'Darkness turning into light'

1st November 1996 at 00:00
Urchfont school is set to get a good report from OFSTED. Yet just two years ago it was a 'failing school' and special measures were imposed. Andrew Mourant spoke to teachers and parents about the recovery. Overlooked by thatched houses and with the sound of lowing cattle in the distance, Urchfont C of E controlled primary school, is an unlikely establishment to have been damned by OFSTED.

The school, tucked away in an enclave of Wiltshire's best kept village, serves "an upper class village, one that is a little self-contained and without any ethnic minorities", says the chairman of the governors,Lyndsay Cowen.

But parental expectations, which were high, were dashed when, in November 1994, inspectors condemned Urchfont for failing to provide a satisfactory standard of education.

Three disillusioned parents had already withdrawn their children.

Mrs Cowen considered taking her son away, but the nearest alternative school, West Lavington, was full.

Now parents, pupils and teachers have regained a sense of self-respect, buoyed by news from HMI that Urchfont, which has 58 pupils, has made the best progress of the 215 special measures schools in England and Wales.

Special measures belong to the past, and OFSTED now views Urchfont as a "good school". One pupil who left has since returned.

The school had been in disarray. OFSTED highlighted weak leadership, an inadequate breadth and balance in the curriculum, a fragmented governing body, poor communications, insufficient codes of practice and conduct, and shortcomings in the pupils' spiritual development.

Special measures required inspections monthly by the LEA and six-monthly by OFSTED.

There was a sense of shame through the village. "The older children were very aware of the disrepute the school had fallen into," says Elizabeth Templar, the new head.

"They read about it in the newspapers and saw it on TV. Some felt it was their fault. No 10-year-old child should ever be in that position."

For the past 15 months, Miss Templar has poured her energies into turning the situation around.

Backed by her colleagues - two full time and one part time - she has concentrated her efforts on the needs of each child. They have introduced baseline assessments of new infants and a structured programme of work. Progress in all subjects is closely monitored. In addition, achievements assemblies have been introduced to celebrate progress.

Science, one of Miss Templar's special interests, is no longer an afterthought, and the world of gases and solids has fired pupils. One child in three now attends an out-of-school-hours German club run by a German-speaking teacher from another school.

OFSTED, which reinspected the school last month, has declined to comment until it publishes its full report.

But a draft sent to the school praises high expectations, sound teacher knowledge, pupil behaviour, leadership, quality of teaching, special needs provision and good relationships.

Miss Templar had a similarly galvanising effect on her previous school, Shute Primary, near Axminster, Devon. During her headship numbers tripled, rising from 25 to 75. "At Urchfont, we had to get the basic curriculum right," she says. "That required a lot of commitment and additional time, particularly in respect of core subjects.

"We had an awful lot to do very quickly, particularly for those going to secondary school. But in the first year, I had the luxury of not having a class full-time. Every child was given English, spelling and maths tests. We looked at it lesson by lesson, focusing on learning objectives, ensuring that we weren't wasting time. And we set targets to see where we would be within six months and then a year."

One of Miss Templar's enthusiastic colleagues, Gwen Hickey, was the deputy head before Urchfront was condemned. She felt badly wounded by OFSTED's damning report.

"It was like news of a bereavement - it is something that you take personally, " she says.

"Some of us realised we weren't functioning properly. Although we're quite isolated, we did have some contact with other schools nearby and found that where they had policies, we didn't.

"I think it would have done us good to look at other schools. You aren't aware of national standards in a village school," she adds.

"It was difficult to implement the national curriculum. Our basics weren't as strong as they ought to have been.

"With Liz Templar, it was like a dawn breaking. She allowed us to help with the planning. We feel as if we are working towards a common goal."

Urchfont's crisis, and renaissance, has inspired children to write poetry like the following: When your school improves it's like Darkness turning into light Sadness changing to happiness Instead of feeling ashamed you feel proud. ..

When your school improves It's like the feeling you get when You score the winning goal.

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