Brought back from the brink

8th September 1995 at 01:00
Two years ago, Crook primary was publicly humiliated when it was branded a failing school. Estelle Maxwell talks to the staff who picked up the pieces

In the aftermath of the cataclysmic report by HM Inspectors which marked out Crook primary as the first "failing" primary school two years ago, its staff were compelled to reassess virtually every aspect of their work. The governors' 10-page action plan drawn up shortly afterwards used the initial findings as a basis for targeted change. At the time, chair of governors Bob Pendlebury described it as "nothing less than a complete overhaul of the school's systems and approaches to teaching and learning".

Throughout the original report, produced after a week-long visit by HMI and trainee OFSTED inspectors to the semi-rural school in County Durham, the inspectors were consistently critical of standards of teaching and depth of teachers' subject knowledge, and pupil achievement in every curriculum subject.

The threat of having an "education association" or "hit squad" sent in to take over the school was felt very strongly. The local authority and the school were determined to retrieve the situation. However, now that the school has been taken off the special measures list for action, they insist it was never failing - what it failed to do was to provide visible and tangible proof of its progress and achievements with pupils.

Anne Collingwood, acting headteacher and former deputy, said the school took the HMI report as the starting point for recovery, focusing upon the curriculum, behaviour management, school management and teaching, setting up teams for each area.

Each team was made up of teachers, parents and governors, working with clear aims and responsibilities. They were backed by the local authority, which assigned a link inspector and a primary specialist inspector to the school. Resources were poured in to create time to support teachers and increase their skills; to send staff on training days; on consultations with the curriculum support service, local education authority inspectorate and support service, and the management development centre training team.

The head was sent on management courses and a training programme. County councillor and chair of governors Bob Pendlebury estimated the total cost of implementing the action plan was in the region of tens of thousands of pounds. But the real cost had been in time and commitment, he felt.

Five key issues for action were identified: to improve the quality of teaching and learning; to improve standards of pupil achievement; to evaluate and improve the curricular guidance for staff; to improve aspects of the curriculum which related to pupils' social, moral and cultural development; to improve school leadership and management; and to improve efficiency.

Mrs Collingwood said: "There was no point in wasting time looking backwards and thinking 'we did not do this right or we did not do that right' - we just took the report as it stood and started from there.

"We began with the curriculum plan. We made it obvious in planning that the areas of the national curriculum were being actually documented on paper and that the programmes of study were there and that it too was obvious. We were doing this before, but it needed improving".

To fulfil the requirements of the national curriculum, a planning system for all teachers to use was agreed and a programme for evaluation put in place. Teachers developed their expertise in using a range of teaching strategies and worked to improve their skills in "differentiation" (providing work to suit children's different abilities and attainments), particularly in maths and English.

The criteria for success - improvements in literacy and numeracy, evidence of planned differentiation, improved concentration and behaviour, better presentation of work in books and files - were observed by the primary inspector.

Mrs Collingwood said: "The OFSTED inspectors' comments on the quality of teaching and learning were largely dependent on observations made while in the classrooms. We paid a lot of attention to teaching styles and strategies to make sure they were observed when they were here. But we always used a range of teaching styles and differentiation before."

The school also targeted Grants for Education Support and Training money in the last year for training newly qualified teachers. New subject guidance was published and the roles of subject co-ordinators were clarified.

The criticism of pupil behaviour in the original report caused real ill-feeling, said Jeremy Fitt, deputy director of education at Durham county council: "After the second visit by HMI, the behaviour issue went off the agenda. The governors took real exception to the comment on behaviour. They felt the reputation of the school and the community was under attack."

The school's discipline and behaviour policy continued to reward good behaviour. Anne Collingwood said: "It reinforces all the good things we want to see in our children. We produced a behaviour document which was given to all new entrants. We now try to target support for children with behaviour problems."

Meanwhile, the action plan outlined four schemes for improving the school's ethos. These included a monthly newsletter, involving local churches in collective worship, and developing a multi-cultural policy. School leadership and management was sharpened up. The head and Bob Pendlebury redefined roles and responsibilities and the PTA was created on a formal basis. Mr Pendlebury said: "The governors now focus upon different areas in which they have an interest or experience.

"We wanted to recruit someone who had knowledge of other schools and we now have a former senior education adviser from the county council on the board. We also have someone from Barclays Bank - but with the introduction of LMS we would have been looking for this kind of financial expertise anyway."

The two years of constant monitoring and assessment are now over, but there are still areas in need of attention, according to the last OFSTED report. While standards in the infants had come up to scratch, there was more catching up to do in key stage 2, particularly in literacy. Inspectors also said Crook should further develop teachers' knowledge, and their expectations of children.

With hindsight Mr Pendlebury was philosophical about the turmoil which the school had undergone. He said: "I do not think our experience was totally bad. We have had to learn from the mistakes which were made and from bitter experience".

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