Tears away from spotlight

Estelle Maxwell

Estelle Maxwell charts Crook county primary's path from despair to recovery

Several experienced teachers broke down and cried in the staffroom of Crook county primary school when they heard the news.

After 18 visits from the Office for Standards in Education and the local authority in almost two years the 376-pupil school was deemed to be no longer failing and removed from the special measures list.

The threats of closure or of being run by a "hit squad" (an education association) have been lifted as has the constant pressure of being monitored. There is no longer a climate of fear, but the semi-rural school was badly scarred by the experience and its staff now crave anonymity.

The local education authority, school governors and parents are still furious at the slur on the school and are adamant it was never failing. Now its staff make sure everything they do is visible, provable, unquestionable.

If the publication of the original report in the autumn of 1993 was devastating, it galvanised the school's governors and Durham County Council into drawing up an action plan which focused on the curriculum, behaviour, management and teaching.

Although the governors disputed most of the report, they used it as a starting point for recovery, said chairman, Bob Pendlebury. They believe Crook is now a better school because it has been forced to operate under a spotlight.

He admitted that some criticism was justified. "The writing skills of children and levels of numeracy should have been higher. But it's difficult to reconcile these findings with statements by local secondary heads who say our children perform no differently to those from other feeder primaries." However, there is no doubt that literacy and numeracy have improved. This year's key stage 1 test results compare favourably with national results from the preceding year.

Other areas of improvement include monitoring. The management plan described in detail how staff should focus on different issues and progress through targets. Anne Collingwood, acting headteacher and former deputy, maintained much of the work now described as improved or new in the final OFSTED report was already being done in 1993. Where the school failed, she believed, was in not drawing the inspectors' attention to these areas.

She said: "We believed it was a training exercise. It was not a case of them taking us as they found us. We thought it would be a good learning opportunity . . . We never thought the school would be deemed to be failing."

Jeremy Fitt, deputy director of education for Durham, said the council maintained close links with its schools, and that Crook had not been overlooked despite its relatively isolated geographical position. The authority never considered failure was a possibility, he said. He drew attention to the timing of the first HMI visit, about nine months after the school had amalgamated with a neighbouring infant school: a period of consolidation, he said. If there is still any dispute, it centres on how far the school had gone in implementing the curriculum at the time of the first inspection. Since 1993 the school has spent money on in-service training, supply cover and other bought-in support, and has ensured that teachers spend time in other schools.

The pressure under which it has operated has taken a physical toll. Teacher absences, many for stress-related illnesses, have cost Pounds 18,500 in supply staff alone.

Four teachers have left, including the former head - two through early retirement and two on health grounds. Finding high-quality replacements has not been a problem. The school has now appointed new staff for information technology (an area of grave concern in the first report) religious education and history.

Michael Wright, a parent governor and a member of Crook's now formal PTA, believes it was having teething difficulties at the time of the first inspection: "But we had to accept the findings. The beauty of it was that no parent believed the school was as bad as it was made out to be and not one child was removed as a result.

"It simply was not fair to label it the worst school in Britain. Just1 per cent had been inspected. In the past year it has gelled, and the teachers seem to be more on the mark. Its whole atmosphere has changed since the action plan."

But Bob Pendlebury has another theory: "The school, management team and teachers have learned to sell themselves. They have had to."

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