Just for a moment the staff of Roundthorn Primary School in Oldham wondered whether to accept the offer of a postponement. But the education authority had said there should be no major problems, the parents liked the school and the inspectors had indicated they would take the problems into account. Cautiously optimistic, the teachers agreed to stick to the timetable.
By the end of the inspection visit their morale was in tatters. After three and a half days in the school in June 1994 the team of six inspectors delivered their unexpected verdict: Roundthorn was "likely to fail" to give its pupils an acceptable standard of education, and special measures needed to be taken.
The staff were devastated - and angry. "We felt we'd been misled all round, " says Jenny Harrison, acting head at the time. "The inspectors made you feel two inches high. They targeted teachers with weak spots, and that made people very tense. There were tears in the staffroom: one teacher was sobbing through the whole of the feedback."
Despite their feelings of betrayal, for the next 21 months the staff worked to tackle the issues raised, under the leadership of a new head, and with regular visits from inspectors. Then, just before Easter, the inspectors decided the school had been improved enough to warrant being taken off special measures.
Roundthorn is not the only school to come under such severe fire. No less than 146 - 69 primary, 55 secondary and 22 special - have been categorised as failing since OFSTED began its inspections in September 1993. Of these, only seven - 4 primary, 2 secondary and one special school - have so far been taken off special measures.
What lessons can be drawn from the Roundthorn experience? How do you turn a school round in such a comparatively short time? And how helpful is it to teachers to have their school described as a failure?
Roundthorn is a quintessential neighbourhood school, standing at the point where urban Oldham meets the Lancashire countryside. The 285 pupils aged 3-11, virtually all from the surrounding streets, are taught in a pleasant Victorian building by 10 teachers and five assistants, plus the head.
The inspectors' main criticisms were of the school's management and leadership structures. They found serious deficiencies in the planning, organising and resourcing of the curriculum; unsatisfactory assessment and recording arrangements; a failure to identify and cater for children with special needs; and a lack of proper financial management. "At key stage 2 the teaching was unsatisfactory in half the lessons," the report said.
Today staff and governors are reluctant to criticise the former head, who remains unwell. They point to the friendly ethos of the school - an aspect noticed by the inspectors - and claim that plans for improvement had already been agreed, but that the evidence of their implementation was lacking.
They saw the head as a strong personality with good ideas, but acknowledge that the staff were not operating effectively as a team. They also point to a degree of naivety about the inspection, an attitude of "they'll take us as they find us".
It fell to Linda Turner, the newly-appointed head, to draw up an action plan after the inspection, and ensure that the demoralised staff, who remained virtually unchanged, effected the necessary improvements. "When they saw the targets I set them they thought I was asking the impossible," she recalls. "When they achieved them they were amazed."
She made a number of fundamental changes designed to revive and remotivate the shell-shocked teachers. All were given a different age group to teach, and a different classroom to work in. Each was also given responsibility for an area of the curriculum, and a senior management team was created.
"If you recognise the potential of teachers who are supposed to have failed, then you have something to work with," she says. "They may be in the wrong age group, or have begun to feel negative about teaching, or be disillusioned about their expertise not being recognised. But if they get the excitement of something new, then they can go forward."
She also improved the teachers' working environment. With the help of Pounds 9,000 worth of extra funding, old furniture was thrown out in favour of modern, colourful desks and chairs; bare cloakrooms were turned into attractive activity areas; fresh resources were acquired in key subjects such as history. "It gave the school a real lift," says deputy head Jacqui Adams.
But with two staff meetings a week, new curriculum documents flying around, regular visits from HMI, as well as the normal school day to get through, tensions occasionally surfaced. At one staff meeting one teacher said, to general agreement, that she just could not take in any more new ideas or information.
The incident underlined for Linda Turner a crucial part of the renewal process. "I had to be sure the teachers wouldn't crack during this difficult time, and part of that was getting the relationships right," she says.
"They had to be confident and open with me, and feel able to voice their doubts."
Relationships with the governors were also improved. "Unless you're involved you only see the surface," says parent governor Kevin Melia. Each governor has now adopted a class, and can go in and watch the teacher at work. Staff also go to governors' meetings to talk about their new curriculum responsibilities.
Parents too are being encouraged to get to know the school better by helping in the classroom. Paradoxically their support has always been strong, if not necessarily well-informed: even after the inspectors' report they made no significant complaints, nor withdrew any of their children.
Roundthorn staff put the successful turnaround down to Linda Turner's ability to combine humanity with decisive management. "You can raise issues, you're treated fairly, and everyone's equal," says Alison Clewes. Peter Garth, chairman of the governors, also praises her leadership: "Her approachability has pulled the staff together," he says.
But the experience has left serious doubts about the value of OFSTED's "failing school" tag. "If you start by nailing people to the floor, it takes them much longer to pick themselves up," Jenny Harrison says. "We could have been told these things without the `likely to fail' label being attached. "
The point is echoed by John Apthomas, general inspector for Oldham, who acted as a sounding board for the new head's ideas. "The label has hindered the process by bringing undue attention by the media," he suggests. "Teachers can make significant improvement to a school without such a public profile. "