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Running up the ladder

February 1995: the bombshell. OFSTED: failed. This school requires special measures. School fragmented. Children bewildered. Behaviour appalling. Relationships shattered. Eight out of 16 teaching staff off sick. Temporary heads parachuted in; the first for two weeks, the second for four, and the third for a term. Governing body learns new skill of action planning.

April 1995: public humiliation as report is published. Parents indignant: "This is a great school; we love it." Action plan identifies change for everything, except PE. The show goes on with multitudes of supply teachers and hoards of "experts" on the curriculum, behaviour, management, finance, health and safety.

Everyone is issued with badges, officially because there are so many visitors. We suspect it's so we can remember who we are. We spend the summer moving furniture and painting. This is therapeutic because there's a visible result.

September 1995: on our fifth headteacher in five months, and some staff come to work out of sheer curiosity to see what might happen next. Staffing a nightmare: sorry, not your turn for a breakdown, you'll have to wait. The action plan indicates change on a cosmic scale.

The learning curve is straight up. Governors, staff and midday supervisors are trained in everything from behaviour to financial management. The stream of curious visitors continues, increasing in pomp and ceremony: directors of education, chairs of education committees, and government ministers with full regalia and retinue. Young civil servants express surprise we don't all have northern accents and ask if there is much unemployment round here. Only about 75 per cent. And they want us to do homework.

Looking back, the past two years have been like a very serious, protracted and expensive game of snakes and ladders. We started way below zero and have worked upwards bit by bit, two steps forward, three steps back. The race has been swift and tested the survival instincts of the fittest. Those who could cope with change and the blows to self-esteem found the ladders. But there were snakes lurking.

September 1997 will probably see us with only seven of the 16 teaching staff we had at the time of the inspection. When I can't sleep I count the different teachers (and I don't include supply teachers) who have filled those nine posts during the past two years. I usually get to about 30 before nodding off. For the staff who have left, the cost in terms of ruined careers, illness, ill-feeling, and lost self-esteem has been massive.

I took our failure very hard, but I had the advantages of an iron constitution, a settled home life and being adaptable to change. So, for me, the past two years have been very productive and I have learned more in that time than in my previous two decades at the chalk face. At the time of the inspection I was a very new senior manager. Now I am deputy head. Under the leadership of an exceptional headteacher (the fifth one stayed), my abilities as a teacher and as a manager have been confirmed and applauded. My development has been rapid and wide ranging: appointed English co-ordinator, sent on 20-day course, encouraged to take a management qualification, my teaching scrutinised by in-house, out-house, LEA, HMI, Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

I have been involved in re-evaluating and making changes to all aspects of curriculum, planning, assessment, behaviour management, learning styles,subject co-ordination, recruitment of staff, mentoring, monitoring teaching and learning, development of staff, involvement of parents and governing body.

The headteacher has led by example, and we have had the benefit of help, encouragement and advice from anyone we've asked. HMI visits have kept us on track and applauded our successes. I have managed to avoid most of the snakes and find many of the ladders. There are those who say the scum always rises to the top.

We have almost reached square 100 and are looking for a venue large enough to invite all those involved in our success to our Coming Out (of Special Measures) Party. We have many new staff who don't carry the baggage of failure around. We just need to throw a six when the inspectors call again. But complacency is a dangerous thing. There could be one last, huge snake lurking on square 99: Headteacher gets run over by a bus. Back to square 1.

Cathy Byrne is deputy head of a Hull primary school.

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