Burning issue for Ofsted

21st March 2008 at 00:00
Rob staples knew that his first Ofsted inspection after promotion to headteacher was likely to be a baptism of fire. But he was not expecting it literally.

In a single week, Mr Staples and his staff at Fairlands Primary at Stevenage, Hertfordshire, had to contend not only with visiting inspectors, but also with a blaze which left half the school unusable.

When he took over in January last year, the school was on the brink of special measures. He was the sixth new headteacher in three-and-half years. So when Ofsted called one Friday and announced it would be visiting the school on the following Wednesday, there was considerable trepidation.

In the early hours of Sunday, Mr Staples received another call: the school was burning down. A bottle of lighter fluid had been dropped through a skylight into a stock cupboard. By 5am, flames were leaping through the roof. One classroom was destroyed, three seriously affected, and five more, plus the administrative area, smoke damaged.

"There was a fine layer of sticky black soot over everything," he said. "My initial reaction was: how are we going to open in time for Ofsted?"

Pupils stayed at home on Monday while the cleaners moved in. When it became clear that two of the classrooms for Years 3 and 4 would not be usable, the school hall was set up with desks and chairs.

On Tuesday, when pupils returned, Ofsted suggested that it delay its inspection: death and fire are the only reasons it will consider postponing a visit.

But by then, it was too late. "We were getting ready for Of- sted, like the gluttons for punishment we are," Mr Staples said. "I told them to come and do a rigorous inspection, as they normally would. And they said: 'We don't do sympathy votes'." They did not need it: the school was judged to be satisfactory, with good elements.

The classes in the school hall were particularly successful. "We have some challenging pupils," he said. "The safety of the larger group settled them. But the teachers are looking tired now."

Pupil Remi Jeffrey, 8, agreed that the Ofsted visit went well: "The inspectors were nice, and felt sad for us. I could see by their expression they liked the school. I think this is the worst thing to happen here. But I'm hoping we'll have spinny chairs in our new classroom. Then the fire would have been worthwhile." Asked which was the more gruelling, trial by fire or trial by HMI, Mr Staples paused. "The fire was one of our lowest points as a school," he said. "But it was also one of our finest hours. The community pulled together. I became a teacher because there are always things coming up.

"Everything is a surprise. But I'm hoping the next surprise won't be as large," he added.

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