On her first day of headship, Elizabeth McCaffery told staff she would listen and learn before making any changes. By day three she'd changed her mind. "I called them together and said: 'Sorry, I lied. We're going to have to do something.'"
Ms McCaffery's prompt action, and the staff response ("thank goodness"), has pulled Corringham CE primary in Lincolnshire out of special measures faster than any school in the county, and perhaps even faster - although Ofsted can't confirm it - than any in England.
Last May, inspectors found "marked weakness in the teaching, achievement and standards attained by older pupils... the school provides unsatisfactory value for money". But by the end of November, they were saying that "leadership and management are good".
"The lead inspector had to phone HMI to change the kind of inspection they were doing. He said it was the first time he had ever done this," says Ms McCaffery. Then he told her, the link adviser and the chair of governors the school was out of special measures. "Then I told everyone else, and we had a few tears."
Chair of governors Nick Ward Lowery says: "I was gobsmacked, but they could see that the problems were being addressed and that some children had leapt up two levels, so it was based on hard evidence of improvement."
So does this mean that the Government's plans, outlined in the education White Paper, to force schools in special measures to show improvement within a year or face closure, are not as unrealistic as most heads believe? Could all failing schools aim to turn themselves around in six months?
No, say those connected with Corringham. Several factors contributed to this school's top-speed recovery. First, it is a tiny village school, with just 75 pupils. Pupils are well behaved and, even when standards were slipping, the atmosphere stayed happy. Ms McCaffery describes the children as "biddable", adding that a different school could have had "big behaviour problems".
Second, the small team of three teachers and three teaching assistants have supported the changes. "Instead of moaning about what and why, we just got on with it," says key stage 1 teacher Esther Watt Jones, "and we haven't come down from the high it gave us yet."
Then there was the head. "We knew there was work to be done, but we didn't realise how bad it was until Liz came and started to make changes," says Esther Watt Jones. "She's cheerful and supportive, but she doesn't mind showing us she's human as well; she loses her keys and her glasses practically every night."
"Before she came, the motivation wasn't there," says higher level teaching assistant Lesley Anyan. "I mean, if there's no staff meeting, you can't go to it, can you? Now we're more motivated and so are the children, and the reception children are more settled."
Although this was Elizabeth McCaffery's first headship, she had spent two years helping to pull a faltering local town school into shape when she was asked by a local adviser to apply for the job at Corringham.
But when she arrived as acting head in January last year she found a school with no proper curriculum, no systematic literacy and numeracy hours, and low attainment. "Only about 38 per cent of the children were getting level 4 and above," she says. She wasn't sure why. The previous head had been there for 12 years before deciding to move on, and was popular with parents and pupils; the school had had two good Ofsteds. "I think things had just slipped," says Ms McCaffery. "But parents were cross when they realised what had happened. The thing was, children were happily skipping into school, and skipping out again, and that can be quite misleading."
"Parents can just assume that a school's being run as per guidelines, especially if their children are happy," says Karen Fogg, a parent with eight-year-old triplets at the school, who works there as a teaching assistant. "But you didn't always feel the children had had a fulfilling day. Now mine chatter non-stop about what they've done at school."
One of the first things the new head did was to change the structure of the school's three classes; previously the middle class had had a mixture of Year 2, 3 and 4 children. "It was because of numbers. You can't have more than 30 in key stage 1. But the age spread and the split key stage made it impossible."
There were also some Year 4s up in the top class of Year 5s and 6s. So she moved the Year 4s back to the middle class, and the Year 2s down into the first class, then separated the reception children for the mornings to be taught maths and literacy by Lesley Anyan, under the guidance of the class teacher. On paper this created a class of 32 which Ms McCaffery defends.
"I've had some arguments with the LEA, but I feel, 'Don't you tell me what's good for these children'."
Then she changed the curriculum, bringing in literacy and numeracy time and adopting QCA schemes of work for foundation subjects. The children, she says, had been bored. "The whole curriculum was very knowledge-based; there was no true investigation going on." New tracking and intervention strategies were also introduced to help struggling children.
A timeline on her office wall shows how quickly she started to introduce these changes, but it was still not fast enough to prevent the damning Ofsted verdict last spring.
Immediately afterwards, however, one of the class teachers resigned, allowing Elizabeth McCaffery to look for new blood. "A teacher left, which doesn't sound much, but it is a third of the staff. If a third of the staff of a secondary school left, it would have a big impact." She also had "excellent" support from the local education authority, which put a lot of training into the school.
Now, a year and a month on from her arrival, Corringham buzzes with happy, engaged children and looks about as far away from a "special measures"
school as you could get. The top class begins the afternoon with an energetic five minutes of brain gym. Then 10-year-old Harry Canwell stands and reads out his mythical story - "Long, long ago in a valley called Skcul, a creature was stirring..." - while his classmate, Elwin Hunter Sellars, manoeuvres paper shadow puppets to tell the tale on a screen.
Pupils interrupt each other to impress on visitors how much they love their school.
In the middle class, children are being taught music by Lesley Anyan. The reception area is bright and welcoming, with notices about the school council and a big Noah's Ark display; parents get regular newsletters and a record card every half term showing, with a simple arrow system, how their child is doing. "Parents value knowing the truth about their child," says Ms McCaffery.
No one wants to allot blame over what has happened in the past. Ms McCaffery's management style is kind but purposeful. She brings cheese and grapes to after-school meetings to feed her staff, but expects them to get things done. "You've got to be careful how you treat people. You've got to take care of them," she says. "But at the same time you've got to remember that children only have one chance. They have to be the priority."
So what about the Government plan to force schools out of special measures within a year? Ms McCaffery is sceptical. "A year or 18 months - with a following wind - might be realistic for a small school, but I would feel sorry for any large secondary school told to turn things around in that time.
"I mean, we're not out of the woods yet, as the inspectors made clear. Last year 64 per cent of children got level 4 and above, but there's still a lot of room for improvement. What I would say is that if you have been placed in special measures there's no point thinking about what's happened. You've just got to think about what's right to do and get on with it."
TWELVE MONTHS OR BUST?
Most schools come out of special measures within two years; the average length of time for a secondary school is 98 weeks, down from 121 weeks in 200304.
Some do it faster. Simpson primary school in Milton Keynes did it in 11 months. A few take much longer. St Joseph's academy, a Catholic boys'
school in south London, was in and out of special measures and stayed "a cause for concern" to inspectors for 11 years ("Free at last", Friday magazine, September 23, 2005).
Since 1997 more than 1,400 failing schools have been turned round; 200 have closed. In December 2005, 224 schools were in special measures.
London has the highest proportion of failing schools, 2.3 per cent; the North-east has the lowest, 0.6 per cent.
Between September and December last year, 85 schools were put in special measures, almost double the 42 of the same period the previous year, largely because of the new short, sharp inspection regime.
The Government now says that being in special measures for more than a year could be grounds for closure.