes - for example, the levels that the pupils obtain in national curriculum tests - people might still say that it is failing, but judging by the process, it is succeeding. I think it may take three years to achieve the hoped-for outcomes."

One factor hindering progress is lack of cash for teaching materials. "I have a new office chair and I feel guilty when I sit in it," Mrs Ewart said. The guilt is misplaced, because her office is spartan, but money is undoubtedly needed for books and technology tool kits, and Mrs Ewart is now contemplating cutting back the staff budget - there are 7.5 teachers for 142 infant and junior children - to provide more funds for teaching resources.

The other major handicap is the home background of many pupils. "What we see here is the cycle of deprivation," Mrs Ewart said sadly. "Many of the parents achieved little at school and they haven't got high expectations. They don't have a vision for their children." Thankfully, she does.

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