Biddy Passmore reports on a bitter battle in green wellie country
A Hampshire village school has started up again after half term with a new acting head and chairman of governors after the old ones had been driven to resign.
They were forced out, not by the governing body, which in this case was unanimously behind the head, but by a group of parents who were dissatisfied with the performance of Nick Winning, head of Burghclere primary school for the past two-and-a-half years.
Mr Winning and Helen Griffiths, who was chairman of the governing body, claimed in their letters of resignation they had been victims of a damaging and destructive campaign. Mr Winning wrote of a "personal attack towards me, together with offensive correspondence".
But the protesting parents say their complaints had long fallen on deaf ears. In a letter last month to Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, signed by 35 past and present parents, they said the 106-pupil school had under its previous head an enviable reputation for high standards and good discipline. But the new regime had been content to create a school no better than the national average, despite the far from average catchment area (green-wellie country near Newbury).
They urged Mrs Shephard to intervene on the grounds that the governors had treated their concerns irresponsibly.
The petition was the culmination of a campaign of letter-writing by the group of parents which began a year ago. As a result of their pressure, a two-day inspection of the school was carried out by county inspectors in January this year, which went some way towards validating their concerns.
The inspectors found that there was "significant under-achievement" in writing and "under-achievement" in reading, mathematics and science, although the quality of teaching was "broadly sound". Overall, their report described Burghclere as "a school in transition" which continued to provide a sound education.
After a second visit in July, one of the inspectors said the school was "actively pursuing" measures for improvement.
It appears to be in that "transition" that much of the problem lies. The former head had pursued a traditional approach to teaching that was popular with local parents, for many of whom the village school was seen as an alternative to local pre-prep schools.
But he had failed to set in train any of the changes necessary for local management or the introduction of the national curriculum and its tests.
Mr Winning was faced, on his appointment to his first headship at the age of 35, with introducing local management and the national curriculum in the school within a very short time.
Communication between parents and head seems to have been poor. However, Giles Tooley, one of the parents' leaders, said that was far from the whole story. Formal teaching had been replaced by the belief that children developed at their own pace, he told The TES.
Mr Tooley had removed his eight-year-old daughter in the Easter term and said she was now getting on "like a house on fire" at another school.
A spokesman for the Department for Education and Employment said the parents' letter was under consideration. Hampshire County Council sent off a brief to help that consideration this week.
Peter Coles, the county's education officer, said the authority was pleased to have moved fast to defuse a situation marked by animosity and divisiveness. Jo Baker, the new acting head, has been seconded from nearby Overton primary school while Mr Winning has been moved to the deputy headship of another school.